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.
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???).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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!”.