The scale of the locks can only be appreciated from inside them. In such a strange environment it looks normal to see small electric railway engines climb 45-degree slopes between the locks.
The story of Tintamarre and the Little Red boat
It is quite easy to say we will transit the Panama Canal, as if cruising the UK canal network. But sailing boats are not designed to go into sea-going locks and the largest ships are uncomfortable having small boats under their bows. We, however, seemed quite large compared to a little red boat called Colibri that was destined to transit the canal with us.
The little red boat was feeling sad because it saw all the sailing boats come and go from the marina in Shelter Bay and never knew where they went. But one day, a nice French girl, Chloe, said – don’t worry little red boat, I will take you through the canal. So she filled in all the paperwork and said that the little red boat could motor at 5.5 knots, had holding tanks and could go in reverse. Everyone was happy, especially the little red boat who had never been to the Pacific before so she was able to set off with her new friend Tintamarre, who looked very big and grown-up until she passed a cargo ship.
Setting off the little red boat, looked just a little crowded with 6 line handlers and the Canal advisor. She was loaded with 4, 30-metre lines required to secure the boat and 8 tyres acting as giant fenders.
Four hours after setting off for the 5 miles to the locks, and in the rapidly descending darkness, we were still going round in circles with the little red boat tied to our side. The big ships were finally shuffled forwards providing enough space for us to tuck in behind them and in front of the lock gates.
And then it rained tropical rain for the entire passage up to the Gatan lake where we moored overnight with us tied to a large and somewhat surreal blow-up mooring ball. The happy little red boat tied to us and the two boats spent the night chattering away as they rolled in the wash of passing tug boats.
The next morning we were given a late start for our transit of the canal to the Pacific locks so we had to make good speed to make the appointed time in the locks. Fine for us, but for the little red boat that had never motored 26 miles in her life and certainly not at 5.5 knots, something had to change as they fell behind us and behind schedule for the descent to the Pacific. One might say the little red boat cried and cried because she thought she would be left behind on the lake, never to be seen again.
Both ourselves and the little red boat were lucky to have trainee pilots on board and not the pleasant but less skilled advisors we had been told to expect. Trainee rather understates their skills as they were both full Ships Masters, ours had been the executive captain (second only to the full captain) on a cruise ship before starting his training. These trainees would soon be guiding LPG carriers, car carriers, and huge container ships through the locks taking full responsibility for the ship.
Our advisors, either to have some fun or to practice new maneuvers, arranged for us to go down to the Pacific with a commercial catamaran.
This boat would attach to the walls of the lock and let down on ropes closely attached to the dock wall. We would dock with it as if it were a floating pontoon. Simple as this sounds, they always had to go first – but they couldn’t move until we had undocked from them. To do this we had to go backwards. Except when we practiced outside the lock we found the little red boat didn’t really know how to go backwards, certainly not against the mysterious currents in the locks. So we were given the task of reversing as a raft and one case where we had to change sides, ejecting the little red boat into the current only to catch her again as she was carried past us in rapid currents that flow through and around the locks.
On one occasion we were forced to go under the bow of the ship behind us, our mast just missing the overhanging bow while the catamaran released itself from the side wall.
Some 24 hours after entering the canal we dropped out into the Pacific, at the top of a 5 metre tide as darkness fell, this time the little red boat leading the way out.
As we ran the last few miles a large canal authority boat ran alongside us and the advisor, arm held outstretched and gripped by the crew on the canal-authority boat leaped across the void. The little red boat and Tintamarre said goodbye to their line handlers, advisors, the lines and each other at the World Famous Balboa Yacht Club ready to start their next adventures, hoping to meet again somewhere in the Pacific.
..and the little Red Boat is really an historic racing boat built in Brittany, probably somewhat better than most modern yachts.`