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March 18, 2013

Doin’ the Ditch

“Yikes, he’s bearing down on us!” Needless to say, you’d need more than a retractable boat hook to fend off a fully laden Panamax ship.

© Rodney King

As you may have heard, the shipping capacity of the Panama Canal will more than double two years from now when a brand new series of gigantic locks is completed alongside the original sets, which will celebrate 100 years of operation in 2014. The ambitious construction effort is, of course, being carried out to accommodate larger cargo vessels. Sailboats will probably always be relegated to the original locks, along with smaller (Panamax) vessels.

Having completed such a transit last week, Rodney King shared some first-hand insights: "Richard Owens and I flew down to Panama City from Miami on March 5 to meet Meredith (his Sausalito-based Norseman 535), which Captain Mike and mate Kevin had sailed down from San Francisco. Panama City is on the Pacific coast and we were going to take her through the canal to the Atlantic side.

"We waited four days for our entry, then on March 9, with our required used tires tied to the sides of the boat to protect us from bumps, we got our pilot and two extra line-handlers aboard and set off. The canal is about 50 miles long and runs north-to-south, with a set of locks at each end. Each set of three locks lifts you about 85 feet up. You then motor 50 miles, and the other set drops you down 85 feet.

Construction of the Panama Canal was one of the engineering marvels of the 20th century. But wait until you see design for the new high-tech, eco-conscious locks.

Panama Canal Authority
© Latitude 38 Media, LLC

"We were rafted up to a Catalina 38, also from California, and we went through the locks together. It is a really amazing experience to see the water gush upward from the bottom into the 1,000-ft-long lock and lift us up. The canal is really an engineering masterpiece. When you enter a lock the water is 40 feet deep, and then you are raised another 40 feet. Each single lock is like a 1,000-ft-long bathtub that’s 100 feet deep!

"After the first set, we separated from the Catalina and motored all day to a mooring in Lake Gatun, where we spent the night, as it was too late to complete the transit in one day. It was a beautiful evening, no mosquitoes, nice temperature, and we didn’t need the air conditioning. Our pilot left us there, and the next day we got a new pilot to take us through the last lock set. (A pilot is required to transit the Canal.) At the last lockset a huge bulker followed us into the lock, giving us some dramatic moments as we hoped it stopped before squashing us!

With the gates closed behind her, Meredith now will be carefully lowered, as the water slowly leaves the lock chamber.

© 2013 Rodney King

"We then went to Shelter Bay Marina on Limon Bay, a really nice marina with a bar and restaurant, and even a swimming pool and hot tub! You can meet cruisers there from all around the world."

Richard and Rodney are back home now, while the crew travels upwind to Cartegena. Richard plans to rejoin the boat there and sail her up to Fort Lauderdale. Meanwhile many more boats are heading west (south through the Canal) than east these days, as this is the prime season for sailing from the west coast of the Americas to French Polynesia — the 3,000-mile crossing we call the Pacific Puddle Jump. Stay tuned for more on the PPJ and the new Canal’s construction in upcoming editions of ‘Lectronic Latitude.

When they say Pana’max’ they mean it. Back in 1914 when the Canal was opened, no one imagined that ships would ever get this big. The maximum size currently allowed is 965 feet long by 107 feet wide. The new locks will accommodate much larger vessels, yet not the world’s largest classes of ships.

© 2013 Rodney King

How Can You Tell When a Yacht Is Big?

There are many more large yachts in the Caribbean than on the West Coast of the United States. For instance, 150-footers seem as common in the Caribbean as 70-footers are on the West Coast. Many are from the United States, but others are from Europe.

So how do you tell a really big sailing yacht from just a big one in these parts of the world? Our index is the communications dome. If the captain can’t find the stew and the engineer because they’re having sex inside the dome, she’s a big yacht.

We’re not suggesting that any such thing has ever happened aboard the 145-ft by 55-ft sailing cat Hemisphere, but judging from the size of the guy fiddling with the sail and the size of the com dome to the right of him, the stew and the engineer could easily fit in there. Heck, for all we know the chef could join them for a Caribbean threesome. 

Youth AC Volunteer Needed

You just never know when an Red Bull Youth AC boat is going to charge across the Bay, as one did this weekend during practice.

© Latitude 38 Media, LLC

Want to have a front row seat for the Red Bull Youth America’s Cup in September? There’s no better way than by volunteering to help out the host city’s own team, the American Youth Sailing Force. Vince Casalaina, media manager for the team, is looking for a volunteer office manager. If you have some spare time, and office manager experience, contact Vince by email


Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad

La Gamelle crosses the finish line at the end of the second circumnavigation.

La Gamelle
© Latitude 38 Media, LLC

A couple of years ago we came up with the idea of buying an Olson 30 and bringing her to St. Barth in the French West Indies, where she would live out her days as a daysailer in tribute to designer/builder George Olson and all the ultralight folks from Santa Cruz; to Gamelle, the deceased Bartian dog described as a "well-hung Gustavian low-rider"; and the gone-but-not-forgotten bar at La Gamelle restaurant, as iconic a piece of the real St. Barth as we’ll ever know.

