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16th February, 2017


The Flamenco anchorage is around five miles from Panama City, but the closest point we could run our tenders was into a marina full of rather expensive yachts just over a mile away. Despite a rather long low Pacific swell coming up against our pontoon the tours went off successfully. Across the water the high rises in the city seemed to stretch for miles, actually looking rather Manhattan’ish.

We needed to take fuel which required us to take the ship to the dangerous cargo anchorage and this was completed just before dinner after all tours had returned.  Bunkering took most of the night and our first Canal pilot arrived just after 5 a.m.

Dawn came as we set off at slow speed to make our ‘slot’ for the northbound convoy, allowing the early risers to see a most spectacular sunrise over the Causeway, a few small working craft silhouetted against a bright red sky. Then came the Bridge of the Americas which connects the Pan-American Highway from Alaska all the way down to the bottom of Chile.

There were several merchant cargo vessels before us so we had a grand view of them lifting in the ‘stairway’ before us, first the two Miraflores chambers and then the single Pedro Miguel, before we moved on into the Culebra Cut. These next nine miles were the most difficult section the builders of the Canal had to contend with back in the early part of the 20th century, having to carve their way through the rock and limestone of the Continental Divide.

Even now, with the new wider locks already open, there is still dredging work continuing off the maintenance base at Gamboa to ensure that even the largest of today’s vessels can pass each other safely.

The temperature rose significantly during the morning as we transited through the Gatun Lake and on towards the three steps of Gatun Lock. Here there was the marine version of a log jam as vessels started bunching up, waiting for their call to enter the upper chamber. We eventually followed a ‘Panamax’ container ship, belching out black acrid smoke every time the engine was started. ‘Panamax’ because until late last year, this size of ship was the largest that could use the waterway. From behind we could see why, there was seemingly just inches between her sides and the concrete of the chamber.

Our second pilot, one of just five Americans still working on the Canal, was a most affable competent man of 69 years, his grey hair in a pony tail under a sun bleached base ball hat. He chatted with us amiably on the bridge wing in between passing instructions to the six locomotive drivers handling the wires to which the ship was attached.

As we left the last chamber, back into salt water once again, the Canal linesmen left us. Shortly after, as we approached Colon, our American also departed with a casual wave as he boarded his boat from the pilot ladder. The Cristobal breakwater was passed over twelve hours after we had made our initial preparations, a long hot day, enjoyed by all I believe, even those of us who had to work.

Captain Philip Rentell

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.