On Watch

Cruising World - - Contents - Cap’n Fatty and Carolyn are wrap­ping up three months in French Poly­ne­sia and set­ting sail for Tonga.

It’s not easy find­ing four line han­dlers smart enough to catch a rope and dumb enough to get in­volved with a Panama Canal tran­sit aboard Ganesh, our hard-used 43-foot ketch. Here’s the truth of it: The only com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor among my friends is that they lack judg­ment. Thus, I coaxed aboard Hand­some Henry, of Lon­don; the no­to­ri­ous Sailor Sandy Lord, of Ver­mont; and Greg and Liz Ann Mul­vany, of Lag­niappe, a Pa­cific Seacraft 37 from New Or­leans.

This wasn’t our first tran­sit. My wife, Carolyn, and I have used Nep­tune’s Stairs so of­ten the Panama Canal Au­thor­ity gives us fre­quent-flyer miles. And our last tran­sit had been a piece of cake. We’d cen­ter-locked through, with two other ves­sels rafted along­side as po­ten­tial fend­ers. No prob­lem; their crews did all the line­han­dling while I gave Carolyn a pedi­cure.

Still, a Panama Canal tran­sit re­quires four phys­i­cally able on­board line han­dlers re­gard­less of the ease of pas­sage, so Carolyn and I had no choice but to beat the bushes for the un­wary.

Once we had our pickup crew aboard, we moved into place on the Flats to await our ad­viser pi­lot — on April Fools’ Day no less, which seemed wholly ap­pro­pri­ate.

Here is a lit­tle-known fact: The poorly paid hands work­ing on the lock walls in the canal don’t have iphones, Sony Playsta­tions or Mi­crosoft Xboxes. Thus, they are en­ter­tain­ment de­prived, so they spend a lot of time on tar­get prac­tice with their en­cased-steel mon­key fists (out­lawed in most places), and are said to be able to hit the eye of a fly in mid­flight.

The guys on the wall can be dan­ger­ous, in other words. Be­fore en­ter­ing the canal, Carolyn had cov­ered ev­ery so­lar cell and break­able ob­ject on the deck of Ganesh with mat­tresses held down with duct tape, or cock­pit cush­ions tied off with string. I would have gladly worn a foot­ball hel­met had I had one aboard.

Our first pi­lot was Roy, a care­ful man in­tent on do­ing a good job. “My tran­som backs to port,” I told him, just to let him know I un­der­stood prop wash and other es­o­teric nau­ti­cal ten­den­cies.

“No prob­lemo,” he said. “Tran­quillo!”

There was a prob­lemo, how­ever. A de­crepit tug boat by the name of Tito One kept get­ting too close to us as we were await­ing our first lock. The tug was cov­ered in rust, flak­ing paint and thick grease, and car­ried a bat­tle-scarred crew to match.

There is a swift cur­rent as you en­ter the three-stage Gatun as­cend­ing locks, but it is on your bow and thus can be used as a brake. I felt in per­fect con­trol as I ma­neu­vered to be cen­ter-tied be­tween two other boats.

“No,” said our ad­viser Roy. “We side-tie to the tug.”

My cake­walk tran­sit sud­denly turned into a grease-smeared, tire-marked night­mare. The prob­lem wasn’t merely that I didn’t want

When things go side­ways, there is only one per­son to blame on a boat, and that is its skip­per. BY CAP’N FATTY GOODLANDER

my ves­sel to touch the filthy Tito One.a com­mer­cial tug has its own agenda. When it needed to go to as­sist the ship lock­ing through, it went. I’d best be able to grap­ple or un­tie in an in­stant if I didn’t want to be dam­aged.

“Do not worry,” said Roy. “We’ll be port­side to, so your tran­som will tuck in easy.”

By chance, it was Hand­some Henry stand­ing by on my aft port cleat. Once Sailor Sandy re­al­ized she’d have noth­ing to do on star­board, she rightly went to gen­tly as­sist ner­vous Henry.

Since I had the strong lock cur­rent to use as a brake, I was able to ap­proach the tug, kick my stern in by tap­ping re­verse and hold Ganesh sta­tion­ary along­side, which was a good thing be­cause there was no one to take our lines. Fi­nally, a crew­man wan­dered over and Hand­some Henry handed him his stern line. Then we cheered. “Good job, Henry!” I said.

