Another day, another ocean... I'm writing from the Pacific side of Panama, having crossed the canal nearly two weeks ago, leaving the Caribbean behind and anxiously beginning the next leg of the trip. The canal transit took almost 24 hours in total, but I've condensed it into one quick minute here:
We waited for days to cross the canal. We put many hours and many hundreds of dollars into planning and obtaining the permits necessary to take a small, private vessel through the locks. We read up on the procedures and anticipated any number of problems we might run into. For the most part we felt we were well prepared. But when we did allow ourselves to consider the ways in which things could go catastrophically wrong our visions usually involved violent collisions - with freighters, the canal walls, giant crocodiles, etc. (Dave: You'll be relieved to know that canal regulations prohibit the use of sails while transiting, so thankfully getting stuck in irons wasn't a concern...)
For the most part, our worries were needless. The fact that the canal has operated 24 hours a day with only three closures for the past hundred years (once for flooding in 2010, once for landslides in 1915, and once during the US invasion to oust Noriega in 1989) is a testament to the incredibly smooth way in which the whole process is carried out. You do hear horror stories - sailboats being plowed down by car carriers while crew members hurl themselves overboard, for example - but considering how many boats transit every day, those type of incidents are quite rare. In the end the whole thing turned out to be a bit like Christmas: weeks of anticipation culminating in a few hours of excitement, some happy photos, and a mild hangover.
The process is essentially a series of arrivals and departures. There are three locks on either side of Gatun Lake. If you're traveling from Atlantic to Pacific like we were, you leave Colon to ascend the Gatun Locks, which are arranged three right in a row. You enter the first chamber, tie up, take up on the lines while you rise with the nearly 27 million gallons of water that are rushing in, move forward to the next chamber and repeat the process twice. The night is spent tied up to a mooring ball in Gatun Lake followed by an early morning start (if your adviser is on time) to travel approximately 30 miles across the lake (which the video skips over, unfortunately). On the Pacific side, the Pedro Miguel Lock is separated from the last two Miraflores Locks by less than a mile. The procedure for descending is, not shockingly, the reverse of ascending: tie up, let the line out as the water disappears beneath you, move forward, and repeat the process. Each chamber fills or empties in 9 minutes on average; from the time you leave the Flats anchorage to the time you're moored on Gatun Lake, less than three hours have passed. So besides the morning spent motoring from one side of the lake to the other, transiting the Panama Canal is a stop-start marathon. If you were to ask the Governator, he'd succinctly tell you that the water picks boats up and puts them down.
Of course behind the scenes there is a bit more to it than that. On your scheduled transit date, you prepare your lines and fenders according to guidelines and move to an anchorage called The Flats to wait for an assigned canal adviser to board. Each boat must have a canal adviser, as well as four capable line handlers and a captain. When your adviser boards, he maps out the configuration in which you'll be moving up the locks. Small boats often travel in rafts of two or three wide, or tied up to a large tug. We were informed that we'd be tying up to one side of a 64-ft catamaran with our friends' boat, Pau Hana, on the other. Once everything is understood, you pull the anchor and move toward the entrance to the first lock to tie up with whichever other boats you'll be locking with. From there you move as a unit and do not separate until you're free and clear of the last lock in the series.
After exiting the locks and unrafting, you proceed about a mile to one of the Gatun Lake mooring balls. The first two boats to arrive tie up directly to the ball, one on each side, and wait for later arriving boats to tie up to them. The advisers are picked up there and the next day’s advisers are supposed to arrive at 6am the next morning. This is the only time we had to wait idly; they didn’t show up until 730am. We weren’t bothered by it – the howler monkeys will wake you up anyway, and the lake is as nice a place as any to drink coffee and watch the sun rise.
It’s about four hours from there to the Pedro Miguel locks and your adviser will tell you your scheduled time and whether you need to speed up or can take it slow as you’re making your way across the lake. It can be a long, hot trip, but the scenery is fantastic and the fact that you're traversing a lake 85ft above sea level is not lost on you. You also get to witness the massive expansion project up close.
As you approach the Pedro Miguel lock you arrange into formation again (for us it was the same as the previous day, but it's not always the case). Before you know it you’re un-rafting, the adviser is looking for the pilot boat to pick him up, and some guys in a white launch are headed your way collect the lines and fenders.
Crossing under the Bridge of the Americas, we saw where the high tide mark had left snails and barnacles in its recession. Dozens of tankers sat an anchor, the lumpy island of Taboga a looming backdrop. Pelicans in the hundreds hovered and dove, cascading like bombs into the mess of sardine schools flickering on the surface. It took a minute, but it struck us that we were in a different ocean, a vast one, and one through which we'd be chasing the sinking sun each day. Having crossed the tiny isthmus that had seemed like such a barrier for so long, time suddenly seemed to be something else we'd need to chase.
A quick note on line handlers...
Because so many boats have only one or two people on board, as in our case, line handlers are in high demand. You have a couple of options: "professional" line handlers will cost you $125 per person; amateur line handlers are people with a personal interest in transiting the canal, and you're often only responsible for their one way transportation costs. Amateurs are not guaranteed to have experience, but professionals are not guaranteed to care. In typical fashion, we waited until the day before leaving to look for line handlers. There are notice boards at Shelter Bay Marina as well as an online database created by the people at Panama Line Handler. Typically, gathering any sort of useful information from a website created "by yachties for yachties" is like choosing a Michelin star restaurant based on Yelp reviews... but in this case the information was incredibly valuable, both for boat owners and volunteer line handlers.
Between the notice boards and the database we found three motivated, knowledgeable, and personable people to help us out. Calling them amateurs would be a discredit, though. All of them had extensive boating experience in general and had been through the canal as line handlers multiple times. Russell and Diane had been living in Panama City less than a year, but transiting the canal had quickly become something of a hobby for them, an opportunity to combine their many local passions. They told us they were just fascinated by the whole thing and we relied on their knowledge at every step of the way. Not only did they fill us in on what would be happening at each point, they also served as personal tour guides, pointing out parts of the canal with historical significance, highlighting current expansion projects and relating canal myths, facts, and stories throughout the day.
Our third line handler was Oliver, and he brought along his friend Ninfa. Their helpfulness and warm personalities were more than welcome on board. Oliver had recently started his own yacht agency and was highly professional, enthusiastic, and resourceful. He speaks Dutch, German, French, English and Spanish and is just as comfortable talking about canal logistics as he is describing places he's traveled to and surfed. It was really refreshing to be involved with someone in the yachting industry who was so sincere and thoughtful and he continued to be a huge help to us while we were in Panama City. Though he doesn't need it (his business is bound to succeed) we can't recommend him highly enough.