May & June 2015
We made the most of our final weeks in Central America and squeezed in a final inland excursion. Midday on the 28th of May, we boarded our first of two buses that would take us from Central Costa Rica to Panama’s industrial crown jewel, The Panama Canal.
You might remember s/v Meridian, we met them in Bahia Panama, a bay in northern Costa Rica. Heinz, Margrit, and Dominique were bound for the Caribbean. Over a bottle of wine and Mexican Train, we’d half-joked that if they needed a pair of line handlers to help them through the Panama Canal, we’d happily scoot south from wherever we were when their time came to transit.
“We discussed it, and if it works for you both and you can figure out a way to get down to Panama when the time comes, we would love to have you onboard for the transit.” -Dominique
Our cruising aspirations are to eventually circumnavigate the entire globe. In the foreseeable future, however, we will not be taking The Red Thread thru the Panama Canal, though she did travel from the Caribbean to the Pacific with her prior owners. Transiting the Panama Canal is high on many cruisers’ bucket lists. Needless to say, when the opportunity arose for us to experience one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, we jumped!
Two buses and 20 hours south
Thick, damp air whizzed through the cracked bus window; the ride from Quepos to the Panamanian border was a hot one. We arrived at dusk and walked between several kiosk windows to clear out of Costa Rica and into Panama. Aduana, Migracíon, baggage search. Check. Awareness of the setting sun in the new country was overshadowed by a massive car fire at the border as the sky fell black. Scary, especially with large semi-trucks full of gasoline and many businesses nearby!We found an air-conditioned Tica Bus with reclining seats that would take us the final 8 hours into Panama City for only $20 USD each. Luxury! I must remember to be careful what I wish for…at 3 am, I clamored off the bus feeling like I’d been riding in a meat locker! Brrrrrr!
We hopped a cab from Tocumen Airport into Casco Viejo, the old part of the city where most of the hostels are located. I scanned our Rough Guide as we sped into the city lights to figure out at which hostel we should ask the taxi to drop us. When we departed Quepos, we’d been uncertain if we would make it to Panama City in time to need a hostel that night, so we hadn’t bothered to book one. We arrived at Luna’s Castle at around 4 am. As expected, the front desk wasn’t open. The security guard let us in, however, and we snoozed on a couch with stone pillows until 8 am, when we were able to request a room.
As it turned out, our backpacker pals, Tim and Emma, were in Panama City at the same time! Brilliant! We rendezvoused in the lobby for hugs and hellos, before snagging a midmorning ride to the Panama Canal. The sight of the Canal does not do the feat of engineering justice. I visited the museum during a brief visit to Panama in 2009, but this time I saw it with new eyes. Visiting the museum in advance of our transit enabled us to appreciate the complexity of the structure and the complicated history behind its birth. The demand for work drew people from around the world (plenty who were forced to work whether they wanted to or not), tens of thousands of whom died during the Canal’s 10-year construction, most from yellow fever or malaria. Our experience revved our engines for the days ahead!
Tim and Emma weren’t our only reunion. Amid the bustling hostel kitchen, a blue-eyed man with a thick tan and savage beard caught my gaze. “Jamie is Running?” I stammered. He was holding a plate of pancakes. “Red Thread?!” No way. Months earlier in Isla Isabela, Mexico, we’d enjoyed a chance meeting with Jamie. A voyager on foot, he was midway through a run from Vancouver, British Columbia to Buenos Aires, Argentina (yes, you read that correctly) to raise money for various charities, including CALM, a suicide prevention campaign. By happenstance, we had met him, but to see him again more than a thousand miles and several months south was a shock!We wiled away the remainder of the day exploring the area near Casco Viejo. That evening, Dominique joined us at the hostel that night for dinner and a night out. Ironically enough, during our big night out, we hardly explored further than the hostel bar! An evening off the boat now and again serves all cruisers well, and it was great to spend more time with our new friend and soon-to-be crewmate.
