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"El Nuevo Canal"
By Capt. Bill Pike


The Panama Canal has changed since Panana took over last December. The question is, how much? During the '80s I regularly transited the Panama Canal onboard oceangoing tugs. While waiting for lock-throughs on the Caribbean side, I'd invariably have a few evenings ashore, nightcapping them with visits to the Cristobal Yacht Club. A raw little waterfront bar bordered by decrepit docks and derelict sailboats, it embodied the very essence of the canal for me in those days. The clientele was rough, international, and unfazed by Central America's leisurely take on time. But even more telling was the club's famous wooden floor, which sloped so radically downhill from the bar that drunks who fell off their stools could, with a little help from the policia nacional, roll right out the door into the sobering, odiferous waters of Limon Bay. Canal culture was a little harsh back then, yet curiously efficacious.

Of course, Panama's running things now. And this state of affairs, although not that different from recent years when the United States was only minimally involved, is generating concern among yachting people and in the yachting press. Everybody appears to be worried that the whole show is going to the devil in a rubber bucket, what with reports of increased tolls for yachts, bad service, accidents, and scheduling delays due to labor disputes, computer glitches, and a dearth of fully trained pilots.

The first time I came across all this stuff, I thought I caught the faint aroma of
alarm-after all, Panama only took over the canal about six months ago. Also, having some history with the devil as well as with the humble rubber bucket, I was pretty astonished at the idea that the canal had only recently fallen in with these two entities. In my opinion the place has always had a dark side. For example, in the old days fuel docks were known to sell so much besides fuel it staggered the imagination.

So I decided to fly down to Panama and check things out for myself by shipping aboard a transiting yacht. My hunt was a short one. Pacific Asian Enterprises (P.A.E.), the California-based importer of Nordhavn trawlers, offered a new northbound (Pactfic-to-Atlantic) 5 7-footer called Diversion, captained by delivery skipper Brian Saunders and scheduled for mid-April. Saunders was enthusiastic. Because he'd decided to transit sans professional, Panamanian line handlers-who typically charge $55 per day and are usually assigned in groups of two or four per vessel-he said he could use an extra hand, especially a guy who could tie a fast bowline.

When I hit Panama City, thanks to a Tijuana-type taxi ride from Tocumen airport and a saucy jaunt in a little red launch, I boarded Diversion just in time to briefly meet a fellow whose British accent and suave demeanor reminded me of Conrad's Lord Jim as played by a middle-aged Peter O'Toole. His name was Pete Stevens, and he was the ex-pat shipping agent P.A.E. had retained to see Diversion safely through the canal. Typical of those in the trade, Stevens was a veritable font of knowledge who could as easily tell you how to scare up far-fetched diesel parts as the best restaurants in Panama City. Moreover, because his Delfino Maritime was one of the oldest agencies specializing in yachts in the Canal Zone, he was on the ball about scheduling. It was mostly to his credit, I shortly discovered, that Diversion was set to transit the next day, only some 48 hours after her arrival at the Balboa Yacht Club anchorage. Just finishing up a short lecture on canal-related seamanship, Stevens departed for another yacht with a smile and a hearty "Good luck, guys."

The next morning our transit began the same way most seem to: with an o-dark-thirty VHF call from "Flamenco Signal," traffic control on the Pacific side: "A pilot will be arriving onboard your vessel at 0430 hours, Captain. Be prepared." Wake-up calls in the canal tend to be premature, a practice that ensures vessels really are ready once the authorities are. About 7:45 a.m., our pilot actually showed up -- Capt. Eduardo Correa, a Panamanian who spoke excellent English and was dressed in a tropical-weight uniform complete with tie. Having been trained during the '70s as a pilot myself, I started sizing Correa up as soon as he began directing Saunders to steer toward Miraflores Locks. I soon decided the guy was okay-competent, alert, experienced-an impression I did not have to revise as the day wore on.

