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Cross One Off Foxy’s Bucket List – Transiting the Panama Canal

Transiting the Panama Canal was high on Foxy’s “Bucket List” so we invited him to come along. On board Swan Song with us in addition to the Caribbean’s famous Calypso artist Foxy Callwood and his lovely wife Tessa, are my mate and navigator, Capt. Pete (Ratcliff). Our line-handlers—David, Brian and Iris—have also arrived, so we are ready to begin the journey from Caribbean Sea to Pacific Ocean.

Our canal pilot comes aboard; the VHF is alive directing us to the canal’s entrance where first we will transit the six Gatun locks. One hazard within the locks is turbulence caused when fresh and salt water mix. We tie to Daytripper, a 100’ tourist ferry. The lock doors close, leaving us in a concrete cavern with steel doors dead astern and the steel transom of a 700 foot cargo ship ahead. The top of the lock is 30’ upwards and hard to see as it is 8 p.m. and we are looking into huge lights above the lock walls. The water swirls and they start to flood the lock lifting us 25’ to the full lock level where we view the operating machinery. Foxy is busy recording all this action on his video camera.

The doors to the lock in front of the ship open and “mules” (locomotives) drag him forward. The pilot directs us to drop our dock-lines to Daytripper and ready for the transit into the next lock. Wow! As soon as we are free, the ship’s prop wash hits us in a swirl of water making it difficult keeping Swan Song aligned with the lock. Daytripper nails his props to get off the wall which adds to the wash we are fighting. Finally, our pilot lets us move ahead; Swan Song is much easier to control once underway. We continue this process twice more.

After anchoring in Gatun Lake our pilot departs for the night, and after a brief surprise birthday party (yep, it is mine) we bed down.  At 0600, in dead calm, Foxy is contemplating a swim; alligators are looking at his red Foxy’s hat which seems to dim his enthusiasm. I count bodies. Brian & Iris are atop the pilothouse, David in the hammock, Peter in the saloon, Tessa in the guest stateroom and Nancy in the forward stateroom … just the right number.

By 0730 a new pilot arrives, who advises heading to Banana Cut at 8 kts. Foxy notices that the first lock is empty. The lakeside lock door opens as we enter into the first of the Mira Flores Locks. Once there, we tie to the lock wall – a “sidewall tie”; 50’ forward of the bow is the lock gate and ahead a drop of 25’ to the lock below. Two catamarans raft astern, and a 500’ cargo ship follows. The locking process of the night before is repeated. As soon as the cargo ship is in, the doors shut, the plug is pulled and the “bathtub” drains; we go from a view of the lock and surrounding area to the bottom in approximately five minutes. Once down, we wait for the lock doors to open and sound our horn, a signal for line handlers to toss our lines free. 

Approaching Pedro Miguel Lake en route to the second Mira Flores Lock, the process is repeated but this time we tie to the other side; our crew must quickly change fenders and dock-lines. The pilot now gives two choices to exit these locks when the gates open: to blast thru and ride the wave of fresh water on top of the heavier salt water, or to wait and ride the wave that will be coming from behind, trying to spin us around … not a good option for a single screw boat. The fresh water wave starts when the doors begin to open.

Down we go. At the bottom the suspense builds. One minute, two minutes. The pilot casually glances up from his newspaper, “Sound your horn.” The lines drop from above. I use the thruster sparingly, moving the bow off the wall, so I can go thru ASAP. The lock doors swing open, widening from 5’ to 8’ to 10’ then 12’. Water rushes turbulently from our lock to the next. The pilot says “Now” and I nail forward, full throttle, as Swan Song, with a 16’ beam, shoots through an 18’ gap. In a set of rapids, with a highly concerned crew, steel doors fly by on either side. “Whoosh” we are riding the wave into the next lock under a nice blue sky in perfect alignment. The Visitors Center is lined ten deep with people who must have come to see “Foxy transiting the Canal.”

We are now in the last lock, riding the fresh water wave, approaching the lock doors “muy rapido.” The wave ends 100’ from the door—we suddenly slow from 12kts to 4kts in 50’.   “Wow!” A touch of reverse, the lines are caught at the bollards and “voila,” we’re tied in. Foxy looks down at the Pacific Ocean below with his trademark smile, big eyes and both thumbs held high.

The third lock is a piece of cake. Lockdown, doors open and here we are … “We’ve done it, mates!”  Soon we are under the Bridge of the Americas and moored at the Balboa Yacht Club. Foxy looks at me with a huge grin on his face and announces, “I wouldn’t have missed this for the world—Mission Accomplished!”

Dave Cooper spent over 20 years designing & marketing computers, in the U.S. and Japan. He sailed to the Caribbean in the mid 70s where he ran seasonal private charters throughout the islands for a decade, then worked in the yachting industry in the BVI until 2006. He retired on his classic trawler, Swan Song, and is now cruising in the Pacific Ocean.

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