“It was eas­ier than I ex­pected,” he replied, grin­ning.

Alas, the deck­hand who took our stern line dis­ap­peared with­out tak­ing our bow line or springs, so I had to hold Ganesh in place with my en­gine un­til our pi­lot, Roy, cor­ralled an­other crewmem­ber to as­sist.

“No prob­lemo with a side-tie,” said Roy with a smile, and who cer­tainly would not be around when Carolyn and I buffed out our once-white top­sides.

Sud­denly, the wa­ter ex­ploded all around us as millions of gal­lons rushed into Gatun lock at the same in­stant. Pic­ture a toy boat buf­feted in a strong Jacuzzi.

We in­stantly be­gan to surge on our lines, but didn’t have to tend them for the rapid rise of wa­ter level be­cause that was the job for the crew on the tug. Only they weren’t do­ing it. They’d all dis­ap­peared into the en­gine room on break.

I had a mo­ment of panic. The stern of the tug pulled away from the wall and then swung wider. Both ves­sels surged back hard. Now the tug was 90 de­grees to the wall, loudly smash­ing its rusty bow plates into the con­crete. Just a few more me­ters of slack in the lines as we rose, and

Ganesh’s bow would be ground off. We all started scream­ing in uni­son. A sheep­ish crewmem­ber am­bled on deck, cig­a­rette dan­gling from his mouth, and be­grudg­ingly took in enough scope to pre­vent our be­ing crushed.

It had been close, and I’d felt pow­er­less. I was now on full alert, amazed to have been so near to dis­as­ter. Ganesh is every­thing we own, and she is unin­sured. It would not take much of an ac­ci­dent to force us to abort our cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion.

That evening, we moored in placid Lake Gatun, right around where a pen­ni­less Paul Gau­guin (the French painter, pre-fame) shov­eled dirt as his Span­ish friends died of malaria.

Our pi­lot on the fol­low­ing day was Ivan. He was a big man on his way to fat, fas­tid­i­ously dressed and fond of his iphone. Frankly, I was not im­pressed.

On the way into the fi­nal se­ries of three locks (there are a to­tal of six), I told him what I’d told Roy: “My tran­som walks to port in re­verse.” He showed no signs he un­der­stood.

Ganesh has a full keel. I can­not back her straight un­der most con­di­tions. This makes close-quar­ters work stress­ful.

Once in the lock on the down­hill de­scend­ing side (Pa­cific) of Lake Gatun, I re­al­ized the cur­rent was be­hind us now, and stronger. I got a bad feel­ing in the pit of my stom­ach. We were go­ing too fast to­ward the south lock gates even though I was in neu­tral. I tapped Ganesh into re­verse, but she started to slew. I jammed her back into neu­tral to re­align, but we had too much for­ward mo­men­tum.

To con­found things, we would be tied star­board-to this time.

This was go­ing to be tricky. I had planned on hav­ing the ex­pe­ri­enced Sailor Sandy make the line toss to the other ves­sel, but at the last minute, Ivan had told me to put my strong­est man to star­board, aft. I would have pre­ferred not to, but did not want to ig­nore my ad­viser. Plus, I was strug­gling with the cur­rent. So I asked Sandy to change places with Hand­some Henry. It was a mis­take on my part.

Henry thought he could hand the line over as be­fore, but as I gunned it in re­verse to slow, thanks to the prop walk, he got far­ther and far­ther away from Tito One. Ev­ery­one started yelling at poor Henry, es­pe­cially the im­pa­tient guy on the tug.

I got a bad feel­ing in the

pit of my stom­ach. We

were go­ing too fast to­ward

the south lock gates even

though I was in neu­tral.

Henry sort of pushed and shoved the coil of line away from him­self and it plopped into the wa­ter right next to prop.

I am, per­haps, not the best skip­per in the world, but I have spent a life­time at­tempt­ing not to make bad mat­ters worse dur­ing an emer­gency.

“Sandy, help him keep it clear of my prop, OK?” I said as calmly as I could. And then, I did noth­ing. This was very hard to do be­cause we were still mov­ing for­ward and Greg al­ready had his bow line cleated off.

I did not shout. I did not make the new­bie mis­take of leav­ing my helm to help.

