The Panama Canal. An amazing feat of human accomplishment when it was constructed and even today. I remember hearing about it as a child in elementary school – along with some rudimentary information about how it worked – with a locks and man made lake. Filed it into the human memory bank as a place that sounded interesting and maybe I would get a chance to see it some day but that's about it. Fast forward 30 some years to 2015 and we were at at the visitor center at the Miraflores locks looking at ships and small boats transiting through the locks. I probably increased my knowledge of the canal by walking around the exhibits at the visitor center and actually watching ships lock through, but its one thing to understand the physics and mechanics of the canal, and another to actually comprehend the historic impact on the world.
The Panama Canal is huge. Not in miles across the Isthmus of Panama maybe, but in how it changed the world. Panama is a tiny country tucked away between North and South America and so much has changed in the world since the canal first opened in 1914, that it's easy to lose sight of the canals continued importance to the global economy, and as a feat of engineering and human determination. Even today, it would be a project of enormous undertaking and difficulty to build. At the time it seemed impossible. The French tried and failed. The United States tried and nearly failed but a canal was built. There are so many superlatives that could be used to describe the canal. The amount of earth that was moved as part of the excavation is hard to comprehend. The amount of cargo, both in physical volume and monetary value, that is shipped through the canal each year is staggering.
Trying to provide any coherent summary of something like the Panama Canal in a couple of paragraphs in a blog post would be impossible. When it became apparent that we were actually going to take a boat through the canal I wanted to learn more about it because I thought it would somehow make the experience better if I had a greater understanding of what the canal is – rather than just floating along on the surface of the water that moves through it. I don't know if I fully achieved that goal, but my quest for information led to a book by David McCoullough, The Path Between the Seas. Its long but comprehensive and well written. It goes through the entire history of the attempts by France to complete a sea level canal, to the opening of the canal in 1914. It goes into a surprising amount of technical detail which I found interesting as an engineer but it's not so technical that it's difficult to read or understand. I highly recommend the book if anyone want's to dig a little bit deeper.
Okay, enough with an attempt at historical background on the canal. How did we end up in Colon, Panama in April of 2019, stuck in a Marina and waiting to go through the canal in a boat that we actually own? Followers of this blog probably know that we sold one boat and bought a new to us boat in February of this year. The new boat was in Florida. We debated what to do with it since we would not be able to go cruising full time again for a few years until we put more money in the bank. No matter what it was going to have to leave Florida. Insurance companies do not like writing policies that provide coverage for what they refer to as "named wind storms", i.e. hurricanes. Especially after the devastation caused by Hurricane Irma in 2017. We were going to need to move the boat, the questions then became how and where?
One option was to leave the boat on the east coast and bring it far enough north up the eastern seaboard to be clear of the hurricane zone. Another option was to go somewhere south of the hurricane zone; the Island of Grenada is a popular option for cruisers. Panama? We considered it. Ship the boat? People do it all the time. It seemed like a real option. It would save time and wear and tear on the boat. 2 quotes came back in the ballpark of $44,000 to put the boat on a ship from Florida to Ensenada, Mexico. Not happening. After a lot of discussion, we decided to move the boat on its own bottom and I would effectively be a delivery captain for the duration of the trip.
Fast forward to April of 2019 and we were parked Shelter Bay Marina in Colon, Panama waiting to transit the canal. Two of our crew that came down from Florida had to fly home to Wisconsin because it became apparent that the wait to get through the canal was longer than expected, and they had to get back to real life. My dad Colin, did not have to be back home to France before the end of April so things were looking pretty good for him to stick around and go through the canal. My brother Damon was able to take some time off of work and fly down with Cassidy on April 14 so that she could experience the canal transit. Unfortunately, Jen had to stay in San Diego and work. But there we were, 3 generations on a boat on the edge of the Panamanian jungle waiting to go through the canal.
Logistically there are a lot of things that need to happen before a private boat can get through the canal. We chose to enlist the services of an agent to handle the logistics, which in my opinion was money well spent. The most important thing that happens is what they call admeasurement, where your boat is inspected and measured. After that, they go to work figuring out where the small boats will fit with the large ships that are constantly going through the locks. I've heard it referred to as a game of Tetris, how they fit the small boats in with the ships. After going through, it's tight but not so tight that that description is apt. Regardless, it takes time and effort to figure out where to put everyone and a day after we got measured we were notified that we would transit on April 21. The only caveat was that it was Easter, which is a huge holiday in Panama and there was a possibility that there wouldn't be enough advisors available and the date could change. Luckily that didn't happen and we were notified on the day of April 20 that we should head out into the anchorage where we would meet up with our advisor the following morning. It was time to go. We assembled our crew and headed out of Shelter Bay, into the nearby anchorage that had other small boats waiting to transit on one side and huge ships on the other.
Our crew – the Gardynes – Dougal, Damon, Colin, Cassidy. A guy named Ben that we met up with in Shelter Bay and had crewed on a friends boat from the Virgin Islands – but like our crew Nels and Rudy -also had to get back to the real world. It's very common for fellow cruisers to volunteer as line handlers and we got connected with Ben through the morning VHF radio net that happens every day in Shelter Bay Marina at 7:30. We also had two paid line handlers.
A requirement for the transit is that in addition to someone to operate the boat, there needs to be 4 people on board that can work as line handlers. The reason for this is that there are multiple ways that small boats can transit the locks and with one configuration know as "center lock" you go through alone with a line on each corner of the boat to the top of the lock walls. Our line handlers if we needed all 4 were going to be Damon, Ben, and the two local guys arranged by our agent. They shall remain nameless because of a language barrier and poor memory. Damon was also going to have to do double duty as the cook, because another requirement is that you need to provide hot meals to the canal advisor that rides along on your boat.