The next morning, we walked together along the path that winds the waterfront from Casco Viejo to downtown Panama City. The cityscape is a picturesque fusion of new and old. In the distance, an army of modern skyscrapers jut toward the sky, while colorful if not dilapidated traditional Panamanian pangas tell secrets of the city’s rich fishing history. The juxtaposition is a colorful and intriguing scene unlike any other city skyline I’ve seen; truly beautiful.Meridian meets the Caribbean!
We’d already enjoyed a tremendous time in Panama, and the main event had yet to begin! At sunset, we climbed aboard s/v Meridian with Dominique, Heinz, and Margrit. Dawn came quickly, and before we knew it, we had welcomed aboard Frank, our advisor, and Allan, a young professional line handler. We motored toward the Bridge of the Americas as the day awoke over the dynamic city skyline in the distance.
For the first leg of our transit, through the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks, we were tethered to a humongous catamaran. Because of that, only two line handlers were required for the first three locks, one at the bow and one aft. Neil and Allan were elected for their strength. The ascent up the locks is more difficult than the descent because the brawny lines must be kept taut at all times to stabilize the boat. On the way down, the lines must still be kept tight, but the task is to steadily release them, rather than haul them aboard. For the first stretch, Dominique and I focused on capturing the experience on photo and video, while Heinz and Margrit kept the helm.
We watched anxiously as 572-ton gates that have closed every day for over a century sealed us within the first of three 1050-foot chambers behind a 700-foot cargo ship and several Canal tugs. As soon as the gates had closed, 26,700,000 gravity-fed gallons of water began to flood the lock and buoy us upwards! Each lock raises vessels between 26 and 85 feet within just a few short minutes! Heinz maneuvered Meridian smoothly in the swift swirling current, especially given that the captain of the catamaran, our lock mate, seemed be quite nervous and jockeyed his throttle erratically, which required Heinz to compensate.After we completed our passage through the first three chambers, we had a long day of motoring ahead. The Canal is 52 muddy miles long, and throughout the day, we crossed paths with numerous vessels, predominantly monstrous container ships. The surrounding scenery was flush with vegetation but not much else, save a prison and a crocodile or two along the banks (and one snoozing Neil).
Midway through, the Canal opens to a large fresh water lake, Gatun. Because we are a sailboat and sailboats are not known for speed, we had to spend the night on a large mooring. Lucky us! As is customary, our advisor was picked up at the end of the day. We bid Frank adieu, wishing he could stay. Frank’s role in the Canal is generally that of a tug operator. We had good fortune to have him as our advisor. He is well-versed in the history of the Canal and, at times, felt very much like a tour guide. We enjoyed his company immensely. He seemed to like all of us as well, even offering to take us to work with him on his tug, should we find ourselves in Panama City in the future.Our line handler, Allan, spent the night aboard with us. We hopped off the gigantic mooring for a swim, took baths in the lake, and had time to let our experience marinade in our thoughts and conversation. While not particularly beautiful in a typical way, our knowledge of what was required to build the Canal and the engineering marvel it was made for a wondrous experience! We were experiencing something far grander than ourselves, joining the ranks of thousands of mariners who had checked the Panama Canal off their bucket lists.
The following afternoon, we made our way through the Gatun locks, the final phase of our voyage from the Pacific to the Caribbean. Cheers exploded from Meridian as the sun faded and we turned into Shelter Bay Marina.
Our transit went smoothly, and our friends were on the cusp of beginning new adventures in another ocean. To celebrate, we shared the bottle of champagne our friend, Cap’n Ron from s/v Aleron had gifted to us for our equator crossing. Our equator crossing was to be postponed and Meridian’s Canal transit was a most jubilant occasion. We were happy to help our friends but, really, the gift was ours. Thank you, Meridian, for sharing your experience. One of these days, I’ll get around to stitching our videos into a full-fledged mini-movie…but that day is not today. Please check out the awesome flick that Dominique put together…MERIDIAN TRANSITS THE PANAMA CANAL! The next day, Neil and I hopped a chicken bus from Colon back to Panama City. After a celebratory night of bottomless champagne for $10 at the fancy-pants Trump Tower in downtown Panama, we retraced our path back to Quepos. Twenty-four hours later, we began to bury ourselves in decommissioning tasks to prepare The Red Thread to weather our absence while we returned to the US to work for six months.