Except for the spectacular scenery going through the Gaillard Cut and across jungle-fringed Gatun Lake, the transit itself was as smooth and uneventful as any I've experienced. Saunders, who said he'd been through three times prior to Panama's takeover last December, agreed. As for Diversion, she completed the journey unscathed, as did our "buddy boat," a near-identical Nordhavn 57 that had serendipitously arrived at Balboa in time to lock through with us. Not that we didn't hear a few horror stories from our pilot en route. The worst featured a yacht that was slammed against a lockwall a few years ago - major league turbulence had apparently caused fairleads and cleats to fail. Other stories focused primarily on delays and bureaucratic hassles-missed lockings due to errors in paperwork and computer glitches, that sort of thing.

The total tab for Diversion's trip through the canal was about $1,550, a sum Saunders said was " just a few hundred dollars" more than he was paying during the '90s, when rates were generally less but when all first-time transiters were required to pay an extra $350 "admeasurement fee." (This was a tariff for officially ascertaining the dimensions, capacities, and tonnage used to come up with the total tolls a vessel would pay for a transit.) Indeed, the canal is still a pretty good buy. While today's tolls are substantially more than they were during the red-white-and-blue era when yacht transits cost as little as $60, it's important to note that Panama is trying to operate a profitable business, not a break-even public service. In keeping with local custom, Saunders paid his bills in cash. Delfino got $500, the Panama Canal Authority got $750 (according to a fee schedule based on LOA: up to 50 feet, $500; 50 to 80 feet, $750; 80 to 100 feet,
$1,000; 100 to 150 feet, $1,500), and the rest went for clearance costs, immigration fees, and taxes. Since Diversion's paperwork and scheduling were handled by an in country agency, Saunders did not have to pay the $800 security deposit or '`buffer fee" normally required of transient yacht handling their own affairs. The buffer covers inadvertent, yacht-caused damage or delay and is typically returned within several weeks of transit if neither occurs.

Diversion cleared Gatun Locks on the entire Panamanian Caribbean side just about four o'clock that afternoon, which put our transit duration at just eight hours, a fast time owing in part to a slippery displacement hull that could do 9 knots in Gaillard Cut and Gatun Lake while pulling very little wake.

For me, the denouement of the adventure came a half-hour Iater, however, after our pilot had disembarked and we'd begun an exploratory cruise of local waters. Approaching the Christobal Yacht Club, Saunders asked, "Whaddya think, Bill, does it appear to be the same as always?"
"Yeah, Brian," I replied. And indeed it was.

Word to the Wise

Whether crossing aboard a tugboat or yacht, getting a vessel safely through the Panama Canal has always been a challenge. Here are a few tips to make the job a bit easier:

Watch the current. Bollard configuration dictates that yachts be aft of ships when up-locking and forward of them when down-locking. The former situation is more difficult because of the substantial influx of water versus the simple drainage in the latter situation. When a ship ahead moves out of a lock, the propeller wash is tremendous, so you need to throttle up and be ready to steer. When a ship enters astern, her bow wave can be just as bad, so quickly secure your stern lines.

Beware the last lock. When the final gates open during a down-locking, fresh water overflows heavier salt water, creating a raging outflow. Cast off your stern lines fast. If you cast them off first, your vessel may spin out of control.

The safest, easiest mooring style in locks is tying alongside an assist tug accompanying a ship--it's like securing to a floating dock. But have a rigging knife close by. Tug captains are impetuous, and a sharp blade may be the only way to deal with a bolting tug that's still stern-tied to you.

Don't use half hitches. Tying against a lock wall and, better yet, center-locking as a single vessel or part of a raft up or "nest" are the other common mooring methods Neither is as safe or easy as the tug scenario because each requires line handlers to tighten or ease line with changes in water IeveIs. Handlers should never half-hitch lines- simple figure-eights are safer. Seize a line in a cleat with a half-hitch during a down-locking, and you may convert, bend, or dislodge it.

Pay attention. Yacht crews sometimes grouse about being hit with monkey's fists, an unseamanlike complaint. In all locking or docking situations, deck crews are responsible for keeping tabs on what lock or dock workers are doing, especially the heaving of messenger lines.

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