Pacific Isles



By – Dave Cooper


Buena Dias, Swan Song and her crew are now in the Pacific Ocean moored at the Balboa Yacht Club in Panama. What an experience leaving Colon, transiting the Canal and arriving in Balboa.  The Caribbean’s famous Calypso artist, Foxy Callwood, and his lovely wife Tessa are with us – along with my mate and navigator, Capt. Pete (Ratcliff). Transiting the Panama Canal is high on Foxy’s “Bucket List” so we invite him to come along. Our line-handlers – David, Brian and Iris have also arrived so we are ready.


Our canal pilot comes aboard; the VHF is alive directing us to the canal’s entrance. With six locks total, the Gatun locks will be transited first. One hazard within the locks is turbulence caused when fresh and salt water mix.  We tie to Daytripper, a 100’ tourist ferry.  The lock doors close leaving us in a concrete cavern with steel doors dead astern and the steel transom of a 700 foot cargo ship ahead. The top of the lock is 30’ upwards and hard to see as it is 8pm and we are looking into huge lights above the lock walls.  The water swirls, they start to flood the lock lifting us 25’ to the full lock level where we view the operating machinery. Foxy is busy recording all this action on his video camera.

The doors to the lock in front of the ship open and “mules” drag him forward. The pilot directs us to drop our dock-lines to Daytripper and ready for the transit into the next lock. Wow! As soon as we are free the ship’s prop wash hits us in a swirl of water making it difficult keeping Swan Song aligned with the lock.  Daytripper nails his props to get off the wall which adds to the wash we are fighting. Finally, our pilot lets us move ahead; Swan Song is much easier to control once underway. We continue this process twice more.


After anchoring in Gatun Lake our pilot departs for the night and after a brief surprise birthday party (yep, it is mine) we bed down.   At 0600, in dead calm, Foxy is contemplating a swim; alligators are looking at his red Foxy’s hat which seems to dim his enthusiasm. I count bodies. Brian & Iris are atop the pilothouse, David in the hammock, Peter in the saloon, Tessa in the guest stateroom and Nancy in the forward stateroom….just the right number.

By 0730 a new pilot arrives who advises heading to Banana Cut at 8 kts. Foxy notices that the first lock is empty. The lakeside lock door opens as we enter into the first of the Mira Flores Locks. Once there, we tie to the lock wall - a “sidewall tie”; 50’ forward of the bow is the lock gate and ahead a drop of 25’ to the lock below. Two catamarans raft astern, and a 500’ cargo ship follows. The locking process of the night before is repeated.  As soon as the cargo ship is in, the doors shut, the plug is pulled and the “bathtub” drains; we go from a view of the lock, and surrounding area, to the bottom in approximately 5 minutes. Once down we wait for the lock doors to open and sound our horn, a signal for line handlers to toss our lines free.


Approaching Pedro Miguel Lake en route to the 2nd Mira Flores Lock, the process is repeated but this time we tie to the other side; our crew must quickly change fenders and dock-lines.  The pilot now gives two choices to exit these locks– when the gates open to blast thru and ride the wave of fresh water on top of the heavier salt water OR wait and ride the wave that will be coming from behind - trying to spin us around…not a good option for a single screw boat. The fresh water wave starts when the doors begin to open.


Down we go - at the bottom the suspense builds - 1 minute, 2 minutes - the pilot casually glances up from his newspaper, “Sound your horn.” The lines drop from above. I use the thruster sparingly, moving the bow off the wall, so I can go thru ASAP.  The lock doors swing open, widening from  5’ to 8’ to 10’ then 12’.  Water rushes turbulently from our lock to the next.  The pilot says “Now” and I nail forward, full throttle, as Swan Song, with a 16’ beam shoots through an 18’ gap.  In a set of rapids, with a highly concerned crew, steel doors fly by on either side. “Whoosh” we are riding the wave into the next lock under a nice blue sky in perfect alignment. The Visitors Center is lined ten deep with people who must have come to see “Foxy transiting the Canal”.


We are now in the last lock, riding the fresh water wave, approaching the lock doors “muy rapido”. The wave ends 100’ from the door - we suddenly slow from 12kts to 4kts in 50’.    “Wow!” a touch of reverse, the lines are caught at the bollards and “voila”, we’re tied in.  Foxy looks down at the Pacific Ocean below with his trademark smile, big eyes and both thumbs held high.


The third lock is a piece of cake – lockdown; doors open and here we are …”We’ve done it, mates!”

Soon we are under the Bridge of the Americas & moored at the Balboa Yacht Club. Foxy looks at me with a huge grin on his face and announces, “I wouldn’t have missed this for the world - Mission Accomplished!”