Sandy and Henry were asses and el­bows as they des­per­ately at­tempted to get the heavy hawser back aboard.

“Clear,” said Sandy, as I jammed Ganesh into full re­verse, but a tad late as the bow line took up and my tran­som fully swung out.

“Slack, Greg,” I shouted for­ward and saw he un­der­stood what was needed. Greg was, all jok­ing aside, magic on the fore­deck. He eased. We were now side­ways to the strong cur­rent in the lock, and I was just about to have my $4,000 Mon­i­tor wind­vane wiped off my tran­som by the east wall. I gave my Perkins M92B full power for­ward. The lock wall missed my Mon­i­tor by inches. But now my bow was lung­ing for the op­po­site side of the lock. It was clear to me that I was not go­ing to have enough room to round up into the cur­rent be­fore smash­ing hard into the gate. All I could do was buy time.

And I bought some, even though I was doomed.

Ivan, our ad­viser, sud­denly came alive. He dashed for­ward and snatched the bow line from Greg. Then he yelled in Span­ish for the tug crew to run it aft. Ivan moved as grace­fully as a ro­tund bal­le­rina as he trot­ted the heavy hawser aft at the same time. I sud­denly re­al­ized he was more than an iphone adorer, he was a sailor’s sailor who could think on his nim­ble feet.

Once Ivan had the long hawser aft on both Ganesh and the tug, he snubbed it off, and my bow straight­ened just be­fore it rammed the lock door. Once straight, I was able to re­verse with good ef­fect, with Big Ivan grunt­ing in the en­su­ing slack.

“You saved her,” I said to him in both ad­mi­ra­tion and ap­pre­ci­a­tion.

“Only be­cause you kept her off the wall long enough,” he replied.

We smiled at each other. I tipped my hat (well, my head scarf) to him.

“Well that de­serves an­other Coke-with­ice for Ivan,” said Carolyn, and ev­ery­one laughed. “Did I screw up?” asked Henry. “Not at all,” I said. “The com­edy of er­rors was en­tirely mine. Thank heav­ens for the fleet-footed Ivan.”

When things go side­ways, there is only one per­son to blame on a boat, and that is its skip­per.

We all gave Ivan three loud and hearty cheers as the lock gates opened and we were spit into the Pa­cific. Well, al­most. As Ivan was taken off by a crew boat, I told my mates, “There is only one more chal­lenge: We’re go­ing to re­fuel in Bal­boa.”

This was not easy, be­cause a crowd of land sharks de­scended upon us at the fuel dock, de­mand­ing all man­ner of imag­i­na­tive fees, charges and mys­ti­cal pay­ments. At one point, a dock hus­tler phys­i­cally grabbed Greg, and I had to wade into the crowd of greed-heads to mel­low things out.

“Fatty, I am ready to cast off,” yelled Carolyn loudly from the bow. I could plainly hear the worry in her voice.

I didn’t rush to step back aboard. Af­ter all, I am a cap­tain. I calmly and lov­ingly hugged Greg, Liz Ann, Sailor Sandy and Hand­some Henry good­bye and said, “Thanks. You guys were great. I would sail with you any­where, any­time.”

“It’s been, well, like a dream,” said Henry, and there was a catch in his throat. His hug was strong. Then I was back aboard Ganesh, gun­ning her away from the dock as Carolyn ti­died up our tan­gle of grease­caked dock lines. We’d al­ready cleared out in Colón. We were free.

“Ready to re­lax at sea for the next 45 days or so?” I asked Carolyn.

She smiled. “I’m all yours,” she said, and meant it.

Some­times, af­ter 48 years of blue­wa­ter sailing to­gether, I have to be care­ful not to tear up around my best friend, my lover and my wife.

I glanced up at my mast­head Win­dex. The wind was fair.

“Take the wheel,” I told her. “I’ll hoist the main.”

Carolyn and Fatty winch Ganesh snugly in place against the over­size tires that line the hull of the tug Tito One.

Ganesh shared one lock with At­lantic Acan­thus. Large ships are pulled through the locks by train en­gines (above). Carolyn casts off a spring line as Ganesh pre­pares to mo­tor on­ward.

The Good­lan­ders’ first ad­viser, Roy, steps aboard to be­gin the tran­sit (left). At last, the lock gates open onto the Pa­cific Ocean (above).

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.