Panama Canal, Fri May 14th   

Panama Canal

Having staggered back to the boat in good time for our ridiculously early “off”, we set off (minus the Singapore crew member who was supposed to be hitching a ride with us and missed the boat – for a second time!) only to then sit out in the bay waiting for our pilot to show up. 6am went by, then 7am and eventually our pilot arrived via a rib, just before 8am! I'd just decided I'd go below deck and catch up on some sleep while we were waiting, and lo and behold – he turned up 5 minutes later! Typical. We had just under an hours motor up, under the Bridge of Americas, to the start of the canal proper and our journey through the locks.  The vegetation on either side of the boat was dense, lush and tropical and there was a cacophony of birdsong, which you could clearly hear despite the noise of the engine. Try as I might though, I struggled to catch more than the occasional glimpse of the no doubt brightly coloured songsters through the binoculars. However what appeared were Pelicans-a-plenty overhead which was an unexpected gift and loads of huge black birds with broad wings like a vulcan bomber. They appeared to be a cross between an enormous crow and a vulture, but I'm still not sure what they were. They stayed with us, soaring above the trees like big black kites, for the whole of our journey through the canal.
We soon had our signal to enter the first lock. We had to 'raft together' with another private yacht – which means we had to tie the two yachts tightly together with mooring lines at the bow, stern and mid-ships, so we effectively went through the lock 'as one'.  We then crept into the back of the lock behind a huge tanker – called the TMS Maria – a massive, metal beast of a boat that dwarfed us entirely and cut out the entire forward facing horizon! Once tied up – canal workers on either side of the lock threw lines, weighted at the ends with lumps of metal, onto the yacht (you need to keep your wits about you when this happens if you don't want concussion!). We then tie long lines onto their lines, which they then haul the 40 feet or so back up to the top of the lock to secure us.
The lock gates then very slowly closed behind us, shutting out the last remnants of the Pacific Ocean, and literally closing the door on probably the most momentous chapter of our race – so far. The pacific had not been kind to us, but it was not its job to be kind or even indifferent. It just was what it was.  For us over the last 2 months it had been many things; scary, exhilarating, challenging both through big, stormy seas and also by delivering light winds and frustrating calmness when we least needed it. It seemed to have a cunning contrariness about it – always delivering an unexpected twist and turn at the last minute. It had given the whole fleet a battering in the race from Qingdao to San Francisco, and had taken our skipper from us.  We might eventually forgive it but we would surely never forget it. And so it was a big moment when the huge Herculean lock gates, finally formed  a barrier between us and the Pacific. None of us were in any rush to return to its hostile hospitality but I know many will, one day. I hope I'm one of them.

And so we now were looking forward. Not that we could see anything other than the huge metal backside of TMS Maria but once through the first two locks we were well and truly on our way towards the Caribbean Sea and our doorway to the Atlantic – and home.

As the water gushed into the locks and we eased and tightened our lines that were securing us, in response to our pilot, Jose's commands, we marvelled at the feat of engineering that was allowing us to journey through from one side of the Americas to the other. Although started by the French, the majority of the canal was built by the Americans in the 10 year period between 1903 and 1913. Jose had worked the canal for over 20 years and was more than happy to answer all our questions and give us additional bits of information when he could see we were interested. He pointed out that neither of the locks at each end of the canal were directly in line with the approach. They were angled off on purpose so that should an enemy submarine get close enough to fire a torpedo, they would only hit the bank and not effect the integrity of the locks at all!

As we passed onto the second lock we waved at the gathered crowds on the viewing balconies and Brett and I did a special wave at where we believed there was a web-cam – for anyone back home who might have been looking out for us on the web!
We then had a good few hours of motoring ahead of us before we would get to the final 3 locks at the far end of the canal which would set us back down to sea level and of on our way. In the mean time the tasks of the day were to try and not fry in the heat or to get eaten alive by the mosquitoes that were now an inevitability due to the vegetation we were surrounded by. I took up my post with the binoculars glued to my face, once again trying to spot the little feathered friends I could hear, but still not see, while also keeping a keen look out for the monkeys I'd been promised and crocodiles I'd been warned of. Neither feathered, furred nor scaly beasties showed their faces and because of that (the latter in particular) when we finally moored up next to Cape Breton,  a few hundred metres from the first of the final locks, to say goodbye to one pilot and wait for our next one, I felt it quite safe to take a dip in the canal to cool off.
In fact it turned into a bit of a pool or canal party – with most of the crew from the two boats all in, playing a kind of water polo and generally letting off steam in the remarkably clear, fresh water of the canal (not what I was expecting at all). It was only 24 hours later that we were informed that as a result, we'd probably all contracted worms, and were told to “inspect our stools” when we got to New York as that would be about the incubation period for the little wriggly hitchhikers! Nice!

After many promises of a pilot at first 3pm, then 5pm, then 6pm (you get the picture), a pilot finally turned up at about 8.45pm.  Much to our relief our buddy yacht was Cape Breton who had been moored there and promised a pilot for the last 26 hours! This time we both went into the lock first, rafted together and then once secured, stood and watched nervously as our lock buddy TMS Maria, inched towards us, guided with steel cables attached to what looked like mini versions of Thomas the Tank Engine on tracks either side of the lock.  When you're standing on a 68foot yacht stuck in a lock, with nowhere to go and you have a simply ginormous tanker creeping towards you, you think of many things; I hope it's not a trainee at the controls!; I hope he's not pissed; I hope the brakes work; oh God – boats don't have brakes!; Cripes that's BIG; Bl***y Hell that's REALLY BIG; and finally I hope this is a sight I NEVER see out on the ocean!!!  It stopped about 20 feet from our stern. It was “Cosy” in those final 3 locks!

We finally arrived at Shelter Bay Marina – our Caribbean side of the canal stopover just past midnight. The night was pitch black, which made navigating into the corner of this small marina tricky. There was no shop open, no bar, no welcome beers, just rain. Torrential rain. And the news that the next race would start tomorrow at 11am. Sleep - in a hot, airless, smelly and now slightly damp forepeak, was required. Fat chance!