Friday, May 12, 2017

Abracadabra Travels The Path Between The Seas – April 23, 2017

Abracadabra, identified on the Canal Authority’s schedule as Vessel 25C, transited northbound through the Panama Canal on April 23, 2017. We arrived in a Whole ‘Nother Sea that same night 43 +/- nautical miles and a continental divide later.

Welcome To The Caribbean!
[Photo Credit: Bob Romano - I-Phone]

It was a safe passage for Abracadabra and a lifetime experience for her crew (which for this trip included a Special Guest Appearance by Bob Romano). 

To anyone who tried to travel along on the Canal Authority’s webcam: Thanks for making the effort, but don’t feel too disappointed that the webcam wasn’t working. There’s a reason the locking process is not a popular spectator sport. If all goes well, it's just slooooow.

Note: The title for this post references David McCullough’s The Path Between The Seas, a book Molly highly recommends to anyone interested in the Canal. Since you don't have time to read it before you finish this post, here for a quick reference is a map of the canal borrowed from the Internet:

The Transit Crew

Little Abracadabra hosted a team of six during her 12-hour motor. In order of importance to the success of the mission, they were:

#1 Transit Advisor Ahmet Samaniego:

Ahmet Samaniego - Transit Advisor Extraordinaire

Cruiser lore includes complaints about inattentive, distracted cell-phone monitoring advisors, but that was not our experience. Both Sr. Samaniego and the advisor during our “training transit” on S/v Quicksilver (more on that later) were knowledgeable, attentive and helpful. Neither one spent time on things unrelated to the transit and both were happy to answer our questions about the Canal – both technical and touristic.

Transit Advisors are Canal Authority employees trained to accompany handline vessels of less than 65-feet and who work on a "moonlighting" basis (larger vessels are guided by a Canal Pilot). For example, Sr. Samaniego’s “day job" is as a lock master and Harold, the advisor on our “training transit” is a Canal Authority security officer. 

It’s helpful to remember that every Transit Advisor is working overtime. While this may account for the stories of inattention by some it certainly plays a big role in the scheduling of handline transits. Handline vessel transits are often rescheduled more than once and it's not uncommon to wait three weeks or more between admeasurement and transit ("admeasurement" is the first step in arranging a transit: the vessel is measured to determine how it can be placed in the locks). We were told that many trained Advisors simply quit putting in the voluntary overtime after weighing the continuing personal cost against the benefit of overtime pay (i.e., once the kid gets braces mom or dad may want her or his vacation time back . . . ).

#2 Captain Bryce:

Driving That Boat!

Only once or twice did Sr. Samaniego have to remind Bryce that his job as Captain was to drive the boat -- that it is the Advisor’s job to instruct the line handlers. This was a supreme act of self-control on Bryce’s part, as it would be for most handline vessel captains!

#3 & 4 Professional Line Handlers Joel (pron. “Joe-elle”) and Christian:

Temporary Side Wall Placement While Waiting For Directions;
 Joel and Christian Are Fending Abracadabra Off the Wall.

These guys were knowledgeable, helpful, extremely polite and appreciative of Molly's cooking (a sure way to win her heart). Their primary distraction was the Real Madrid v. Barcelona match they watched on their cell phones whenever there was sufficient connectivity and a lull in the process . . .
We arranged for professional line handlers through our Agent, Roy Bravo of the Emmanuel Agency. Many boat owners choose to self-manage to save money, but we really appreciated Roy’s coordination efforts and thought his fee was fairly earned. He was our interface with the Canal Authority and the Maritime Authority; arranged for experienced line handlers; provided clean new lines and huuuge, clean fenders (self-managed boats often sport used tires as fenders -- we thought Abracadabra deserved better); and his company “bonded” our transit which meant we didn't have to make a more than $800 refundable damage deposit with the Canal Authority.

#5 and 6 Rookie Line Handlers Bob and Molly: 

No. 1 Volunteer - Bob Romano

"Volunteer" Molly

Bob worked the bow lines with Christian.  Joel helped Molly through the stern-line process.

