Tuesday, April 15, 2008

MISTER Chicken Man and our Panama Canal transit

April 15, 2008 Tuesday
08.56.250N; 079.33.500W      Distance traveled approximately 55 NM
Balboa Yacht Club mooring

We are now in the Pacific Ocean!

The canal transit was tiring but we all came through without a scratch to either person or yacht, and that is all that matters.  We were accompanied on the canal transit by B’SHERET on our starboard side and ARGANAUTA I on our port side.  I did the driving and Bill was free to move around the boat as needed to assist with various line adjustments or anything else that needed tending.  Our line handlers were Paul & Diane from S/V FLAME from Perth, Australia, and Hans & Georgie on S/V ARBUTHNOT, also from western Australia.  Both boats are in the final legs of circumnavigation and all 4 people are experienced with locks in various parts of the world but this was the fist Panama Canal transit for everyone on BeBe.  We came close to 2 mishaps during our transit but both times the reason was because a stern line was too tight which prevented movement of the bow, not because our line handlers on the bow did anything incorrectly.  As soon as the stern line was loosened both times, I was able to move the bow back to the middle of the lock.  This happened once on the starboard side and once on the port side.  But no one hit the wall; so as our kids say when playing basketball: no blood, no foul.

Now for the blow-by-blow details of our transit:

We left Shelter Bay Marina around 4:00 p.m. on Saturday April 12 and motored to The Flats anchorage as instructed by the canal authority.  They are only allowing 3 yachts every other day to transit at this time, so it was easy to spot the other 2 boats that would be accompanying us.  All 3 of us had black car tires hanging down the sides of our boats; that really stands out on a white sailboat.

The advisor arrived late at around 7:20 and managed to get aboard without any damage to our boat.  His first words were “Communication is the most important thing.”  And that was almost all his communication for the rest of the evening.  His second sentence was “What is on the menu for tonight?”  We found out later that this is an important issue for this particular guy.  He agreed to try the meal I had prepared.  He sat in the cockpit and ate dinner (we had all eaten earlier while waiting for him).  Then we pulled anchor and motored off towards the first Gatun lock.  The advisor decided that we should be tied next to a tug boat instead of being nested with the 2 smaller monohulls.  So we waited patiently (and later impatiently) for the tug to assist the huge ship CALEDONIA into the first lock.  I drove the boat in circles repeatedly while this incredibly slow process was completed.  CALEDONIA finally was inside the first lock around 10:30 p.m.  By this time the tug decided that it was too late and they were quitting for the evening.  That meant that we reverted back to Plan A – nest with the 2 smaller monohulls, with us in the center.

The other 2 monohulls were already tied together.  In order to nest with us they had to separate and then tie onto either side of BeBe – in the pitch black darkness.  This was accomplished and BeBe took control of the 3 boats tied together and drove us into the first lock.  Man did it look close to that big ship in front of us in the lock!  The control lines were shared by all 3 boats.  The stern lines up the lock walls were run from the aft of the boats on either side of us, so the aft line control was something we did not have to deal with.  The bow control lines up the lock walls were run from the bow of our boat.  So our line handlers only had to deal with the bow lines as we were raised in each lock.

I do not know how boats manage this procedure without a bow thruster.  The bow thruster was the only way I could control the rafted 3 boats inside the locks.  There is a lot of turbulence as the water fills the lock from beneath; and there is a lot of current in the locks.   And the prop wash from the huge ship directly in front of us was quite strong when it would motor forward to the next lock.  Also, when the water level is down and the locks walls are high around you, the slightest bit of wind will cause the boats to turn and become difficult to control.  But we managed the Gatun upward locks just fine.

After the third lock we entered Gatun Lake.  By now it was after midnight and the advisor was quite tired.  In fact, for the past 4 hours he had been falling asleep in the cockpit – when he wasn’t talking to his wife or girlfriend on the phone.  We untied from the other 2 boats and motored quickly to the mooring where we were to spend the night.  It was a very dark night and we prayed that this guy knew where he was taking us, as we were speeding along at 8 knots in total blackness.  Turned out that he did indeed know the route to the mooring and we tied up for what was left of the night.  The other 2 boats arrived shortly thereafter (lucky them; all they had to do was follow us in the darkness).  They tied to the other mooring, one on each side of the large rubber mooring.  Our advisor called for a launch to come pick him up; and he left our boat around 1:30 a.m.

When the above mentioned advisor arrived on our boat in The Flats, we of course asked his name.  He said his name was Ernest Cooper.  Someone asked what he preferred to be called:  Ernest, Ernesto, Ernst, or Mr. Cooper.  He replied, “Mr. Cooper would be fine.”  This set the tone for entire evening.  He called all of us by our first names, but he wanted to be addressed as Mr. Cooper.  Bit haughty, don’t you think?  After all, he was the age of our children and addressed all of us by our fist names but he wanted to be addressed as “MISTER Cooper.”  He seemed to have an attitude that did not set well with any of us.  We later learned that MR. Cooper does not have a good reputation with the other advisors.  In fact, he is called Chicken Man by the other advisors.  Chicken Man was given this nickname because he really likes turkey and was served chicken for dinner one night by a transiting yacht.  He refused to eat the chicken and called for a catered meal, at a cost of $255 to the transiting yacht.  Guess it was lucky for us that he liked the carne guisada, yeast rolls, salad and brownies that were served to him on BeBe. 

