My Day Job - Sunday

by Sarah Lake Upton in

At some point very early on Sunday morning we hauled back the anchor and made our way to an anchorage off of Barro Colorado Island in Lake Gatun, where we anchored again.  Before the creation of the locks the area that became Barro Colorado Island was just a patch of anonymous high ground. As the waters rose after the locks were built various animals fled higher, and in 1920’s the Smithsonian built a research station there to study the newly isolated flora and fauna of the island.  We stop by whenever we are in the canal so that guests can go for hikes or take zodiac cruises around the island.  On Sunday mornings I take the opportunity for quiet and semi-decent internet to call home before work.  According to Sam, if one looks at Barro Colorado Island on Google Earth and zooms in a bit, one can see the Sea Lion at anchor.  We are the blue hulled mid-sized cruise ship with racks of yellow kayaks on the lido deck. 

To back up a little bit, because until I started traversing it once a week I only had the vaguest idea of what the canal actually was, a brief explication of the structure of the Panama Canal: 

There are two ways to make a canal.  The first is to basically dig a big ditch to connect two bodies of water, so that boats may traverse it basically at sea level - this is how the Suez Canal was originally built, and this is what everyone was hoping could also be done in Panama.  The problem down here is that the spine of mountains that start down in Tierra Del Fuego and end somewhere in northern Alaska continue, though much much lower, through Panama.  In the area where the canal was built they are more like medium sized hills, but they were enough of an impediment to building a sea level canal that for a while it looked impossible that a canal would ever be built.  Enter plan B, a system of locks that would raise boats 90 ft to save having to dig down as far.  

On the Caribbean side heading south one encounters the Gatun locks; basically a set of three steps to bring the boat up to level of the canal.  Then there is a large lake (Gatun) created by the building of the canal, then a very narrow ditch, which despite being deep enough for containers ships to traverse is still small enough that in Maine it would probably be one of those rivers no one could remember the name of (though if it were in Colorado it would be a major named geographical feature that would provide water for every state around it - the importance of rivers is relative).  Eventually one arrives at Pedro Miguel Lock, which is a single step down, since we are traveling south, then the relatively small Miraflores Lake (it normally takes us about fifteen minutes to travel through this bit) and then Miraflores Lock, which has two steps down, and then we are back at sea level on the Pacific side.   In order to stop at Barro Colorado Island we cross the canal is two days, though given how short it is (about 50 miles) we could easily do it in one.  

So, on Sunday morning we were anchored off of Barro Colorado Island.  Once I came on watch I attended to various small problems (I think I fixed the shower mixer and drip in 304 for instance) and preventative maintenance items (I have a weekly checklist) and then at some point we hauled back the anchor, tucked ourself in behind the boat we would be sharing locks with, and began making our way down towards Pedro Miguel Locks. 

Once we arrived at the lock I was once again on standby. I used the time to take a few photos of the container ship that was next to us, and once again marvel at the impossible scale of things. 

Dublin Express.jpg


The main limiting factor to the size of modern container ships are the dimensions of locks built in 1914.   A ship can either be called  “Panamax” for measuring either the maximum length or width that will fit inside a lock in the Panama Canal.  The locks are 1050 feet long and 110 feet wide, so a ship can get away with being 973-ish feet long and  and 106 feet wide (the math is a bit fuzzy, because ships are not square, and the actual space inside the locks is not square, and the need to be able to use one’s propellers also confuse things and there are also problems with how deep a ship rides, but how much of a problem this is depends on the current water depth in the canal and how recently things have been dredged - apparently a few weeks ago a ship was stuck on one of the small sandbars that can form just outside of the locks and required the help of many tugs boats to get free).  The Dublin Express is Panamax in all dimensions.  Currently the canal is in the midst of an expansion project, with new sets of locks at both sides that will be able to accommodate much larger ships.  The new locks were supposed to be completed for the hundredth anniversary of the opening of the canal, i.e. 2014, but as usual with large construction projects there were delays and etc. and now no one is really sure when they will be completed, other than “next year?”.   The old locks will continue to handle all of the normal traffic, and the new locks will handle the “Post Panamax” traffic.

Once we were through the canal we anchored in the Flamenco anchorage in the harbor off of Panama City.   The chief engineer used the time to dash to shore to pick up a small part we needed to fix the galley air conditioner, and I attended to my evening chores (transferring fuel, running the O.W.S., topping up oil, checking bilge levels, peering suspiciously at various gauges).   The plan for the night involved getting underway at 0230, so I again knocked off a bit early, this time to take a nap before waking up at 0215, lighting off the main engines, and then waiting until we were three miles offshore to dump our slops tank. 

My Day Job - Saturday

by Sarah Lake Upton in

I find myself somewhat reluctant to blog about the specifics of my day job.  We have enough of a PR department that the office may well be watching, and as the bulk of my job involves fixing things that break, a list of my daily activities, when read from afar and without context, may well make it sound like the boat is in a constant state of breaking (which is sort of true, in the sense that to work on a boat is to be in a constant battle with entropy, but we are also a well maintained boat, and if something is not broken I do not generally get to interact with it, aside from an occasional quick to make sure that it is still not broken).  But my day job is also a bit unusual, so absent the ability to upload all of the photos I have been taking of late, I thought that I might try to capture what a week out here is actually like. 

