A Band of Sailors Transit the Panama Canal
The VHF sprang to life around 2100, just as the fleet was settling down for the night after a day of snorkeling, swimming and partying on and around the Chichime Cays in Panama’s San Blas Islands. The fact that the voice was composed and professional made the message no less chilling: the skipper of the Lagoon 380 Folie a Deux had just sustained “severe lacerations” to his hand while working on his wind generator. The crew was elevating the injured hand to staunch the bleeding and needed help.
Luckily for the crew of Folie a Deux, the anchorage that night was playing host to nearly the entire 32-boat fleet of the 2014-15 World ARC, a group of which Folie a Deux itself was a member. Instantly, a number of boats responded with offers of medical expertise and first aid kits, should the one aboard Folie a Deux not prove up to the task. One of the captains aboard the U.S.-flagged Swan 51 Alpheratz—a registered nurse—dinghied over to assess the situation. After that came a doctor from aboard the German-flagged X-612 CHIKA-lu to stitch things up, and then a lift aboard the center-console dinghy from the Argentinean-flagged Lagoon 620 NDS Darwin across the open water of the San Blas Channel to the airstrip on the island of El Porvenir.
Later that same day the captain of Folie a Deux was safely at a hospital in Panama City (recommended by another cruiser in the area who had been involved in an earlier medical emergency) awaiting surgery. As for Folie a Deux, it also made the short hop to El Porvenir with the help of an extra hand from another ARC boat to await its skipper’s return.
Two days later, skipper and crew—which included the skipper’s two children—were reunited and on their way to Shelter Bay Marina on the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal, where they rejoined the rest of the fleet en route to the cruising grounds of the Las Perlas archipelago, the Galapagos and then the wider Pacific.
Interestingly, while World ARC manager Paul Tetlow and the rest of his staff back on El Porvenir did their best to both monitor the situation and lend support, it was the rally participants themselves who made the evacuation a success—a true testament not only to their competence, but to the ARC model itself.
While some cruisers—inveterate go-it-alone sea dogs, in particular—may deride rallies like the ARC as hand holding or an approach that devalues the accomplishments of the sailors taking part, nothing could be further from the truth.
For one thing, while the ARC sets a timetable, which includes a number of start times and rallying points, in between those times the sailors are largely on their own. For another, while experience levels vary, there are participating sailors with tens of thousands of sea miles under their belts, including multiple Atlantic and Pacific crossings, and in the 2014-15 fleet at least one rounding of Cape Horn.
The result is a group that not only knows how to keep a schedule, but how to take care of itself: sailors who don’t hesitate to take advantage of the World ARC’s expertise in the areas of safety gear, routing and local bureaucracies, but remain very much in charge of the day-to-day running of their own ships—thank you very much—and wouldn’t want it any other way.
It’s also a group that quickly becomes much greater than the sum of its parts, with the sailors both helping each other out and having a lot of fun together in the process.
“It’s a lot like cruising in company, with the support not just of the ARC but the other sailors,” says UK skipper John Craven, who along with his wife, Jane, planned to travel with the fleet to Australia aboard their Discovery 55 Seaduced, where they may break away to spend a year or two exploring the Pacific. “You bump into people, and you start making a network of friends. It’s a bit of a club, really.”
“We don’t want to be told what to do,” agrees fellow Discovery 55 sailor Stuart Smith, who along with his wife, Pat, sails the UK-flagged Brizo, “but we do like the loose structure, getting together from time to time for a chat.”
Tom Toohey, one of four co-captains aboard the Swan 51 Alpheratz, all with their roots in Prout’s Neck, Maine, admits that some people might not like what they perceive to be the “canned approach” of a rally. But he emphasizes that “once the ARC people are gone, you’re on your own.”
As a practical matter, he adds, the fleet serves as a kind of “super organism” in which each crew can tap into the resources and expertise of the whole to stay on schedule. Parts swapping and lending is a regular occurrence, as is the exchange of ideas. During stopovers it’s not at all uncommon to see crews from multiple boats helping out on a single maintenance project.
“You need a propane sniffer? I got a propane sniffer. I’ll lend you my extra, and you can give it back to me when we get to the next port,” says Toohey, a veteran waterman and delivery skipper with multiple Atlantic crossings to his credit. “The body of boats helps keep you sailing…between the whole fleet you’re going to be able to keep rolling.”
Then there’s the material and logistical support provided by the World ARC staff. It’s a service that’s especially handy in places like Panama, a locale renowned for its paperwork, fees and Kafkaesque bureaucracy—not to mention the teeth-grindingly slow Panamanian immigration official on El Porvenir with the hunt-and-peck typing skills.
