Our Panama Canal Transit

There’s no doubt that every Panama Canal transit – especially for a small boat like ours – is unique. Each transit depends upon the type and speed of the boat, the Transit Advisor (who is required and provided by the Canal Authority), the driver and crew of line handlers, your position in the lock (center tie or side tie), the boat you are rafted to (sailboat, powerboat, tug, etc.), the boat or ship that you are in the lock with (probably a large commercial vessel), the Canal staff that are on duty at the time, and weather conditions, among many other things.

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In other words, everyone we spoke to in advance about transiting the canal had a different experience – some good and some not so good – including one boat that we will not name that had to do a 360-degree turn in a lock while it was operating! With this in mind, this post is specific to OUR Panama Canal transit and not meant to be a guide on how to take your boat through this marvel of engineering (how’s that for a PR guy’s disclaimer???).

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Now, for those of you who aren’t interested in the details (I’ll provide them in another post later), the short version is we (our crack crew included Audrey’s brother and sister-in-law, John and Lynda Kooymans, and our good friends from California, Paul and Jean Swenson) transited the canal northbound (yes, it’s strange that it wasn’t eastbound) from the Pacific to the Caribbean on Tuesday, March 24. Our Transit Advisor, Freddie, jumped onboard around 8:00 am and by 9:00 am we were passing under the majestic Bridge of the Americas on our way to the Miraflores locks where we were scheduled to enter with another sailboat and a cruise ship at 10:00 am.

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Prior to entering the lock, the two sailboats rafted together and, as luck would have it, the owner of the other sailboat was none other than Eric Bauhaus, the author of The Panama Cruisers Guide – the best guide for sailing and cruising in Panama and, of course, the one we happened to be using. Needless to say we were very happy to know that our “partner” knew exactly what he was doing. We were even more ecstatic to learn that the one with the biggest boat (his boat was a beautiful 62-foot long Sunseeker catamaran) takes the lead and actually does the “driving” for both boats when entering, locking and exiting. In other words, all we had to do was tie to his boat then handle the lines from our boat to the lock wall while keeping our engine running in neutral and staying alert to what he’s doing – just in case.

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So, as you can imagine our transit was relatively uneventful, which is exactly what we wanted. The most challenging part was handling our 125-foot lines that had to be transferred from our boat to the lock wall employees using a “Monkey Fist”, which is a long line with a weighted ball on the end that they throw from the wall to your boat. You catch the line/ball (before it can hit you in the head or worse your solar panels) then tie it around the loop in your 125-foot line so they can pull it up to secure it to the bollards/cleats on the wall. Once they are secured and the lock is operating the line handlers either release the slack or take up the slack depending upon whether you are locking up (as we did in on the Pacific side) or down (as we did on the Caribbean side). It sounds easy but there is so much turbulence in the lock that you and the other boat(s) on the raft have to work together to ensure the whole raft stayed in the center. If you don’t something very ugly could happen, hence the tires strapped to the side of our boat.

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But, as I said, our transit was relatively uneventful. We entered the Miraflores locks around 10:00 am and were through these three locks on the Pacific side by 12:30 pm. We then untied the raft and hauled ass 27-miles through the scenic canal and Gatun Lake to get to the locks on the Caribbean side before 5:00 pm when we were schedule to lock down to the Caribbean.

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As you can imagine, with all the variables I mentioned earlier, timing was everything but we made it in time to enter the Gatun locks with a gigantic Panamax oil tanker on our butt just before dark. And, by 8:00 pm we had passed through all three locks on the Caribbean side and were safely motoring to an area called The Flats where a Canal Authority boat came and picked up Freddie, our Advisor. After which, we anchored, drank champagne (and a few other beverages), had dinner and celebrated to the wee hour of “Cruiser’s Midnight”.

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That’s the short version. We’ll do another post soon with details on things like what I meant by “relatively uneventful”, logistics and administration (including Agents, Admeasurement, scheduling and renting lines and tires), and some of the details of what we saw/experienced while in the canal and locks. For now, all we can say is “welcome to the Caribbean mon!”.

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Panama City – Gateway to the Caribbean

They say time flies when you’re having fun. Well, we must be having too much fun because it’s been a blur since we left Costa Rica.

Our Costa Rica to Panama City adventure started with a boisterous 80-mile sail from Golfito to Isla Parida, our first stop in Panama, where we rested for the night before heading further southeast to the beautiful Islas Secas. This small group of islands had sandy beaches; crystal clear water, which we hadn’t seen for a while; and no restaurants, internet or cell connections. It was an idyllic place to hang out for a few days and, in hindsight, we should have stayed longer. But, we had peeps from Canada flying into Panama City, and had promised our sailing friends on Manaia that we would be linehandlers for their canal transit so we raised the anchors and kept moving.