Some Background Information Re: A Handline Vessel Transit

Handline vessels fit into that portion of the 304 meter (1,000 foot) lock not otherwise occupied by a large commercial vessel.

Oh, Uh, Hi. Come Join Us.

Handline vessels are held off the rough, potentially damaging concrete walls of the lock in one of three ways: “rafted” to (tied together with) with one or more other handline vessels; as a “center-chamber lockage” – all by its little self; or rafted to a Canal tug. [A handline vessel with a mast or high fishing tower would never tie to the wall of a lock – the agitation of the water rising or lowering in the lock would rock the mast or fishing tower into the concrete wall and make a terrible mess of . . . well, everything.]

The Agent only learns how his charge will pass through each lock as the vessel approaches the lock, so each handline vessel must prepare to transit center-chamber (i.e., be ready to have all four line handlers and all four lines engaged). The Canal Authority schedulers are the”air traffic controllers” of the Canal and their primary mission is to get the big commercial ships through on time. Handline vessels are basically space available baggage. Note to cruisers complaining about scheduling changes and lack of notice: best to just get over yourselves and remember that your little sailboat – no matter how precious to you – is not mission critical for the Canal Authority! While little yachts pay perhaps $2,000 or less to transit the canal giant container ships with 15,000 or more containers on board can pay upwards of a half a million dollars.

Between Abracadabra’s transit and our training transit we experienced all three types of locking. During Abracadabra’s transit of the Miraflores locks we were rafted to the Canal Authority tug, Belén. Tug Belén was tied port-side to the lock and Abracadabra was tied to Belén.

Abracadabra's Dodger Cover Is At The Bottom of The Picture

Almost all of the lockage problems we have heard first-hand have been relayed by captains of boats rafted to tugs. The stories almost all had to do with tug crews not understanding the limitations of sailing vessels. So we were a bit nervous when we learned we were to be rafted to a tug, but happily we found the crew of the Belén attentive and cooperative. Lucky us, eh?

Abracadabra transited the rest of the locks (four: Pedro Miguel and three at Gatun) as a center-chamber lockage. The following picture of a center-chamber locked sailboat was taken during our tourist outing to the Miraflores locks observation deck several weeks before our transit: 

Center Locking - Looks . . .  Exposed, No?

Our training transit was done primarily rafted to another sailboat.

Quicksilver rafts to Grinn II

[Side Note: Many of the photos in this post were taken during our training transit because a rafted sailboat only needs two line handlers. Molly was mostly redundant during our training transit and had some time to take pictures.]

A Short Tutorial On Line Handling

When a handline vessel enters a lock the canal-side line handlers throw thin-ish cord down to the boat. Pay attention to the warnings to dodge this line. The “monkey fist” knot at the end of the line conceals a metal ball – necessary to weigh the line for flight -- and it can really pack a punch as it it thrown from on high! Let the monkey fist hit the boat and then pick up the line.

Canal Side Lock Handler and Line

The on-board handler must then tie a bowline in the thicker on-board line through the bowline at the end of the canal-side line.

Bowline To Bowline Connection
(Bryce as Stern Line Handler On Training Transit)

Or, if you are working with Joel you will have this connection done for you in a flash. He will then yell “Missus! Missus! Line!”, hand the connected lines to you and disappear to his station where he will connect his two lines. Whew! Though Molly was a bit disappointed – she had been practicing tying a bowline for days so as to not embarrass herself by taking too much time to connect the lines . . .

The canal-side handler will then haul the on-board line up to a bollard on the side of the canal and make it fast.

Water go up or water go down; the on-board line handler must bring in slack or let out line accordingly. The Advisor will give directions to each line handler (give slack / bring in line) in order to keep the handline vessel (or the rafted vessels if more than one) in the center of the lock. [Volunteer line handlers – don’t forget to bring sturdy gloves!]

