One ocean to another.

Goodbye Atlantic.

24th December 2023

The Flats, Panama – Las Brisas De Amador, Panama via Gatun Lake, Panama

Crossing between oceans is normally a stressful affair. The Southern Ocean and the Atlantic mix around stormy Cape Horn, the Indian Ocean and Atlantic drive the Humboldt current that can create huge boat breaking seas, while the Arctic Ocean is a menace in its own right bringing nutrients up from the deep. We hoped that by going though the Panama canal there would be no stress; how wrong could we be.

After weeks of preparation we’d loaded Ruffian with fenders galore, 100’s of meters of strong thick rope, booked our transit date and arranged for some other sailors* to help us through the canal. Everything was in place for a stress free ocean crossing and all we needed was for our canal advisor to arrive on time to help us into another ocean.

As the allotted hour arrived a pilot boat sped towards Ruffian and stopped just inches from our bow allowing Ric, our advisor, to leap deftly from his boat to ours. He had timed his arrival to perfection and put us at ease joking that, like us, this too was his first transit, but under all this funny bravado was a steely confidence of someone who’d seen and done it all before.

Our stress levels rose the instant we pushed the start button to Ruffian’s trusty engine and motored towards the canal. Instead of being given power and speed our engine just provided plumes of black smoke, vibration and a worrying lack of revs. After 1000’s of hours of trusty service it was clear something was blocking air going in or out. We had no choice but to carry on as stopping would involve invoking fines, delays and starting the whole process again.

Under reduced power and revs we made our way into the first lock. Inside was a ship providing a wall of impenetrable metal and to the sides barnacle incrusted walls cut out the light. Unseen hands then threw down lines which we attached to our ropes to and we watched them disappear into the heavens. We just hoped that they would be made secure so Ruffian could rest against them before disaster struck.

Thankfully all our lines became taught, the dock gates closed behind us and then the water turned into a bubbling cauldron. Ruffian bucked and kicked as she slowly rose a long way above sea level, while Fiona stood helpless at the wheel everyone else toiled on the ropes keeping Ruffian square and safe. With views of the ocean far below us the ship started her engines, engaged gear and the boiling cauldron turned into white water and once again Ruffian was fighting in the swell.

The calm of Gatun lake was a relief after the locks but our engine was still unhappy and once tied up in the confines of the lakes, with only only howler monkeys breaking the silence, relief flowed over us. We knew however that there would be more stress in front of us as we’d only just started our journey into another ocean.

Dawn arrived at the same time as our new canal adviser and he bought bad news. He told us we had 3 hours to get to the downward locks. Even with our engine in tip top condition, a clean bottom and a following wind we’d hardly make it but in our current condition this was an unachievable deadline at our normal cruising speed. Motoring along the radio was alive with traffic as a new planned formed and was then abruptly dashed. A huge explosion at a power station had put Panama in a huge blackout and all locks were not operational.

The ships behind us stopped, those in front loitered and we simply drifted, but then sensing an opportunity to catch up we were ordered to head to the downward locks. With nothing moving we traversed the Chagres River, powered along the Gaillard cut and approached the downward locks where our arrival seemed to be a surprise to everyone.

The lock gates blocked our way and provided an impenetrable barrier that could prove to be Ruffian’s demise, and just as our stress levels reached new high, the lock gates opened, canal staff emerged from their huts to throw lines towards Ruffian. After what felt like an eternity we were once again attached to land, safe from danger, but watched with trepidation as a ship approach us from behind.

Alarms were now sounding on Ruffian as our systems warned of an impending collision and we were slowly put into the shadow the the ships bow. As the ships lines became tight and we worked to keep Ruffian square in the lock, the ships crew looked down on us, waved at us and simply disappeared. We were then descending.

There was now only a single lock between Ruffian and a new ocean and after the previous hours we felt like experienced hands; this final lock was about to prove to be our undoing.

Once again our arrival seemed like a surprise to the lock keepers, but this time we we had a huge ship just meters behind and bearing down on us. The chatter on the radio directed the ship to tie up to the trains where wire strained to slow it and we were told to circle and do our best to avoid the ship, the tugs and the turbulent water all around.

With the ship stopped and the dock staff organised, Fiona was given the task of taking Ruffian downwind in the afternoon breeze, through a gap fringed with concrete on one side and the ships bow, threatening to take out Ruffian’s mast, on the other. She’d then have to execute a handbrake turn, slow Ruffian down so we could catch newly thrown lines and motor forward at a walking pace for the lock workers. At the end of the lock our ropes would be pulled ashore and placed over bollards keeping Ruffian square and straight.

All was going to plan until, unbeknown to us, a trainee lock worker had been assigned to our stern line. As Fiona straightened Ruffian up in the lock she kept being told to slow the boat down as the new lock worker couldn’t keep up. With such slow speeds we lost all steerage and the trainee lock worker lagged behind her colleagues in getting Ruffian secured to a bollard. With our stress levels at an all time high a call was finally given and Horst fought and fought the ropes to pull Ruffian square averting disaster. Now with Ruffian secure the water started disappearing from under us we could slip out into a new ocean.

The Pacific Ocean officially starts at the ‘Bridge Over the Americas’ and as the advisor jumped onto his pilot boat and our awesome crew hopped onto a launcha to take them to shore our stress levels could start to be restored to normal. Ruffian was now on a new ocean, and we’d got here without rounding Cape Horn or battling the Humboldt current but we’d still had the stress of changing oceans.

*Massive thanks for Horst, Sven & Heinz from Lady blue. You were amazing.

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Author: Iain & Fiona Lewis

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