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"Locking the Panama Canal"
  Crew Member:  The Lotus Crew
  Location:Panama City, Panama
  Photo Album:(2008-08-01) Panama Canal

Doors Opening to Second Chamber

Downlocking 3

Fendered for Canal Transit

Rafted and Ready to Proceed

Uplocking Gatun
Transiting a sailboat through the Panama Canal requires a bit more preparation and planning than you might imagine. We motored through the breakwater on the Atlantic side of the canal entrance and paid for one month at Shelter Bay Marina. The free anchorage at the mouth of the canal sees heavy commercial use and is not ideal for all of the running around we knew we’d be doing as we readied the boat for the 35 mile jaunt to the Pacific Ocean. Also, it doesn’t totally suck to be plugged into shore power and able to run our newly purchased (a whopping $50 balboa) air conditioner. It seems to get warmer and warmer the closer we venture to the equator.

Anyhow, back our canal transit checklist. First, all boats locking through the Panama Canal must be admeasured. We made our appointment by phone and within 48 hours a nice young Autoridad Canal de Panama (ACP) fellow came to the boat with tape measure in hand. He held the front of the tape while Jason trailed the line to the very sternmost part of the boat. Our official measurement came in at 43 feet. This meant we qualified for the 50 feet and under pricing schedule. Next stop, el banco.

The trip to the bank should have been relatively quick, requiring one $30 roundtrip taxi ride from the marina to the bank and back. However (isn’t there always a however or two with paperwork), because of some clerical glitch, when our credit card company sent out our new cards this year we received two new pieces of plastic with the name Christine on them, and exactly zero new cards with the name Jason. It hasn’t been a big deal and typically he just carries my card around and uses it with no raised eyebrows. And yes, this sort of mailing error would be simple enough to fix stateside, with a regular mailing address and phone access that doesn’t amount to $1.99 a minute, but for now we’ve just made do with what’s in the wallets. So, Jason-not-Christine-Hoff ventures off to the bank, sans spouse, to pay our $1500 fee and deposit to the ACP, the second step in the transit process, and, you guessed it, the bank would absolutely not allow Senior Hoff to pose as Senora Hoff by using my credit card.

Once Christine paid the fees for Lotus, we were then given an official vessel transit identification number. This would be the number we gave to every official from here on forward. We then used this number to call the ACP and select a date and method of transit. Without any particular schedule or scheme in mind we called and requested a rafted transit for August 1st, 2008. No problem. We were immediately approved for our two-day canal adventure, Friday, August the 1st.

Over the next few weeks our time was spent finding multiple tire fenders, 4 X 125-foot canal approved lines, and 4 able-bodied and intrepid volunteer linehandlers.

The tires were no problem. Jason's such a friendly and helpful guy, he always bounds down the dock to lend a hand when he spies a new boat coming in to dock. The day after our admeasurer left, he helped a 50 foot Gulfstar as she meandered into the marina and noticed a tell-tale sign they'd just completed a canal transit as they had 10 lovely little car tires fendered on the starboard and port sides of their boat. The crew happily let us take the tires off their hands.

The lines we paid to rent. FYI, most cruisers do not have fore and aft dock lines that are 125 feet in length. The ACP requires this for the 84 feet of water that fills (uplocking) and drains (downlocking) as you move from one ocean to the next.

Lining up our linehandlers was the biggest task we had to surmount. August is not the height of the season for sailboats crossing the canal. The peak period actually occurs sometime in early March. Folks planning to cross the Pacific aim for this time-window as it is optimal month for avoiding monsoon season in the South Pacific. By August, most boats have transited and are either well on their way to points east or north.

Okay. I grow weary of this recap . . . the captain will now take the blog helm.

Yo soy el capitan! Readers: get ready for less articulate prose and more spelling errors :)

Even though August is a slow month for canal transit we were lucky to have several victims, I mean volunteers, come forward and offer to linehandle for us on our transit. Our friends Jim and Laura from S.V. Nilaya in Bocas Del Toro flew over to Colon to help out and we found two Danish guys from a sail training ship in dry dock at Shelter Bay who were also eager to experience a canal transit.

I was a bit worried about the canal (no suprise to those who know me well), so I decided to schedule a training / information meeting for our volunteer linehandlers the night before the transit at the marina bar. Turns out it only takes about 2 minutes to explain to folks that they will be expected to do nothing more than catch and cleat some dock lines, so the training session evolved (maybe I should say devolved) into more of a beer drinking session. Note to self: Bars not a good venue for training sessions.

