Westward Ho'Kele - Dispatch Five

Westward Ho'Okele: Dispatch 5

On to the Pacific

By Peter Swanson

CANAL ZONE, PANAMA, Dec. 17, 2002-Ho'Okele and her crew were prepared for the worst, and why wouldn't we be? Our passage guide by captains John and Pat Rains, introduced in a previous dispatch, described "locking through" in hellish terms. Of course, we overcompensated. Canal regulations require four line handlers with "stamina, a strong back, tall stature for leverage and callused hands," the Rains wrote. "During up-locking, the turbulence can be so great and the sudden shocks so strong that few women or small men possess the strength and stamina required to keep the lines under control while they are being hauled in. If one line slips, the hull can be thrown against the concrete walls or steel gates." Perhaps.

So when our trio of hired line-handlers-Alfonse, Angie and Don-knocked on the boat at 0700, I didn't imagine that by transit's end, I would be wishing I had only hired two. The fourth line-handler slot was to be mine, leaving our resident Associated Press photographer Jim Cole free to shoot pictures and owner Mark Heilbron at the helm. Canal regulations also require four sturdy 120-foot lines, and, like the line-handlers, these were provided by Peter Stevens of the Delfin Agency. He also brought us two great lozenge-shaped fenders to stand between us and the lock walls, which were textured like giant 40-grit. Even though the line-handlers were present, we weren't scheduled to meet our pilot until 10, so we began what would become the theme of our passage. We began to wait.

Around 9, word came by cell phone to the line handlers that we should proceed to the anchorage where Ho'Okele would be met by a pilot. As we rounded the bend, there waited Continental Drifter II, Jimmy Buffet's Cheoy Lee yacht, with which we would transit the Gatun Locks. For another hour, we ghosted around the anchorage, waiting for a pilot boat to approach. Finally it arrived. A former naval officer and tug skipper, Manuel climbed up onto the flybridge and sent us thundering toward the first lock, about a mile away. Four of us would transit the 1,000-foot Gatun locks together: Ho'Okele, Continental Drifter II, an enormous Singaporean car carrier called Maersk Wind and a Canal Authority tugboat.

The ship went in first. The other three rafted together; tug against the wall, Ho'Okele on the outside, we formed a Buffett sandwich. Despite the dire warnings, nothing bad happened. The gates would close behind us. Water flowed in, 52 million gallons. We'd rise until we could see over the gate to the harbor below. This happened three times  until we about 60 feet above sea level. A team of locomotives towed the car carrier forward using cables. At the other end we entered Gatun Lake. Nothing bad happened. The fourth line-handler-me, that is-never touched a line, and there was precious little for the hired hands to do either, as they responded to the pilot's succinct commands.

Jim and I got great photos. He got some great ones of us from the Buffett boat. Lush topography surround island-dotted Gatun Lake, but there was no time to loiter.

We had a deadline to make or ours would be a two-day transit. At 2, the pilot informed us that we would be anchoring overnight at Gamboa, about three fifths of the way to the Pacific. Gamboa is the facility for maintaining the canal's hundreds of marker buoys and lights-no shore leave. Worse, a new crewmember was waiting to come aboard at Panama City on the other side. Boston chef Charles deVarennes, hereinafter Chef Charles, was waiting in his hotel room for my call. Take a cab to Gamboa, wave at us from the shore, I said, and we'll extricate you like the Navy Seals. I was referring to our beat up old inflatable-no outboard, no oars, just two paddles. Call it a sacrificial delivery dinghy. We dropped anchor in Gamboa. Boats came to take our Panamanian friends ashore; they said they'd be back in the morning. Chef Charles arrived on a pilot boat, sparing me from having to paddle. He made his introductions and immediately started taking inventory of the stores and rearranging stuff. We had provisioned together many times before, but never with the benefit of a full-size refrigerator/freezer; Chef Charles was pleased. That night we ate curried chicken on rice with a salad, using about a quarter of our frozen boneless chicken breasts. We listened to music and sipped wine a couple hundred feet from a jungle hillside; the mosquitoes descended on us, then the bats descended on the mosquitoes.

Our line-handlers were back by 8:30 next morning and were soon napping in shady corners. We waited for the pilot. And waited and waited and waited. At noon I used the satellite phone to call the Control Office. I read the man the canal ID number assigned to Ho'Okele, and he kindly explained that because of the number of ships carrying dangerous cargo that day, we would have to wait a second night in Gamboa. Geez, I said, I'm paying these line-handlers $65 a day to sleep on my decks, plus I've got to feed them.He was sorry, he said, but my arrangements with the line handlers had nothing to do with the Panama Canal Authority. Unsaid was the fact that Ho'Okele's transit fees totaled a tiny fraction of the $47,000 average per ship. I called Peter Stevens and left a message. He called back and promised action. We waited again. The line handlers slept in the shade. At around 2:30 we saw a pilot boat move off the dock and head toward us. Alex Caballero stepped onto the deck, and soon we were once again thundering southward.

We passed through the Miraflores locks at dusk, all by ourselves. Once again we went sidewall, but it was going to be a modified sidewall, Alex said, having noted our twin screws To Mark at the helm, Alex said: "Feel comfortable. We just do not want to touch the wall. We are going to be sidewall, but I do not like to be sidewall. Since we are the only boat through, we will give to lines to the wall, but we will be center with our engines. We don't need to be tight to the wall."And so it was as the water receeded. Fenders were deployed, but Mark managed to keep the boat about 12 feet from the wall using small touches of forward and reverse on the engines, which Alex designated as either "inboard" or "outboard." Like our first pilot, he had broad maritime experience, having served as first mate on Greek freighters.

During passage from Gamboa through the Galliard Cut, Alex Caballero discussed all manner of subjects on the Ho'Okele's flybridge-politics (go USA), women (Odessa's got the best; stay away from German girls), dogs (German dogs are sweet animals) and some Canal lore. By the time we reached the other side, Alex had offered to show us Panama City by night. Our destination was the Flamenco Marina, a first-class albeit incomplete, facility on an island connected by causeway to the mainland. Once we were alongside with the boat buttoned up, we headed toward the big city, which shone on the horizon like a high rise El Dorado. What a stark contrast to Colon! We enjoyed that night-the four of us. Jim Cole was ticketed to return to frigid New Hampshire. Mark would soon follow; he was meeting his family in Colorado  before returning to Honolulu. Chef Charles and I were heading to Golfito, Costa Rica aboard Ho'Okele. That's where we'll pick up the story. 'Til next time.

-Peter Swanson



[Mirage HOME] [Mirage Trawlers] [Company Info] [Archives] [Contact] [Sport Fish Boats]