Many readers will remember our accounts of purchasing La Gamelle in Richmond and using her to Zen sail — no engine — the Bay out of Alameda; having her trucked to Florida; having her shipped to Martinique; and then doublehanding her with Doña de Mallorca for 250 wild miles to St. Barth. It was immensely satisfying for us to get Olson hull #66 to St. Barth, and we had some wonderful sails with her. But a problem with her roller furling (we’re still trying to get that sorted out) prevented us from reaching the summit of contentment, which was to singlehand the boat around St. Barth — a distance of about 15 miles — 10 times during the season. We had sailed big Profligate around the island 10 times in 2005, and were looking for symmetry with the smaller monohull.

A week ago we addressed this issue by making three attempts at singlehanded circumnavigations in five days. The first was a normal counterclockwise trip around the island. The conditions were excellent. The wind never blew more than 12 knots, so the full main and #4 headsail combination was ideal. While the seas were huge out of both the east and the north — some say the biggest non-hurricane swell in 10 years — the period between them was about 15 seconds, meaning they were gentle giants. As the windward coast of St. Barth is an endless deadly combination of jagged rocks, coral and steep cliffs, and we were sailing a boat without an engine, keeping in deep water was paramount. Although our first circumnavigation was a relatively easy one, it gave us a sense of quiet satisfaction. Although we could kick ourselves for not recording our time.

Our second circumnavigation was a little more dramatic, for de Mallorca loudly admonished us not to go as she’d made cocktail and dinner plans with friends at 7 p.m. "It’s already 3:15," she hollered, "you’ll never make it back in time." Socializing with friends is great fun in St. Barth, but it was never the reason we’d come to the island, so we set sail anyway. Besides, we had a greater reason to get back before dark: the running lights were not exactly hooked up. As we left Gustavia, a voice shouted out that we were looking good and had a "hot-looking little boat." As it was Tom Perry, captain of the Dubois 145 Artemis, we set out with a good feeling.

There was an unusual amount of north in the easterly trades, which meant that it was likely we could have a short windward leg to Columbie, then reach rather than beat to the dreaded Grenadiers, as nasty a group of offshore rocks and we’ve ever seen. This would result in a relatively quick and easy trip around the island. We made Columbie with dispatch, at which point we faced the chop and slop of the open ocean. And the seas were huge once again, with lots of backwash from St. Barth itself and the numerous offshore islands. Once again, there was a blessed long period between the moving mountains that crashed onto the craggy shore with spray shooting 50 to 75 feet in the air. The conditions made the buoyant Olson seem smaller than her 30 feet.

It may not look like it, but taking the Grenadiers to weather was the safest option.

© Latitude 38 Media, LLC

But luck was with us and, thanks to the north in the wind, we were able to lay the wicked Grenadiers. From a distance, we could see nothing but open sea. But suddenly there would be an skyward eruption of white as a huge wave crashed into the soldiers. Being washed over the Grenadiers would not be survivable.

The gap between the Grenadiers and La Torture can be seen at the very top of the photo. Since we were sailing a boat without an engine in very large seas, we decided not to ‘shoot’ the Grenadiers.

©2013 Latitude 38 Media, LLC

There is a channel a couple hundred feet wide between the Grenadiers and La Torture, and the night before some sailors had told us they’d ‘shot the Grenadiers’ in the past. As the three-hour small boat circumnavigation record held by our friend Pompidou was in the back of our mind, we thought about doing a little shooting of our own. Then we recalled the fates of Low Speed Chase and Uncontrollable Urge in similar conditions; the fact that we had no engine in case the rudder broke or the mast tumbled; and our promise to our kids to "not do any more crazy stuff." So we took the Grenadiers to windward, which actually was the safest thing to do. While rounding them wasn’t a problem, we did breathe a deep sigh of relief once we’d left that cauldron behind.

After rounding Pt. Toiny in huge seas — which was bringing endless pleasure to the surfers — we negotiated the lee of the island in the setting sun. After some flukey conditions, we beat into Gustavia anchorage, where we got a "Looking good!" from Jim and Debbie Gregory on the Pt. Richmond-based Schumacher 50 Morpheus. Minutes later, we crossed the ‘finish line’ seven minutes shy of three hours, with a Zen-like sense of peaceful satisfaction. Even de Mallorca seemed happy to see us, as we wouldn’t be late to her social obligations.

A few days later we set out in very light winds in search of a second counterclockwise circumnavigation. We didn’t even make to Isla Coco, a fifth of the way. The winds were too light and the current too strong. But as we were Zen sailing, we felt no sense of disappointment. Besides, as Meatloaf once sang, "Two out of three ain’t bad." And we still have quite a bit of time in which to complete eight more times around.

Setting arbitrary sailing goals, no matter how humble they might be, and going after them. It’s something we highly recommend.

Hop aboard one of the Bay Area’s many crewed charter boats and leave the pre-sail prep and post-sail cleanup to the professional crew.