Villa Veritas Transits the Panama Canal

We spent the day before the passage cleaning and prepping food, because feeding seven people while also driving the boat is a lot of work. Seven people? We already had two line handlers lined up, when another one offered to come and asked to bring a friend along for the ride. That gave us one more hand than the usual driver + four line handlers + canal advisor, but we were excited to have more young people on board so we accepted the offer. So in the end, we had Rich, full-time trimaran cruiser on his first pass through the canal; Katie, full time sailor and dog trainer, on her second transit, and her friend Alysha, a zookeeper visiting from the US; and Gutty, our professional line handler, former pro soccer player and now university student. Jazz was thrilled to have two other animal-loving millennial women on board, for one of the most gender-balanced crews she’s experienced to date.

Everything was mostly on schedule the morning of the crossing, and Andrew was dressed to scrub the boat bottom and just making cursory checks of the engine when he found this on the alternator. See the black wire in the center? The post it’s attached to has snapped off. This is the same post that snapped off in Bonaire and set off a chain of failed repairs, so we were pretty bummed out.

Our first thought was that we wouldn’t have as much power during the trip, so no microwaving. However, on further inspection, it turned out to be worse than that: the reason that that post had snapped off was that the bracket arm that holds the alternator under tension had come loose, because the bolt holding it on had sheared. This allowed the alternator to vibrate independent of the rest of the engine, in effect suddenly making that post load-bearing. So that’s not ideal. At this point we had to make a go/no-go call: would the engine get us through the trip, with the belt that also runs the cooling pump missing a major support? We poked at it a bit, and decided that yes, there would still be enough tension to get us through the canal. Probably. So we were in slightly lower spirits than we’d hoped, and the boat wasn’t as clean, when we took our crew on board around three. Our rain shields were still covered with yard dust to the point of being practically opaque, but at least we had plenty of food.

Our advisor arrived around five (we were initially told four, then six), and we started to motor towards the locks. So far so good. And then we got word that we would need to slow down, because the boat ahead of us was turning around. We caught “abejas” over the radio, and asked the advisor, bees? It was indeed bees. This container ship had found an infestation of African bees (popularly known as killer bees) on board, and would have to head back into deep water to deal with it and avoid contaminating the mainland. Meanwhile, our big boat would have to go through the locks later than planned, so we put Villa in neutral and let the wind push us the last few miles into the locks. And they’d told us we wouldn’t be allowed to sail in the canal!

As we got closer to the locks, the wind picked up, and we had to sit and wait. So we pointed Villa into the wind and tried our best to stay in one place, while the advisor suggested various unworkable strategies for doing so. Our agent had told us early on that it’s important to remember that the advisor is not a pilot and is not in charge of your boat, a lesson that our practice run on Blue Beryl reinforced. We were able to kill the necessary time, and then nested to the two other boats that would be crossing with us. And then we entered the locks, and the doors closed on our time in the Atlantic.

Andrew was on the wheel, and Jazz took the front line, with our professional line-hander on the stern. We had planned it this way because Jazz’s night vision is compromised by her astigmatism, so she would be on the wheel in daylight. It turned out that we probably should have switched, because Jazz’s smaller frame doesn’t have the muscle to pull three boats towards the wall. She got some help from the surprisingly jacked canal advisor. (Captain was no help at all, though he did voluntarily come up on deck to see what the fuss was about.)

So we made it through the locks, the wind moving the boats around a bit but essentially without incident, and that’s about when the GoPro battery died. Which is unfortunate, because as the first boat was de-nesting, opposite us, they tried to pull forward before they had enough distance side to side. As they tried to turn left, their stern went right, and then they panicked, corrected the other way, and crashed their starboard aft into the bow of the center boat. The impact bent the pulpits on the center boat, and the anchor grabbed the outside boat’s lifelines and fuel board, ripping both off. So Villa de-nested very carefully, and we all motored the fifteen minutes to our giant mooring balls. And there, the canal advisors put the two boats that had just crashed onto the same mooring! So we imagine that was a pretty tense evening that they all had. We arrived in the dark, late due to the bee incident, and left in a hurry, so we don’t have a picture from this time. But this was essentially the situation; just picture two 50-ish foot monohulls with cranky crews instead of these happy cats. These pictures borrowed from our practice run, where we had lots of time in the morning.