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The next stop was Bahia Honda, one of the most protected bays in the country and, from a cultural perspective, one of the most unique experiences we had on this trip. Nothing earth-shattering, just that it’s so remote the locals are accustomed to trading with sailors for goods and supplies, and the fact that they are not shy about it. I mean we barely had our anchor down before local boats came over to see if we had anything they needed – ranging from clothes to batteries to chocolate and school supplies for the kids. One guy even wanted the top that Audrey was wearing (not sure it if was for his wife or the thrill…). Needless to say, we weren’t quite prepared for this but we took it in stride and after a few days in which we gave away everything we could, we left Bahia Honda feeling like we helped someone and needed to go shopping.

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The next few stops – Isla de Cebaco, Bahia Naranja and Ensenada Benao – were short hops where we didn’t stay long but we did have a few adventures. First, Audrey caught a big Spanish Mackerel that was enough for fishcakes, fillets and sharing with fellow boaters. Second, we got stuck in Isla de Cabaco for a few extra days due to gale force winds in the Gulf of Panama.

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Third, we met new friends, CB and Tawn, from the sailboat Pallarin in Ensenada Benao and when we invited them for drinks later that day Tawn showed up with 19 stiches on her head from a surfing accident. I don’t know about you but if I’d been hit in the head with a surfboard and got that many stitches, I’d be in my bunk hugging the pillow. Tawn is one tough sailing and surfer chick.

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Finally, we got boarded by the Panamanian Coast Guard in Isla de Cebaco when we weren’t even on the boat! Turns out they were doing a routine check but we were walking on the island at the time and, from shore, it looked like thieves were on our boat because theirs was jet black and they were there for so long. We eventually got back and they cleared up the mystery but I thought Audrey was going to have a heart attack for a while. They were very professional and super nice considering we hadn’t officially checked into the country yet. They just instructed us to check-in at an official port of entry asap and said to enjoy their country.

For those of you who have been following our adventures, we’ve talked about Gap Winds, which are very strong winds caused by their funneling from the Caribbean through mountains on the relatively narrow Isthmus to the Pacific. They occur in three areas along the coast – the Gulf of Tehuantepec in Mexico, the Papagayos from Guatamala to Costa Rica, and the Gulf of Panama. Well, we’d already done two of the three and it was time for our final push into the Gulf of Panama.

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We left Ensenada Benao at 7:00 am with fair winds for sailing past infamous Punta Mala (Bad Point?) then another 70+ miles to the Las Perlas Island. It was a perfect morning and the boat was doing 7-8 knots which meant we should get there before nightfall. But, they don’t call it Punta Mala for no reason and the Gulf of Panama isn’t one of the Gaps by accident and soon enough we went from good wind to no wind to battling strong currents and strong winds on the nose slowing the boat to 3-4 knots. In short, it went from a perfect morning to arriving at our anchorage on San Jose Island just after midnight. But, from what we’ve read and heard from other boaters, it could have been a lot worse (our friends on Pallarin arrived the next morning at 9:30 am) so we celebrated with a shot of Mexican Tequila then hit the sack in preparation for our final push to Panama City.

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The next day we motor-sailed in very strong winds 30 miles to Isla Contadora, a popular vacation destination in the Las Perlas islands, where stayed for one night (and would return), then had an awesome sail to Panama City – one of our major milestones as it’s the entrance to the Panama Canal and, of course, the gateway to our ultimate destination, the Caribbean just 50 miles away.

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It was a major accomplishment. We’d spent a year lollygagging in Mexico then hauled ass past Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua before a relatively short stop in Costa Rica and finally made it to Panama City. But, as my old bosses at GM used to say we had to “Celebrate on the Run” because our friends Sharon and Graeme from Toronto were arriving in less than a week and staying for two weeks, and we had to check into the country (which took 2 days and is a long story), clean the boat, do laundry, re-provision, do some repairs, get a phone and internet, as well as a million other little things before they got here.

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We won’t bore you with details but we got it done, they arrived a few hours late, and we all enjoyed an awesome vacation (yes, we get vacations when friends come on vacation). First of all, Sharon, Graeme and Audrey spent 2 days going through the Panama Canal as linehandlers on Manaia (while I did boat projects). Then we spent a week in the beautiful Las Perlas Islands where our experiences ranged from an awesome sail to Isla Contadora to a swimming rescue in a Kayak to nearly grounding Celebration due to the extreme tides (20+ feet). Finally, we returned to Panama City where we spoiled ourselves in a marina and enjoyed some spectacular sightseeing and great meals in a charming, wonderful city.

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