On the day of the transit our nervous captain (yo soy el capitan!) insisted we leave the marina 2 hours early to make sure we were on time to pick up our pilot in the boarding area at 4:30p. We arrived at the pilot boarding station at 2:30p, but unfortunately our pilot boarding time was changed to 7:30p. Oops, perhaps we didnt need to leave 2 hours early after all. We anchored in Colon bay and settled in for a 5 hour wait for the pilot. At this point the darn line handlers and first mate gleefully commenced drinking all my beer ... Ok, Ok maybe they only had one apiece, but the captain was feeling a bit tense about the upcoming transit by this time.

At 7:10p (thats 20 minutes early for any readers actually paying attention out there) our pilot boarded and indignantly asked why we had the anchor down and were not ready to make way. I apologized to the pilot, and hollered at the darn line handlers to raise the anchor already as they were holding up the show (remember now, the captain is always right). Its a good thing we hurried, because when we arrived at the first lock (Gatun) we only had a two and a half hour wait before we were allowed to enter.

We locked through Gatun in the dark rafted to another smaller sailboat (French flag vessel). For those not familar with nautical speak rafting means tying two vessels together side by side, typically it is done in crowded mooring fields or at crowded docks (something akin to double parking). In our case we had to raft up while underway in the channel outside the locks and then manuever into the locks while rafted. Our pilot informed me that the larger, heavier vessel (that would be us) was in charge of steering the raft. This was fine by me, we control freaks always prefer to drive, although giving throttle and rudder commands to the captain of the other (french) vessel rafted to us was touch and go since our only common language was spanish which he spoke marginally well and which I can barely speak at all. Fortunately yelling "OY!" and frantically motioning ahead or behind with my index finger seemed to be an effective way to communicate as well.

For all my worrying, locking through turned out to be easier than expected. Manuevering inside the massive locks is trivial for small boats; plenty of room for error. Our line handlers also did an exceptional job. Really, it all went smoother than poop through a goose.

After locking up through 3 chambers (we went up about 30 feet in each chamber) we entered Gatun lake at Midnight. For those of you not familar with the panama canal, its really more of a man made lake than a canal. Basically a damned river was used to created a man made lake approx 90 feet above sea level. Transiting the "Canal" means driving down a short man made ditch from the atlantic to a lock which lifts you up onto the lake. You then sail 20 miles across the lake (which is absolutely beatiful, surrounded by the cordillera mountains) and another lock carries the boat down 90 feet to another relatively short sea level ditch leading to the Pacific ocean.

For small boats this whole process usually takes 2 days, so after leaving Gatun lock at midnight we tied up to a mooring for the night and were told to be ready to pick up our next pilot at 6:30a. The captain had the crew up and ready to go at 6:00a, totally unneccessary as the pilot didnt show up until almost 8:00a. Ah well, getting up early builds character. Travelling across the lake and downlocking was much less stressful, it was daylight and after all we were panama canal experts have uplocked 3 times the day before.

Finally at 3:00p on the second day, the S.V. Lotus sailed gloriously into the Pacific Ocean!! wooohooo! After we anchored IN THE PACIFIC OCEAN in view of downtown Panama city, a much relieved captain and crew proceed to drink a beer or eight and then sack out for a nice long rest.

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Other Blog Entries:
The Last Voyage (10/7/2009)
Holiday Hut Trip (12/1/2008)
How We Got are Arses Kicked by the Dreaded Mexican T-Pecker (10/4/2008)
Tica Tico Taco (9/1/2008)
Locking the Panama Canal (8/12/2008)
Back to the States (7/15/2008)
Lingering at a Latitude of 9 Degrees (5/31/2008)
In Search of Red Footed Boobies (4/15/2008)
A Bad Case of Swimmer's Ear (4/3/2008)
Blogging in Belize (3/30/2008)
Isla Mujeres (2/10/2008)
I'm Dreaming of a Sunny Christmas (12/25/2007)
Turkey Day Networking (11/27/2007)
Massachusetts Daytrippers (10/1/2007)
Best of NYC (9/5/2007)
A Passage to Oriental (6/25/2007)
The Great, Wet Retreat (6/5/2007)
Mr. Southern Hospitality (5/31/2007)
Navigating el Golfo de Mexico (5/26/2007)