March 25th 1982

posted in: Innocents Abroad | 1
Squeezing into the lock behind huge ships

Nobody really expected us to be underway at 4.30, so we’d arranged that Les would come and get us when the pilot arrived.  Rather surprisingly, we were called at 5, + under way at 5.30… things were looking good.  It was really very pleasant moving away from the Yacht Club in the dark – smooth, peaceful.  It is definitely a pleasant way to travel.  However, our early start was soon put to naught, when the pilot received the news on his radio that we couldn’t go thro’ when we were supposed to go thro’, but had to drop anchor for an hour or 2, + sit and wait.  The only advantage to this situation was that it enabled us to sit down + have a proper breakfast – pancakes + maple syrup.  However, finally we were ready to go thro’, lashed together to another small yacht, + edging in behind a great big freighter.  Once we were in, + the gates shut behind us, the guys threw down a line to us from each side.  We connected our ships lines to these, + they were pulled up + made fast to capstans at the top.  Then, when the waters came pouring in to fill the lock, the ropes had to be kept taut + even, to hold the position true.  This job was gone thro’ 3 times for the 3 locks, raising us up to Gatun Lake.  It was here that the Alpha Centauri “broke down” – really Les wanted to spend some time up on the lake there.  It was quite funny listening to Les telling his story to the skipper of the other yacht, who was genuinely keen to help out if he possibly could.  And since we weren’t aware if the pilot wasn’t in on the story, we nearly gave the game away.  Ho hum.

We hitched a ride back to shore with the launch which took the pilot off (unfortunately thereby missing out on lunch) + then hitched back to Colon – 2 rides – no trouble at all.  In the afternoon, we started work painting the trim of Dave’s car – painting over the rust + cracks really – + then in the evening we all went out to dinner, to a Chinese restaurant for a huge meal.  Couldn’t help thinking, looking back over the day’s work, that maybe Les had some regrets for not taking us on for certain – we got on pretty well, didn’t make idiots of ourselves, + seemed to get on pretty well with everyone: Les, Paul, Linda (the crew).  Or maybe it’s just conceit.

Not sure I know how we came to be crewing for Lesley, but I suppose it was all good experience, and, by all accounts, such crossings are good social occasions. I should explain: all boats, even down to single-handed ones, are obliged to transit with a minimum crew of five, plus a pilot from the Canal Authority, in order, when going through the locks, to have one person on each line, which goes from the boat to each corner of the lock, to keep it taut (and the boat level) during the turbulence of huge amounts of water pouring into (or out of) the lock; the fifth person is to man the tiller or wheel. Hence the need for yachts to take on temporary crew.

And it was at this point that we began to realise Lesley’s strategy in previously offering for us to crew with him as far as Gatun – he just wanted us to fulfill the crew requirements, not to assess our abilities. And his subterfuge with “breaking down” in Gatun was just part of this strategy.

Boat-owners are in a strange position. In many ways, they live a privileged, easy-going lifestyle, but in many cases the boat is all they own, and unless they are retired with a good pension, they often have no other income, especially if they sold everything up in order to buy the boat. Lesley was an example of this, attempting to monetise his boat by offering paid places for crew. But the fact that he wasn’t exactly overwhelmed with potential crew-members shows the weakness of this – most people in a position to offer themselves as crew do not have a lot of money – they tend to be young and footloose, liable to disappear if a better offer appeared, while people with money want something rather more luxurious and comfortable… and it soon became clear that Lesley was not the most congenial of hosts/captains. He was out to save money wherever he could – hence the free stop-over at Gatun… and, in a smaller way, the way in which we were given no booze, no lunch, and, when we left, 50c to cover the cost of the train! All in all, we reckon that he may have been conceited in reckoning he missed out on us as a potential crew, but we certainly did well to avoid travelling with him.

(And there was a certain amount of schadenfreude when we discovered that Linda, his one remaining crew member, left him before the trip across the Pacific.)


  1. Pamela Blair

    All very interesting. I know of a man, a Brit, who sailed around the world solo, and when he was in Bali he put up a sign on some board, asking for a crew/cook to go across the Indian Ocean (and probably back to England). He got a response from a woman who became his crew, cook and lover. They married, had two kids, and are now grandparents, all living in California. I met the man in Ethiopia, but he lived in Tanzania, and when I got to Tanzania I also met his wife. They’ve been friends of mine since 1973. Another serendipitous move on both their parts!

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