After a stormy but non-eventful night in the anchorage, we got on the VHF radio to call the authorities that control traffic through the canal confirm that our advisor would be brought to our boat at 4:30 am. They confirmed we were good to go and although the advisor was a little late, we were underway toward the first set of locks at 4:50 am.
There are several ways that small private boats can transit the canal:
- Side lock (tied to the side of the concrete locks)
- Center lock (a single boat in the center of the lock, tied to both sides)
- Nested (a raft of 2 or 3 boats, tied to each side of the lock)
- Tied to a tug (tug boat agains the lock wall, private boat tied to the tug)
Our canal agent advised that we absolutely refuse the side lock option, as the concrete is extremely rough on the sides of the locks and friction between the fenders that keep the boat off the lock walls and the boat hull and locks can cause all kinds of problems as the water in the locks is filled and drained. The other 3 configurations were all on the table and we didn't know how we would transit until we were actually staged outside the first set of locks waiting to enter.
They decided that we would go through nested, and our raft was to be Ata Marie in the center as we were the largest boat of the 3 boat raft. On our starboard side we would tie to a 40 something foot sailing catamaran named Bella Luna. On the port side a very small monohull that was captained by an intrepid Frenchman who was planning on taking this under built craft all the way to the South Pacific!
The Gatun Locks are a series of 3 adjacent lock chambers that raise boats and ships from sea level on the Atlantic side to the level of Gatun Lake, which leads to the locks on the Pacific side.
Normally with a 3 boat raft, the center boat is responsible for maneuvering into and out of the locks, and line handlers on each of the side boats deal with the lines that attach to their respective side of the locks. In theory, handling the lines is fairly straightforward. Light weight heaving lines – with a heavy "monkey fist" – are thrown by line handlers on the top of the lock walls down to the line handlers on the boats. These are then attached to the heavy weight "lock lines" (~1 inch diameter 3 strand twisted line) that are then hauled up to bollards at the top of the locks. The line handlers on the boats are responsible for keeping uniform tension on the lines as the water level within the locks changes – and also keeping the boat or in our case the raft of 3 boats centered within the locks. This means that locking up, the slack in the line needs to be taken up by the onboard line handlers, and locking down, the lines need to be eased. If the lines are not eased properly, enormous tension and energy can build up and bad things can happen, i.e. snapped lines or deck cleats being ripped out.
Because the monohull on our port side was so light and under built, the advisors on each of the boats got together and determined that the lines to the port side of the locks would be handled by our boat as well. Having an asymmetric raft with a larger multihull on one side and a light monohull on the other side affected the way our boat handled but at least it was predictable. Another plus was that the tunnel for our bow thruster was ahead of the bows of the other two boats so it was in relatively clear water and somewhat useful for fine tuning the attitude and position of the raft.
Our transit through the Gatun Locks was relatively uneventful except for an incident as we were preparing to move forward from one chamber to the next. Locking up, small boats go into the locks after a large ship at the rear of the chamber. Going down, the small boats are at the front of the chamber. Standard practice is to keep the heavy lock lines attached to the sides of the chamber until the large ships have made way into the next chamber. The large ships are tensioned between the locks by electric locomotives that have wire ropes attached to the ships and move on rails as the ships move to maintain uniform spacing between the lock walls. They also need to either move forward under their own power or with the help of tugs.
The ship in front of us had a tug to its stern and as it was applying power to move the ship forward to the next lock, an incredible amount of turbulent flow developed in the lock chamber and we heard 2 almost simultaneous loud noises that sounded almost like a gun shot. It quickly became apparent that both heavy lines attached to the catamaran on our starboard side had parted, and out entire raft was rapidly drifting toward the port side of the lock chamber.
I tried to gain control of the raft and keep our 3 boats from going into the lock wall as the line handlers rapidly tried to get lines back up onto the starboard side of the lock. As this was all happening, the crew on the small monohull looked extremely worried as their boat could have been easily crushed against the lock wall and they were ready to jump onto our boat. Luckily we were able to maneuver away from the wall with a combination of engine power, rudder, and bow thruster and the line handlers got lines back up to the other side of the chamber. The rest of the transit through the Gatun Locks was tame compared to that, and we successfully exited into Gatun Lake.
Transiting Gatun Lake was a nice break from the relatively high stress environment of maneuvering through the lock chambers. Seeing huge ships in a fresh water jungle environment was a little surreal. We took a break on a mooring can just outside the narrow cut known as Culebra while waiting for an LNG carrier to pass. They have rules that these ships must transit the cut without any other traffic for security reasons.
When small boats transit the canal, it can either be done in one long day, or split into two days – spending one night moored on Gatun Lake. Our boat and the sailing cat Bella Luna had enough boat speed that we could make it across the lake in one day, while the smaller monohull that was tied to our port side was not fast enough, so they stopped for the night and Ata Marie and Bella Luna continued toward the Pacific
On the Pacific side there are also 3 lock chambers but they are split into a separate chamber called the Pedro Miguel Lock, a short manmade lake, and then the final two locks known as Miraflores.
In the final two lock chambers at Miraflores, we rode down attached to a tug that was tied to the side of the lock chamber. It was a little tricky maneuvering to tie to him, but once attached it was a nice break as they take care of easing the lines as the water drops and we just went along for the ride.
After exiting the lower and final chamber of the locks at Miraflores, we had few more miles to cover to get out to the Gulf of Panama, where we would drop of our canal advisor Roy and go around the outside of the Amador Causeway to Flamenco Marina for a couple of nights in a slip.
Damon flew back to Seattle, Colin back to Florida and then France. Cassidy and I would continue north up through Panama and Costa Rica over the course of the next few weeks. More to come…