When it comes time to travel from one lock to another the canal-side handler will let the on-board line loose and the on-board handler must then bring it aboard (jale! jale! jale!). The canal-side handler then walks to the next lock with the thinner canal-side line in hand while the captain drives the vessel in sync with the line handler's slow pace. Ah-ha! – the meaning of “handline vessel” becomes clear! 

Walking A Handline Vessel

Repeat five times.

To clarify: These lines are not used to “tow” a vessel from one lock to another – all vessels, large ships and handline vessels, are under their own power in the locks. The lines act to keep the vessel centered and away from the concrete walls of the lock while the water burbles up or out from the bottom of the lock. This water movement creates a significant amount of turbulence and while we had been told to expect a lot of turbulence while up-locking our only Moment of Excitement came as a result of less-anticipated down-locking turbulence. [More on that later.]

The larger vessels are held in place by locomotive engines that drive lines along the lock sides and between the locks. 

"Walking" A Big Ship

The locks account for only a small portion of the transit, though they are the most fascinating part. These giant locks are evidence of the belief in the power of engineering that inspired many during the first half of the 20th Century -- and beautiful in an industrial way, as these details show:



A Moment of Excitement

Though we have come to believe our one Moment of Excitement was just a matter of lock turbulence, at the time we thought Abracadabra’s steering had mysteriously and catastrophically failed!

As the gates to the middle Gatun lock (the next-to-last lock on a northbound transit) opened our lines were loosened and Bryce shifted into gear and applied power. We began to motor forward slowly until, suddenly, Abracadabra veered starboard toward the wall of the lock -- and Bryce announced he was unable to maintain steerage and bring her back to the middle of the lock. She would not respond to his movement of the wheel.

Advisor Sanamiego made the correct calls and all line handlers (including those on the wall) responded quickly; Abracadabra was returned to the middle of the lock and secured, avoiding scrunching into the wall. Everyone on board was shaken, not knowing what exactly had happened. Bryce jumped into action and unearthed and installed the emergency tiller, thinking something must have broken in the steering mechanism. We tried motoring forward again and, using the emergency tiller we were successful in maintaining direction. Okay then . . . . 

We motored out of the lock and into the final lock using the emergency tiller. All went well in the final lock and once we were lowered to sea level we motored forward into the Caribbean. Instead of a whoop-whoop feeling, Bryce, Molly and Bob were still wondering whether the next leg of our journey would require using the emergency tiller. And if so, why?

We motored on to the location where the pilot boat was scheduled to pick up our Advisor. Bryce tentatively began steering with the wheel . . . and everything seemed fine. For the rest of that night and the following day he drove using the wheel without any problems – nor have we had any steering problems since – so we have come to believe that Abracadabra just didn’t have enough forward momentum through the water to counteract some turbulence created either by water draining from the lock or by the motor of the large ship that was our lock-mate. We will probably never know what caused our Moment of Excitement and can’t offer any suggestions as to how to avoid a similar moment -- wait a minute more before releasing the lines and trying to motor out of the lock (though this doesn't sound like it would be effective if the turbulence was created by our gargantuan lock-mate unless that ship pulled back on its power) . . . or add power and hope it would create steerage and forward motion rather than just accelerating toward the wall . . . take your pick. If you have to make this call let us know what you decide and how it works for you, won't you?

In conclusion: We are happy to report no damage was done (except maybe to the Captain’s stress-o-meter!) and several short motoring trips later there has been no evidence of any steering problems. Whew.

Motoring Along

The majority of a Canal transit is a motor boat trip . . . a 40 +/- nautical mile motor boat trip. [Transit Tip: Don't try transiting unless you trust your engine -- the Canal Authority charges a hefty fee for delays caused by equipment failure.]

During this less active portion of the journey it helps to have read about the Canal or to have an Advisor who is willing to provide tourist information. Though line handlers can spend this time listening to football games on the internet or – sometimes – napping.

Just A Quick........ ZZZZ......
[To Be Fair: Bob Arrived From
Washington State the Night Before Our Transit!]

