Gatun Locks and down to the Caribbean

As we got closer to the large ship anchorage, Larry put a call into the Gatun Lock Master and was told that we would need to wait 20-30 minutes for our turn into the locks. He pointed out the large ship that we were to precede (we follow large ships on up locks, but go in front of them on the down locks). Frank wanted us to see where the small boats moor when they have to spend the night, and as we had some time to burn, we took RHAPSODY on a quick tour of the right side of Gatun Lake to check out the anchorage.

Soon Larry told us it was time to take our place in line and we motored over towards the entrance to the locks. Behind us, the huge Car Carrier loomed large as we inched our way towards the lock at minimum speed; just fast enough to keep control of the boat, what they call "steerageway". Then we entered the waiting area outside the lock and Larry directed us to an area, painted yellow, where we were to tie up for a few minutes while we waited.

Once again, it's important to remember that you cannot steer a boat that is not moving, and even the slightest breeze can cause it to "fall off" on the wind and get turned awkwardly around. So we were anxious to get to the yellow area and tie RHAPSODY off, lest we fall off and find ourselves in a boxing match with a 300,000 ton ship!

As I steered the boat towards the "yellow area", it was with some consternation that we noted that there was no one there to take our lines. The small recessed area, not really a dock, just a dent, if you will, in the side of the Canal, was about 4 feet higher than the deck of RHAPSODY and there were no cleats, just a large bollard (a cylinder) set back about 5 feet from the edge. So it was impossible for us to tie the lines on ourselves, and Frank was quick to point out that it was strictly against the rules for any of us to get off the boat. So, here I was once again, trying to control RHAPSODY in an awkward situation. She started to fall off, so I put her in reverse and used some of the 50 or so feet between me and the large ship behind me to get a little steerageway and to try to keep control.

I told Larry that he needed to get somebody on the radio and get a line handler down here to help us out. He indicated that he had done just that, and that I should proceed, once again, to the tie off area, which I did. Inching up to it as slowly as possible, there was still no worker there to take our lines. In an act of some heroism, Joe finally had enough and climbed up on RHAPSODY's lifelines and made the short leap to the wet and slippery dock. I was stunned and very unhappy, not at Joe, but at Larry and the ACP. I'm responsible for the safety of my crew and boat, and Joe could have been seriously injured had he slipped and fallen during the maneuver. However, with him on the dock, we were able to toss him the lines and tie RHAPSODY off.

I told Larry then that, in no uncertain terms, RHAPSODY was not moving until the ACP got someone down here to cast us off. In no way, shape, or form, was I going to have one of my crew cast us off, then jump down 5 feet to the deck of RHAPSODY. Larry was frustrated too, but finally, after about 5 calls on the radio, a bit of whistling and arm waving, someone finally came down to help us out.

For this set of locks, we were informed that we would be going "center lock". Instead of being tied to a tug, like before, we would string four lines out, two from the bow and two from the stern, to each side of the lock. They would be tied off and our line handlers would keep RHAPSODY centered by letting out line as the lock was evacuated of water and we went down. In order to get our four lines to the sides of the locks, ACP guys would first throw us a light line with a "monkeyfist" on it. A "monkeyfist" is a complicated knot, about the size of a baseball, that makes it easier to throw the line. Then we would attach our heavier lines to the light ones, the ACP guys would pull our lines to the side of the lock, and tie us off.

So two guys came down to cast us off the waiting area, and as they did, they attached their light lines directly to our portside heavy ones before they cast us off. Then I just had to move RHAPSODY to the center of the chamber, going forward as the portside ACP guys walked forward. When in the middle of the chamber the starboard side ACP guys tossed us their monkeyfists and Joe and Frank tied them to our starboard side heavy lines. I moved RHAPSODY forward into the lock at idle speed, as the four ACP guys walked along the sides 1000' feet to the front of the lock. There they pulled in their light lines, bring our heavier ones with them, and tied RHAPDOSY off. After that it was up to our four great linehandlers to keep RHAPSODY centered and the tension even on all for corners.

The downlock went very smoothly. The bell rang, the gates behind us closed, and then the water in the lock slowly lowered, reversing the process that had occurred in the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel Locks. There was less turbulence because the water was flowing out of the locks, rather than in, and we were in front of, instead of behind, the huge ship. As the ACP guys let out our lines, we were lowered and lowered until we had dropped 31' in the first lock. Behind us, we saw the huge ship towering over us, once again barely fitting into the width of the lock. There were no crowds watching, but we did wave to the few crew members on the ship that had come forward to watch the process.

Once the first downlock was completed, the gates in front of us opened and the ACP guys came and untied our heavy lines, and cast them off to us, still tied to their light lines and monkeyfists. Once we had our heavy lines back on deck, the whole procession moved forward another 1000 feet to the second lock, the four guys waking down a 31' stairway as we once again found ourselves level with the top of the lock. Then the whole process was repeated ... the bells rang, the gates behind us closed, and the water was let out of the lock as we lowered another 31 feet until we were sitting in a chamber looking up at the ACP guys.

In what seemed like a few short minutes, we were in our final downlock, repeating the process for the third time. This time, after the water was evacuated from the lock, the ACP guys untied their monkey fists and threw our lines back to us and we gathered them completely onto RHAPSODY. As the lock gates in front of us opened, we were looking at the Caribbean Sea!

We had made it! We had gone up 93 feet, crossed 30 or so miles, and were now lowered back to sea level again, crossing a continent, by boat, in about 9 hours. We took a few moments to snap some pictures and congratulate each other on the whole day and experience before Larry told us it was time to go. I put RHAPSODY in forward and we made our way out of the lock at about 5:30 p.m.