Miraflores Locks

After about 20 minutes, Larry indicated I should slow down as the ship in front of us began to enter the first of the two Miraflores Locks. We watched with interest as a small rowboat came out and passed the ship the "monkeyfists" and retrieval lines, to which were attached the much stronger and heavier steel cables that the ship would use to stay steady in the locks. The cables were, in turn, passed up to four electric locomotives whose main job was to keep the huge ship straight in the locks so that the concrete sides of the locks were not damaged. The ships move under their own power in the locks and the locomotives are there just to keep them aligned. There was only about 2' of space on each side of the huge ship, which had clearly been designed to maximize the loads that could be carried through the present-day-capacity Canal.

After the ship was in the 1st lock, one of the tugs peeled off and returned to sea, while the other tug tied up to the right side of the lock chamber, just a few yards behind the big ship. Then it was our turn to enter the lock as Larry instructed me to pull up next to the tug. We would tie to the tug for the up-lock, and so when we got next to it, we tossed two of our lines across to the crew waiting on the tug who secured RHAPSODY fore and aft. Another "spring" line was set midships between the two boats as well.

Because this was a new model of tugboat, Frank was surprised by the fact that the tug's rub rail, a huge, hard rubber rail about 12" in diameter, was above the deck of RHAPSODY. This meant that as we winched down the lines to tie the two boats together, the rub rail started bending the lifeline stanchions on RHAPSODY. So we quickly slacked the lines, went to the port side of the boat, and retrieved a few more tires, stacking them over the ones already on RHAPSODY's starboard side, to provide more protection. In addition, Frank and Ed both held bumpers at a strategic height to keep the tug away as we tightened the lines between the boats. It was important that RHAPSODY not move relative to the tug when the turbulent waters of the lock entered, else she might bang around and get damaged.

Soon everything was in place and Larry radioed the lock master that they could proceed with the lockage. At this point the walls all around us were about 35 feet high as we sat in the bottom of the lock. A bell rang, a red flashing warning light came on, and the gates behind us began to slowly close. After 2-3 minutes, the gates were completely closed and another bell rang as they began filling the lock with water, raising RHAPSODY, the tug, and the huge ship up the 31' feet to the top of the lock.

It took about 15 minutes for the lock to fill, during which time RHAPSODY was mildly buffeted by the waters filling the lock from the bottom. There's also turbulence created as the salt water from the ocean mixes with the fresh water being let into the locks from Miraflores Lake, above and in front of us. Once the locks were full, where we used to be in a 35' deep cavern, we were now floating on top of the water just about even with the top of the lock. Also by now, the rain had pretty much stopped falling, and although cloudy, the air was clear and the visibility was good.

While we were still tied up, the large ship in front of us put their propeller in gear and began moving forward to the 2nd lock. It was quite something to see the water churning only 20-30 feet in front of RHAPSODY as the huge propeller began to bite in and the ship started moving. After it had moved about 300 yards forward into the 2nd lock, it was our turn to untie from the tug and get out of the way. The lines between us and the tug were cast off and I put RHAPSODY in reverse and turned away from the boat, backing up into the 30-40 feet of room available behind the tug. RHAPSODY handled kind of funny, and then the tug, with its own powerful motors, started forward, creating some more turbulence in the lock, but I managed to keep RHAPSODY, which was essentially not moving, and therefore really uncontrolled, pointing forward.

After the tug had a chance to go forward into the 2nd lock and tie off, Larry told me to motor RHAPSODY into the 2nd lock, which I did. As we made our way into the 2nd lock, Frank took time to instruct our crew to make more permanent the extra tires and bumpers on the starboard side. Then we eased up next to the tug and tied off again, essentially repeating the process we had gone through in the first lock. At Frank's suggestion we offered Cokes to all the crew members of the tug who had helped us and they were graciously accepted.

Sideways in the Miraflores Locks!
Click on the image below to see a short, 1.2 MB Movie (WMV)
of our transit through the 2nd Miraflores Lock

Image courtesy of D.Briese
Movie courtesy of M.Johnston

Once again, the bell rang, the light flashed, and the gates behind us closed. Then the 2nd lock was filled with water, bringing us up to the level of Miraflores Lake, some 60 feet above sea level. This is the lock that is captured by the web cams, and so everybody took a moment to wave to the cameras, clearly visible on a tower above and behind the lock. Also this is where the spectators really got a good view of RHAPSODY. There were about 100-150 people lined up on the viewing platform 100 feet away and about 3 stories up. We waved to the spectators and some of them waved back. It was neat to think that we were captured for posterity's sake, on their vacation photos, as we could see flashbulbs going off and knew that dozens of pictures were being taken of us.

Soon we were at the top of the 2nd lock, and the large ship in front of us once again churned up the waters with their propeller as they left the Miraflores Locks and headed out onto Miraflores Lake. Then, as before, we cast off the lines to the tug, but as I was attempting to back RHAPSODY away from the tug, things got a little crazy. The turbulence, combined with my excitement and our lack of motion made RHAPSODY very hard to control. I turned the wheel hard one way and the other with seemingly little effect, as she began to drift sideways in the lock. Everyone started shouting at once as her bow fell off and we were almost perpendicular to the tug. The tugboat pilot, seeing the dilemma, put the tug into gear and throttled up, moving forward at the same time. Then there was a bit of a "thump" from the bow as RHAPSODY touched the fleeing tug. I put her in reverse, cranked the wheel hard to the right, then as the tug cleared, put her into forward, gave her a burst of throttle, and turned hard left, as, fortunately this time, she responded to the helm and we were, once again, pointed forward.

It had been a tense few moments, but everything seemed to be ok, and so we were relieved as we left the Miraflores Locks and headed out onto Miraflores Lake, now 62 feet or so above sea level. Note that you can see a movie created from still images captured from the webcam of our passage thru the 2nd Miraflores lock by clicking on the image above.