“It gives me a bit of extra time to do business,” says Brizo’s Stuart, who continues to run his training-services business with the help of his two sons back in the UK.
“It’s definitely nice to have somebody else take care of the hassles,” agrees Oklahoma native Tommy Aude, who along with his wife, Marianne, participated in rallies in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea aboard their Moody 44 Audeacious, before crossing the Atlantic aboard the Contest 48CS II Audeacious, which they are using for the World ARC. “We have more time to focus on the boat, the sailing, the places we get to visit.”
Let the Good Times Roll
Which is not to say the World ARC is all about sailing, paperwork and boat maintenance. The crews comprising the 2014-15 ARC are also looking to have a good time, and the organizers pull out all the stops to make sure they do.
The aforementioned party on Chichime, for example, served as a kind of welcome home after a first leg that featured big winds and even bigger waves, especially for those who cut the corner and had to pass through some particularly rough stuff off Columbia.
Munching on potluck and drinking coconut juice right out of the nut (laced with plenty of rum), the crews exchanged tales of their passages—what worked well and what didn’t—while some younger members played volleyball, and a handful of Irish and British sailors took turns singing and strumming guitars.
Later that same day, with Paul and the rest of the ARC staff safely on its way to El Porvenir, there were sun-downers, snorkeling and group swims, as the fleet continued to nourish relationships first established at the rally’s starting point in St. Lucia a few weeks before. At one point I jumped off the transom of Nexus, a 60-foot custom cat owned by Russ and Laurie Owen. Next thing I knew, I was conducting an impromptu “interview” with Sherry and Dennis Day, owners of our anchorage neighbor, the U.S. flagged Hallberg Rassy 46, Trillium. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘I’m never going back,’” Dennis said of his passage aboard Trillium in the 2013 ARC Caribbean 1500, as the three of us contentedly floated in the bathtub-warm water. Listening to him, I couldn’t help wondering whether his hair wasn’t already substantially longer than it had been back during his days as a successful trial lawyer—and how much longer it would be until his next haircut!
After that came a series of get-togethers, first in Shelter Bay and then Panama City, as the fleet set about transiting the Panama Canal in three successive waves of around a dozen boats each. These included everything from a rum tasting to tours of the canal locks, a pig roast, a tour of an Emberá Indian village, tours of the Casco Viego, or “Old Town,” in Panama City and even a Panama City tour aboard a party bus, complete with free bar and a live DJ. Activities like these are standard procedure wherever the ARC stops, whether it’s in the Galapagos, Bora Bora or Cape Town.
“You really get a chance to take journeys into the places you’re visiting,” says Marianne of II Audeacious. “It makes the voyage that much more interesting.”
The Big Ditch
Which brings us to the canal. Bora Bora sounded nice, but first everybody had to navigate the “Big Ditch.” Granted, doing so is a heck of a lot easier than the old Cape Horn route. But making your way through three different sets of locks in the presence of dozens of massive freighters remains a precarious business, fraught with hazards all its own.
The day before I transited aboard Nexus with the 10 other boats in the first wave, Paul led a skippers meeting, complete with a video showing the many steps comprising the process. He also outlined which boats would be in which of the four rafts making up our group, and what kinds of lines and fenders they would require—all of which were waiting on board the following morning, after the ARC “line fairies” worked their magic in the night. After that it was finish up with some final provisioning and then wait until 1500 the following afternoon, when the first wave motored across to the “Flats” anchorage on the Colon side of Limon Bay to meet the canal advisors who would guide us through the locks—something I think we all dreaded a little, thanks to the nightmare stories we’d been hearing of rude and ferocious Canal workers.
Fortunately, our own advisor, Roy Paddy, was as charming as he was competent, and it was with good feelings all around that we set out to cross the isthmus and then take on the first of the many small challenges ahead—rafting up with our canal partners, Brian Fox’s Beneteau 40 American Spirit II to port and II Audeacious to starboard.
Afterward, we motored the last few hundred yards into the first of the three “chambers” of the Gatun Locks on the Caribbean side of the canal, tied up at the head of the chamber, and waited for the other three rafts to join us. At one point, a brisk tailwind did its best to push us in faster than Roy intended. But he and Russ proved an excellent team, and as Roy directed Russ on things like boat speed and heading, Russ did a magnificent job of placing us directly where we belonged, through a judicious combination of helm and Nexus’s twin diesels.
