The Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean in 10 hours – not too bad for a days work.
When preparing for our transit we read a lot and we heard a lot of tales of transits from hell to partying through the locks. Half the sailors you talk to say you have to hire a Canal agent (someone to do all the admin) and the other half say there is no need, you can do the paperwork yourself. Some say you won’t make it through in 1 day, it will definitely take 2. Your boat has to go 8 knots or you’ll bring global shipping to a screeching halt. And on and on it goes. So to all our pals who are planning to go through, listen to all the stories, file away all the information, keep your head straight and enjoy the passage. Because, the truth is that every transit is different and you never know what you are going to get until you do it. We chose not to use an agent and found it quite straightforward and if you want that information, email us and I’m happy to walk you through the steps.
Fortunately the stars aligned just right and we had an awesome (and not the overused, unnecessary “awesome”, I mean “inspiring joyful awe“ “we went through the Panama Canal on our sailboat” awesome) experience.
Every boat going through the Canal has to have a Canal advisor onboard to, you guessed it, advise you throughout the trip. The canal is run like an airport with the signal station acting as air traffic control. Your advisor is your communications link to central control. The name of the game for the Canal is the huge cargo ships, that is where the big money is, so a 50’ sailboat is more of a nuisance and they don’t want you slowing down their 24/7 operation. But their treatment of yachts is professional and efficient. We were told to pick up our advisor at 8:00 am and after he promptly boarded at 10:00 am (ok, maybe not so efficient, but the canal schedule seems subject to the whim of the gods) we were on our way, with Captain Pete at the helm,
2 experienced hired line handlers Raymond & Marcos,
2 volunteer line handlers and sailors, Axel and Stephen ready to work the lines in the locks,
me ready to sub in at the helm or lines and feed this motley crew, and Lucy milling about keeping tabs on everyone and making sure no food was sloppily left lying around, we started out.
It quickly became clear that our advisor, Astro (his real name), knew his stuff and, importantly, worked seamlessly with the line handlers and was hands on and not just a dictator. He was a font of knowledge about the Canal and felt like our own personal tour guide.
The Canal consists of six locks – 3 to get up into Gatun Lake, which is in the center and was created when they dammed up the Chagres River – and 3 to go back down on the other side. Each lock is a massive, medieval-seeming concrete tub with giant heavy riveted steel doors that swing open and closed like the entrance to some fortified castle. They are supreme feats of engineering operating nearly identically to the way they did when first opened exactly 100 years ago.
Outside the first of these, we waited for the giant container ship ahead of us to secure to the “mules” (heavy electric trains that hold ships’ lines) before we were ordered in to tie up to the ship’s tugboat, which went in just ahead of us.
As you approach the lock is empty and the rough walls tower up on each side. Mystery currents in the lock buffet the boat back and forth and Pete was working the throttles and the wheel to keep the boat off the wall.
Boats in the locks have lines going to the top of the locks to hold them in place. As the water rises, the line handlers on the boat have to quickly and in unison pull the lines in to keep the boat in position. We had heard horror stories of lines not being handled properly with boats swinging around into the walls or the ship, etc. In addition to great embarrassment, this can cost money since the canal fines you for causing any delay.
We, however, were lucky in that we tied up next to the tugboat and it handled the lines to go up and down. All we had to do was tie up to it and hold on tight. Once all were secure, the locks are flooded and all boats rise up. The water in the lock becomes an insane cauldron of swirling eddies from the water rushing in through the underwater channels.
After it’s all over, we simply toss off the lines and proceed to the next lock and do it all over again. Well, maybe not so simply. The ship is moving out and to let the tug out we have to move backwards and closer to the wall. The tug is a small boat of enormous power and when it moves its propwash (water being pushed around by its propellers) can push a yacht around like a bathtub toy. However, taking the good advice of some other boaters, we befriended the tug crew and gave them a tray of cookies with the unspoken hope that they would pull away from us gently. And it worked! They were extreme gentlemen and slowly idled away from us when it was their turn to leave.
After the three up locks it’s a race through the Gaillard Cut (a narrow channel cut into the rocky hillside that claimed many lives and years of digging during the construction of the Canal) and Gatun Lake to get to the final set of locks in time to make it through in one day.
Slow boats are required to take two days and spend a night anchored in the lake. Due to our late start there was a real chance that we might have to spend a night in the lake. It might have been fun to do so, but we soldiered on. Astro kept checking in with mission control and they said proceed, so we put the pedal to the metal and Neko zipped through the lake enjoying its fresh water bath to rinse the salt from her underside. We saw our lock mate, a large cargo ship, heading to the entrance when we were still about five miles away. So Pete gave it a full throttle and got to the entrance of the lock just in time to … wait. The ship had some problem getting secured and we waited outside turning circles in a thundering Panamanian rainstorm while they figured it out.
This time we were to tie to a ferry boat that takes passengers through the canal so they can check it off their bucket list. We were definitely a curiosity to these sightseers and posed for many pictures and answered many questions about our trip. Lucy was the star of the show.
After three more locks, this time going down, the last door opened and we at long last got a glimpse of the Caribbean Sea, our goal for so long. It was a milestone completed and a huge relief to get through unscathed.
We dropped Astro off and powered into the Shelter Bay Marina in the dark of night for a quick celebration and a well-earned snooze.
Here is what remains of the initial French effort at a sea-level canal to the extent it was not incorporated into the final design. Isn’t it cute?
As you may know the French first insisted on building a canal at sea level without locks. This was ultimately their undoing as it proved impossible. Remember, tides on the Pacific side can reach 18 feet while tides on the Atlantic side are rarely more than 2 feet. After decades of futile effort, the French finally threw in the towel and Teddy Roosevelt saw an opportunity and took it (not without much controversy, as it involved fomenting a revolution leading to Panama’s secession from Colombia). It’s really quite impressive that the final canal was built large enough to handle freighters for 100 years. However, now demands of shipping have rendered the canal insufficient. Panama is embarking on the construction of a larger parallel set of locks to allow even larger ships to transit. It is a technological wonder, that will use much, much less precious water than the original canal. It will use sliding lock doors (like pocket doors) instead of swinging gates. Here are the lock doors. They are massive.
Our Canal transit was twice as nice knowing we had so many family and friends watching us go through via the live web cam and thank you for the photos, videos and moral support. We loved having you along for one of the best legs of this journey.
Click here to see a video Andre and Tom made of us going through the Miraflores locks.