Pippa’s Blog – Gatun Lock

It’s 6am and still dark but I can hear the much anticipated howler monkeys in the jungle adjacent to us. There is no need for an alarm clock this morning as the volume ramps up as more animals join in.


I am sitting on the bunk in the cabin in the bows with my head through the hatch enjoying the warm breeze.  We are rafted up with three other boats on a huge mooring buoy, a 62ft catamaran next to us with a brace to the buoy. Victor, from the ARC had the unenviable task last night of jumping from the cat onto the mooring in the dark to secure the lines.


We entered Gatun Lock before dusk last night after being held on anchor off Colons busy docks for a couple of hours. Our advisor, Regis, joined Aretha and we set off in convoy with eight other sailing vessels, all strictly under motor with sails furled as we negotiate the busiest of shipping lanes as the tankers leave the Canal and increase their speed as they head off into the Atlantic.


We raft up next to Makena’s port side shortly before the lock.  Lunar Quest has already secured herself on Makena’s starboard side.  Makena is a three storey catamaran. I’ve never seen a boat like her and Aretha for once looks small by comparison. Caspar comments that we have become a fender.  We take their bow and stern lines on our starboard side and hand over our springs and check that the fenders are not rising, the stanchions are clear and that the satellite equipment in the stern is clear of any risk of damage.


Approaching the first lock and the children are briefly stowed below decks as experienced line handlers throw monkey fists across to Makena who will be our point of contact with the shore. We are walked through the dock by four line handlers, two on each side of us, leading the bow along the lock and tempering the stern. Makenas has the lock pilot on board and her skipper has all the control and motors us through the lock. Caspar keeps a firm eye on our distance to the concrete walls on our port side. At times the wind catches us and the nest veers a little too close to the sides and the thrusters on Makena fire up and put us back on course.


The lines are quickly secured around sturdy ropes and pulled back in and our nest is held tight whilst two other nests with three yachts apiece follow us into the lock.  Nine boats in place, the first set of lock gates are closed behind us and the water starts to rise.


There are three sections to the lock and parallel to us is a second set of three gates.  In rudimentary terms it’s like having two baths next to each other.  We are in one with an inch of water in the bottom and to give a sense of scale Aretha, the size of a playmobil boat.  The parallel bath is full of water and the ship within is a Panamax meaning that is has been constructed to fill the space. There are inches to spare as the ship is moved forwards along the lock.  It towers above us.  Imagine a horse standing in other bath. Of course there’s an issue with legs and the fact that the horse doesn’t float but it’s some sense at least of our perspective.


The water enters the lock from beneath us and we rise rapidly as the adjacent ship descends.  The line handlers on Makena are fully engaged ensuring tension is maintained on the lines to the lock and that our position remains stable as the rise in the water level means that the lines need to be taken in gradually. Caroline climbs over the guard rail and up onto Makena and assists taking her port stern line.


The gates open and we move through to the second lock sitting down to a meal of slow cooked goulash on the deck whilst the preparations for the second lock are completed by the six boats behind us.


The third and final lock fills rapidly and the energy in the water is clearly visible as the water churns around us.


The gate opens and we motor onto Gatun lake which is very dark after the well lit locks.  It has taken two and a half hours to traverse the three locks rising 85 ft from sea level in the Atlantic to Gatun Lake.


Secure on our mooring the children are asleep within minutes as Pentagram ties up on our port side.  It’s drinks on Makena and we climb on board trying not to look overawed by a boat whose kitchen bears no resemblance to a galley.  It’s a vast minimalist design statement with three fridges.  I’m given a tour, first up stairs to the cockpit to stand by the wheel and then downstairs to see one of the five double cabins with ensuite.  It’s a different world and I’m almost giddy with excitement at being on board though trying to look anything but.


Back on Aretha, Caroline and I tuck ourselves inside the mosquito net and open the hatch above. We lie in the bunk reflecting on the evenings activities and giggling like a couple of sixteen year old school girls.



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