Time can also be spent watching traffic;


'N More Traffic

waving for pictures; 

Passing The Miraflores Locks Observation Decks -- Wave Hello!

enjoying the scenery; and

The Storied Culebra Cut

The Centennial Bridge

-- eating!

The transiting handline vessel's galley officer is expected to properly feed the Advisor, professional line handlers and the rest of the crew during the transit. Molly prepared to feed six people for two days since we were originally scheduled to take two days to transit (a night at a mooring in Gatun Lake was part of the plan): 

  • breakfast burritos (politely consumed); 
  • chili and garlic bread (extremely successful); 
  • cookies, fruit and nuts for snacks (successful); 
  • lots of sodas (don’t forget the young professional line handlers will want full sugar!) and bottled water (successful); and 
  • Moroccan chicken and rice (served post-transit - no reviews).

And Then There We Were – Sort Of

Though we had been scheduled for a two day transit, our Advisor was able to sweet-talk Abracadabra into the last available space of the day. As a result we did not spend the anticipated night in Gatun Lake which was good – sort of.

Good in that we did not have to house or feed our professional line handlers overnight and for a second day. Good in that we didn't have to change Advisors, since we liked Ahmet so much. Sort of good in that this left only Bryce, Molly and Bob to eat a mountain of left-over breakfast burritos, chili and Morrocan chicken (even Molly gave up on the breakfast burritos on morning three!). And only "sort of good" in that we arrived at the busy commercial Port of Colón in the dark.

Transit Tip: Prepare to end your transit in the dark. We found ourselves driving through the waaaaay busy Port of Colón following confusing red blinking lights. We had mapped waypoints to take us to Shelter Bay Marina – where most sailboats stop after a northbound transit. But at the last minute we arranged to drop Joel and Christian, the lines and fenders in a commercial area of Colón and anchor off of Club Nautico. Note: Bryce was the only member of Abracadabra's crew to go ashore here - his description of Club Nautico was not inspiring: Three guys gutting fish and three other guys drinking beer. Hmmm. Pass. 

Sadly Molly utterly failed in her photographer duties that night, so we can only paint a word picture of Bryce's trip to Club Nautico. Please now close your eyes and visualize Bryce, Joel and Christian crowding into Abracadabra’s little dinghy along with four thick 125-foot lines. Tied to the sides of said dinghy are six huuuuge, round red fenders. As they putted off into the night, surrounded by big red ball renders, Bob and I decided it looked like The Circus Clown Dinghy. Ooom pah didle didle ooom pah pah!

We did get a picture of our anchorage the next morning – not exactly the fabulous Caribbean scene some might dream of.

An Industrial Dawn

Club Nautico Anchorage

But – hey, we were THERE.

The next morning, we motored through the large vessel hazardous materials anchorage and into Shelter Bay Marina following Bryce’s carefully plotted waypoints.

More on our next adventures in future posts, but first, thanks to Quicksilver for offering us the opportunity to make a:

Training Transit

We can’t recommend enough volunteering to be line handlers on another sailboat before attempting a transit in your own. We joined the UK-registered sailing vessel Quicksilver on a transit exactly a week before Abracadabra went through. It was an invaluable experience.

Easter Morning --- Heading Out of Panama City On Quicksilver

To our co-volunteer, Jack: We hope R Destiny III's transit was as easy as Abracadabra's and that you are half-way to England by now! 

To the crew of Quicksilver: Gracias for the opportunity, Mike and Hilda! Hilda provided wonderful meals and snacks which inspired Molly to up her game (though Molly only offered grocery-store cake) 

Let Them Eat Cake
(Hilda Has Some Of Her Delicious Easter Cake)

Captain Mike Going Forward To Consult Bow Line Handler, Jack

and Mike’s cheery comments of “well done”, “first class” and “top form” – he sounded just like an English Cricket Coach in a PBS period drama! -- are now a permanent part of our sailing lexicon.


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