The morning started abruptly, as the canal advisor arrived just after six when everyone but Andrew was still asleep; we were expecting him around eight. We got untied and under way immediately, and then our hired line handler, who had gotten woken up repeatedly by rain but hadn’t felt comfortable closing the window, went back to bed. That’s fine; we didn’t need anyone really, except that he was sleeping in the salon, which made breakfast and morning hangout space more complicated, until we moved him into one of the other rooms around noon. Otherwise it was a nice comfortable motor through the lake and canal, just as before.

Except that, when we were maybe two hours from the locks, Villa’s engine temp alarm went off. We figured that the belt we’d been worried about had finally snapped, so we slowed to idle, crept up to a buoy, and tied off so we could turn off the engine to fix it. Technically tying up here is illegal, as is anchoring, not that it would have been reasonable to anchor in 50 feet of water anyway, but needs must. It turned out that the belt had not snapped, but only jumped off its pulleys, so we were able to put it right back on. We tried to wedge the alternator-shaped pulley into tension with some wood, but didn’t have a piece quite the right size, so we settled for tightening everything as best we could and starting back up. This whole operation made the canal advisor nervous, but we didn’t get fined for the ten-minute delay, and (spoiler) the engine held up fine for the rest of the trip. Though getting it all sorted out would delay us for a couple of weeks on the other end. Here’s Villa tying up to the channel marker.

So we continued through the end of the canal, now in engine-room-appropriate clothes. Jazz managed to change and climb into the compartment with the hot engine and lose nothing more than a little arm hair, while Andrew’s non-gloved hands came away with a new hose-collar bite.

We came to the locks, where nesting was a nearly-avoided debacle: When we’d approached the center boat and gotten our bow and stern lines attached, the guys at the bow decided to detach them again for reasons unknown, and we had to recover ungracefully. No damage except to our pride, as it made us look sloppy, but in reality it was a too-many-cooks situation where several people were giving contradictory orders. Alysha, our least utilized crew member to that point, may have saved the day with a well-placed fender interdiction.

The big boat came into the locks behind us, and wow was it a narrow fit.

The advisors had changed the game plan this time, and Villa just got a stern line while the center boat managed the starboard bow. That left us with very little to do except steer (Jazz) and make lunch (Andrew) and take pictures, which was fine with us.

For the last lock, they brought the big boat much closer, which was a little more exciting.

And then the water dropped out, and the last doors opened, and we were in the Pacific!

Here’s a timelapse of the whole thing.

We had been in the Pacific for about ten minutes when a big cloud rolled in and rained on us. We had gotten used to short quick rains in Shelter Bay, so we didn’t bother to put up our windshields. (Also, they were still almost unusably dirty because we’d used the time we’d allotted for cleaning to mess with the engine.) So Jazz got a little bit soaked at the helm as she steered around the floating garbage piles, and our victory toast was a little less bubbly than we’d hoped.

Meanwhile Captain was still having a rough time of it. Picky eater that he is, he had been getting dehydrated from unwillingness to eat the wet food on offer, and had ended up constipated. We had found some food he was willing to eat, and dosed it with some Miralax, but that hadn’t kicked in yet, and between that and the crowds, he was pretty salty for most of the second day. Which is a shame, because our animal-loving crew only got to see him in sulk mode.

We dropped off the advisor and line handlers, just a few minutes out of the locks. And then of course, the moment we dropped anchor, Captain also made a drop-off, and was suddenly back to his playful self. Whereas we were emotionally exhausted. So we ordered some new Yanmar parts and settled in to wait, and to enjoy what would prove to be our view for the next several weeks. Then Waterhorse came out of the marina, and did a victory lap around our boat while yelling about beers. They dropped anchor next to us, covered in fresh provisions and ready to leave in the morning. So we changed back out of our PJs, dropped our dinghy, and headed over to their boat to swap stories and share a goodbye drink.

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