Saturday was turn day in Colòn.  Guests depart in the morning and controlled chaos ensues.  Stores arrive, cabins are turned inside out to clean, decks are scrubbed down, I try to attend to engineering issues in that cannot be easily attended to with guests on board.  Each of these activities gets in the way of other activities and generally all of this happens at once.  On this particular Saturday my work-list included: fixing this dripping faucet in cabin 301, opening the collision compartment to check on the gear oil for the bow thruster (the annual oil change was done before I came back onboard, and we’re still working air out of the system, so the tank needs to be topped up from time to time) running the emergency generator to make sure that all was well with it, restarting the walk-in freezer after it had been secured by some refrigeration techs, helping to bunker lube oil and offload waste oil, and a number of other small projects that I have already forgotten.   New guests were supposed to arrive starting at 1645, but this being Panama, none of them did up 1715, when they all arrived at once.  We needed to be off the dock at 1800, but we were unable to start bunkering water under 1700 because the boat down the dock was using the hose, and then the valve on the dock could not be opened, and then there was a long conversation between the chief engineer and the guard on the dock and various tools were employed and it was decided that we probably had enough water on board already but it would be nice to top up the tank and because I wasn’t necessary to any part of this conversation I helped bring luggage to guest cabins.   And then in very quick succession, the water was turned on, the tanks were topped up, the pilot arrived, potable water hoses were disconnected and stowed, I fired up the main engines and the forward generator for the bow thruster, the deck crew lifted the gangway and we were off.   After that it was fairly quiet until we arrived at the first lock in the canal (Gatun Locks, heading south - because we all think of the canal as running east-west, but really because of the shape of Panama it runs more north-south).  Our bow thruster is powered by our forward generator and can only be engaged or secured in the engine room (once it’s running it is controlled by a switch in the bridge).  For various reasons it can’t be left to run too long, but we need it to get into the locks and then to move between locks, and so for me the canal involves standing by, waiting for the order to engage or secure the bow thruster.  The second mate is a knitter, and was also spending our lock time standing by, so I decided that I could stand by just as well whilst knitting, and we had a lovely evening of knitting punctuated by quick dashes to the engine room (me) and answering the occasional operational question (her).  

After we cleared the locks, and I was cleared from standby, I went about my normal evening routine of transferring fuel (we have a fuel centrifuge to clean the fuel before it goes into our day tank) running the Oily Water Separator, and attending to any small issues that cropped up, including a condensation drip in 304.  The guests in 304 turned out to be from very nearby Portland, Maine,  and as we chatted we discovered many other points of contact in common, so while I couldn’t fix the condensation drip that night (it involved taking down a ceiling panel) we had a really lovely visit. 

There was nothing else terribly pressing that evening, so I knocked off a little early and made use of the exercise bike on the sundeck. By this point we were at anchor amongst a field of tankers and freighters and massive container ships, and as I peddled away in the still night air I pondered their contents and nationality and where they might be going and global trade generally, as one does.  I failed to come to any conclusions on the subject, beyond the obvious wonder at how much stuff gets moved about the globe. 

And that was Saturday. 


Bound for Costa Rica

by Sarah Lake Upton in

We are through the Panama Canal (for this week at least, we’ll be back through at the end of next week) and bound for the cooler climbs of Costa Rica. 

The canal is just as surreal this year as it was last year. On each side there are the famous locks, but in between are miles of very narrow waterway, punctuated by wider lakes which seem like they could be anyway in the tropical world, until two very large freighters come around the corner and find themselves in a passing situation in a channel less than a boat length wide.  (It is very hard to judge scale in this photo, but trust me, these ships are HUGE). 

Two Freighters Crossing.jpg

The locks have two lanes.  Part of the fun of the canal is watching the traffic in the other lane, taking photos, waving to their crew, or just marveling at how big a “Panamax” ship really is, and how entirely a ship can fill a lock chamber and still move.  


I have yet to figure out how to properly photograph at night, and the lighting at the locks provides its own challenges, plus the scale of things is always impossible to convey, but this stack of shipping containers is actually the stern of our lock buddy, the Panamax freighter Tokyo Express.  In the photos one can just make out the row of lights to the left of the lock house and stacks upon stacks of shipping containers - that is the rest of the ship. 

Tokyo Express.jpg

I have found myself lost in the maw of end of year inventory, in which I count every spare part and random fastener and provide a list to the office, carefully organized by account code.  Between four engines (two mains, two generators) and a myriad of other equipment, never mind the whole hotel department, we have a lot of spare parts, and a lot of fasteners, and a lot of random plumbing bits.  The end is not yet in sight, but it is giving me a chance to organize things a bit more around shipyard. 

At some point I will decide that I don’t care that it is too hot to knit down here and go back to working on a pair of gloves that I am designing using my 5-Ply gansey yarn, but for the moment I am getting my knitting fix by reading knitting blogs and sighing at patterns on Ravelry.  Two of my favorite bloggers recently posted about Sanquhar knitting, Kate Davies here, and TomofHolland here.  I am not quite brave enough to try my hand at designing my own Sanquhar gloves yet, but I am incorporating the genius little finger gussets into my next gansey glove pattern.

Wishing you all the happiest of holidays. 

***Our satellite internet is currently declining to allow me to upload my photos.  For those of you who follow me on Instagram, this is why I have stopped posting of late - our internet does not generally move quickly enough to upload photos, no matter how small, but sometimes I catch it on a good day.  I will try again in a day or so.