Here is a link to another cruiser’s notes about their canal transit and it mentions Mr. Ernest Cooper:

And FWIW, here is a link to another yacht’s YouTube videos of their canal transit.  One clip shows Mr. Ernest Cooper, a/k/a MR. Chicken Man, arriving:

Our second advisor, Meza, arrived at 6:30 a.m. and hurried us off the mooring.  Meza said the San Pedro Miguel lock was reserved for us to transit at 10:00 and we needed to motor at 7.5 knots in order to travel the 24 miles and nest-up again with the other 2 boats and enter the lock on time.  I had prepared a full American breakfast of bacon, eggs, bread, cantaloupe, banana bread and juice.  The crew ate this, but all Meza wanted was coffee.  What a difference from MR. Chicken Man!  Meza was very nice, communicated instructions clearly, provided us with lots of information about the canal and surroundings, and was a very, very nice man.

BeBe maintained the 7.5 knot boat speed and we arrived at the lock on time;  B’Sheret arrived next and Arganauta I arrived last.  Arganauta I was having an engine temperature problem and could not motor faster than 5 knots.  We nested up again ----- so much easier to do this in daylight rather than in total darkness.  Then BeBe drove us into the lock. 

We had the entire lock just to ourselves!!  That was unbelievable.  There are dozens and dozens of yachts waiting to transit the canal from the Atlantic side (current transit date being assigned is 8 weeks out, meaning mid-June), and here we are experiencing a private lockage.  Such a waste.

Locking downward is very different than locking upward.  Everyone had warned us that locking upward was very turbulent (and it was), but that locking downward was very gentle and calm – just a piece of cake.  Well…..not really folks.  The movement is gentle as the boats float while the When locking down the nested boats obviously finish with very high lock walls on either side.  This creates a wind tunnel effect.  Combined with the strong currents in the downward locks, the boats can be difficult to control.

The canal wall workers throw down a thin line with a large knot tied on the end; this is called a monkey fist.  And it is the size of a large monkey’s fist.  They are pretty accurate throwing these monkey fists; they throw them like one would throw a baseball.  But everyone needs to watch out for them because getting hit in the head or face would hurt.  The yacht line handler then ties the heavy yacht line into a bowline knot around the monkey fist and the wall worker pulls the heavy line up to the top of the wall and ties it off on a bollard.   Four heavy yacht lines are used, so the boats are tied up both forward and aft.  The yacht line handlers then adjust the line tension on all 4 lines as the water level and boat are raised or lowered in the lock.  This holds the boat stationary as the water current swirls around inside the lock.  When the water is either fully down or fully up, then the heavy yacht line is retrieved from the monkey fist thin line and the yacht motors to the next lock.  

Since BeBe was the largest of the 3 boats, we were the center boat.  The control lines were run both port and starboard from our bow and from the port stern of ARGANAUTA I and the starboard stern of B’SHERET.  As I said in the first paragraph of this log, the only times we had serious movement toward the wall and I was unable to move the bow of the boat back to center was when a stern line was too tight.  As soon as the tension was loosened on the offending stern line, then I was able to straighten the boats into the middle of the lock.  Both times this happened were during downward lockage. This happened once on the port side and once on the starboard side; but neither time did a boat actually hit the wall; so in our opinions the transit was smooth and uneventful.  I’m sure the boat getting close to the wall during these incidents didn’t consider the transit quite so uneventful.

Our enthusiastic thanks to Paul, Diane, Hans and Georgie for a job very well done.  We wish you all pleasant passages and calm seas during your Pacific travels towards home.  Hope to see you again either in New Zealand or Australia.  Hope your canal transits go as smoothly as ours.

Within minutes of going beneath the Bridge of the Americas and entering the Pacific Ocean we were on a mooring at the Balboa Yacht Club.  A few minutes later we were visited by 2 men from the Port Captain authority.  Our agent Stanley had already obtained our zarpe clearing us out of Panama to the Galapagos Islands, but we had to pay $20 and give copies of various papers to these guys.  We are now free to leave Panama whenever we like. 

As luck would have it, our printer decided to refuse to power on just when we needed it to print a copy of our documentation for the authorities.  I found last year’s certificate of documentation and they accepted it.  But we had to buy a new printer before leaving Panama.  Good thing the printer decided to die here as you really need a printer on a cruising yacht these days in order to handle all the copies of various documents needed to clear in and out of ports.  We were able to find one that uses the same printer cartridges so we won’t have to trash all those extra printer cartridges we bought in Houston during our Christmas visit home.

Last night we had delicious burgers at the new Balboa Yacht Club with a dozen or so other cruisers.  Very nice new facility and great tasting, reasonably priced food.  Learned that B’SHERET will be sailing on to the Galapagos about the same time as us and FREE SPIRIT.  FREE SPIRIT began their canal transit last night and will arrive in Balboa this afternoon.  We plan to leave Balboa tomorrow and go to Espiritu Santos in the Las Perlas islands.  We will wait there for FREE SPIRIT and then we will start the 950 mile passage to the Galapagos Islands shortly thereafter on the first decent weather prediction.  

This website probably will not be updated again until after we arrive in Galapagos.

Update June 2013:  We have been told by another sailor who just transited the canal that Mister Chicken Man, a/k/a Ernesto Cooper, no longer works as an advisor on private yachts. He supposedly now worked strictly on tug boats on the canal.  Good.

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