An Auxiliarist Underway – Part II – The Panama Canal

By Auxiliarist Charles McLeod

Inside the locks of the Panama Canal. Photo by Auxiliarist Charles McLeod

Inside the locks of the Panama Canal. Photo by Auxiliarist Charles McLeod

Leaving Grand Cayman Island was a feat in itself – we threaded through the myriad of cruise ships bearing down on the tiny oasis.  Once in open seas, we were quickly diverted to respond to a search and rescue case. I quickly learned that no day is routine onboard a cutter underway and the Coast Guard can be a very welcome sight for distressed mariners out in the unfriendly, pitch-black seas. In a matter of a few days we found ourselves zigzagging across the Caribbean responding to not just one, but two separate search and rescue cases. Last year the Coast Guard responded to more than 17,700 search and rescue cases, resulting in more than 3,200 lives saved. Yet in these moments, I find that it was just another day on the job for the crew of Coast Guard Cutter LEGARE.

One morning, as I sat down to eat breakfast, the mess deck was filled with whispers of “Have you heard?” “Is it true?” I looked at the whole table in silence as they searched my face for answers as if I knew some great secret. I managed to utter “huh?” before they all started talking the Panama Canal.

“What about it?” I asked.

“I heard from someone that said they heard from someone, the CO said we are going to the Pacific through the canal.”

As utter confusion descended over me, I was suddenly being slapped on the back by half of deck force saying “You are probably the first AUX that has ever gone through The Canal! How does that make you feel?”

Later that day, quarters was being held and I was sure this was going to be the hot topic. I soon learned that if we did go through the canal, we would be awarded The Order of the Ditch. It’s pretty spiffy and rare. It also takes up a good amount of wall space.  The bragging rights are great though, as so few people in the Coast Guard make this transit. A few hours later, on the jam-packed mess deck, the Commanding Officer finally addressed the crew. His first question for the crew was “Okay,so what is the rumor mill saying?”

Someone shouted, “The canal – is it true?”

The CO paused and said “Yes, it’s true. But we can celebrate later, because we have a lot of work to do to get ready.”

The CO wasn’t kidding; just in the navigation department more than 60 man-hours were used to prepare charts for the transit through the ditch. Every department pulled out the stops to make this trip happen as quick as possible, and I was amazed at how quickly the ship’s mission changed and the crew’s response. In the middle of all of the work, I could not help but think again how unbelievably fortunate I was to be on this patrol. Sleeping on the last night off the east coast of Central America proved to be impossible.  This was partially due to the adventure that lay ahead was a milestone in my life, but also because the seas were REALLY rough!  The sun seemed to come up earlier than normal that day. While we were all tired, we were excited to clear the breakwater and get in line for the transit.

And there we sat… all day.

Approaching the Panama Canal at night.  Photo by Auxiliarist Charles McLeod

Approaching the Panama Canal at night. Photo by Auxiliarist Charles McLeod

Our time came and we were FINALLY on course for the gateway to the Pacific! Even though we made the transit at night, no one wanted to sleep. It almost seemed like a party on the fantail at the first set of locks as we all watched the track engines pull us through. The party quickly evaporated as one of Panama’s famous micro weather bursts produced torrential rains with zero visibility and piercing spray.

The rain was so bad lookouts and other watchstanders outside were forced to come inside during a very intense portion of the transit through Lake Gatun. Soon it was my turn to stand the lookout watch and I wasn’t sure if there was a good way to stay dry. I wrapped myself in two plastic bags, my Gore-Tex parka, and donned my hat and glasses. Even with all of that protection, I still got soaked.

The Panama Canal is a very TIGHT transit and it seemed that if we steered more than one degree off course, we’d be aground in no time! I really have to hand it to our master helmsmen, SN Starling and SN Kostrzewski, for getting us through the entire trip in one piece. They were nothing short of perfect!

One of the "mules" that pull ships and hold them in place while inside the locks. Photo by Auxiliarist Charles McLeod

One of the “mules” that pull ships and hold them in place while inside the locks. Photo by Auxiliarist Charles McLeod

After all of the rain soaked drama in Lake Gatun, once we cleared the lake, things starting drying up. Heat, humidity, and a bit of fair wind had us literally dried off and ready for the next part of the trip. The last two gates of the locks opened and awarded us with a great view of the Bridge of the Americas – the only permanent structure that links Central America to South America.

The transit through the canal was long and at some points strange as we passed many different types of vessels headed the other way. However, no matter who was on watch, the crew worked great together. I was relieved this watch was almost over, but knew that more work was soon headed my way. Undoubtedly my future held more training at sea, more watches, more learning, and then maybe, just maybe, a well-deserved port call.

To be continued…