Indeed, there’s nothing like having a bunch of sailors who are both veteran mariners and successful professionals on shore to work out the kinks of something like a canal transit. The day before they’d all made a point of getting together and working out the details well in advance. The three boats comprising the Discovery 55 contingent even organized a raft-up get-together, complete with tea and biscuits. As I sat off to one side munching a biscuit, I couldn’t help thinking back to a canal transit I’d made years earlier in the opposite direction, from Panama City to Colon while helping deliver a 50-foot charter cat. We’d gotten through all right in the end, but there had been a good deal more uncertainty and “winging it” along the way.
For example, something to be aware of when transiting is the exact protocol for coordinating line handling with the workers on shore (look out for the monkey’s fists when they throw the messager lines!) and the fact that when the chambers fill when you’re up-bound there can be a good bit of turbulence. Thanks to the combination of the ARC’s preparation and Roy’s gentle advice, though, everything went just fine. The look on Russ’s face alone was worth the price of admission. The Panama Canal is truly an engineering marvel, and as a veteran aerospace engineer he loved every minute of it. As I heard him say to Laurie midway through the Gatun Locks, “This is a memory I shall always cherish.”
A couple of hours later Russ motored the raft out of the third and final chamber (now 85 feet higher up than when we’d started), and the three boats separated to motor independently into Gatun Lake, where the entire group tied up alongside a pair of commercial moorings. That done, it was get a good night’s sleep and then set out at first light the next morning on the 30-mile trip across the lake and through the Culebra Cut to the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks, which we reached at about 1300. The next couple of hours brought more of the same, albeit in reverse and under a blindingly hot sun, as opposed to late evening temperatures we’d enjoyed the day before, and then we were through.
One thing that did come as a surprise: when canal veterans say you need to be ready for the current in the lower Miraflores chamber as you motor in prior to being lowered down to sea level, they mean it! A product of the different densities of the fresh and salt water that mix there, it was truly ripping at first, so Russ had to give Nexus a good shot of reverse to help keep things under control. “Excellent job, Captain,” Roy said as the crews aboard American Spirit II and II Audeacious snugged down the lines. What might have happened had one of the lines parted doesn’t even bear thinking about.
After that we broke up the raft again and headed off under the Bridge of the Americas toward the ARC’s designated anchorage at the Amador Causeway. As as we did so, a small pilot boat set out from near the Balboa Yacht Club to pick up Roy. After all the anticipation, it was hard to believe we were on the other side. It was that easy.
Now the wide-open expanse of the Gulf of Panama lay before us, dotted with dozens more freighters. Beyond lay the vast Pacific. Alas for yours truly, it was the end of the road. For the rest of the fleet, though, the adventure was only beginning.
Transiting the Panama Canal
First the bad news: transiting the 50-mile Panama Canal means dealing with a lot of red tape, and it ain’t cheap. Prices were in a state of flux at press time, but plan on dropping the better part of $1,000. In addition, be aware that the Panama Canal Authority won’t hesitate to turn you away if you don’t meet its advance notice, equipment, insurance, inspection and fee requirements to the letter.
For a comprehensive guide to all that’s required, consult Eric Bauhaus’s excellent book The Panama Cruising Guide ($79 through landfallnavigation.com). It’s worth every penny and is a great guide to the rest of the country as well. Although it’s not required, you can hire a local agent to help you navigate all the red tape. The Canal Authority also maintains its own website at panamacanal.com. Good luck making it work.
Smaller private boats don’t require a pilot, but the Canal Authority does require that a Canal Advisor be on board, as well as at least four line handlers in addition to the skipper and advisor. If you don’t have enough crew, you can typically enlist other yachties on either end or backpackers looking for a bit of an adventure. You can also hire a local to do the job for around $100 or look for some extra hands at panlinehandler.com.
Every boat is also required to have a set of four 125-foot lines and a set of oversized fenders—typically old tires wrapped in plastic. These can be obtained at either end for a fee and then returned when you finish your transit. Although 125-foot lines might seem like overkill, the chambers are 110-feet wide and you will be over 30 feet below the edge of each chamber when it’s empty.
Your Canal Advisor will guide you through your transit every step of the way. Despite the rumors, I have yet to meet a nasty one. Because they’re with you for quite a long time, part of the deal is providing them with a meal. Feed them poorly, and I suspect they could get nasty fast. Same thing if you don’t treat them with respect: these are skilled professionals whose job it is to get you through a very expensive piece of infrastructure as quickly as possible, and you should behave accordingly.
For additional rally coverage, including details on how to sign up for SAIL Magazine’s 2014 Snowbird Rally, set to transit the ICW this fall, go to sailmagazine.com/rallies. For more on the World Cruising Club and its various ARC rallies, go to worldcruising.com.