The Most Exciting Boring Passage – Transiting the Panama Canal, November 2013

Transiting the Panama Canal is on many a “bucket list” and we were no exceptions. But unlike many who make this passage on a cruise ship, we did it on our own 50’ sailboat, crossing from the Caribbean (or Atlantic, as the Panamanians call it) to the Pacific in November 2013.

So what was it like? Easy, complex, fascinating, boring, exciting, historical, amazing… all of those things.

Here are some details, and answers to the FAQs we get:

So, you were going east to west, right?

Not exactly. An unexpected fact about the Canal passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific is that you are actually traveling from west to east! The country of Panama is shaped like a snake and lies in a more-or-less east-to west direction. Its narrowest part, where the Canal was dug, just happens to be where there’s a funky turn.

What do you have to do to go through?

As you might imagine, a Panama Canal transit requires a fair amount of paperwork. You can do all the arrangements and paperwork yourself, or you can hire an agent. We decided an agent would give us more time to prepare and be an insurance against any unforeseen circumstances. We hired Roy Bravo of the Emmanuel Agency, and it proved to be a great decision. His agency handled all the paperwork and scheduling, and provided the fenders and lines we would need.

How much does it cost?

The tolls for the Canal are based on something called an “admeasurement.” On November 20th, the official measurer from the Panama Canal Authority (ACP in Spanish) showed up with his tape. He measured from the very front of the bow light on our bow pulpit to the back edge of the solar panels on our stern – in other words, our real total length. Akka, a Stevens Custom 50, has an official documentation certificate, stating our length as 48’7”. The ACP measurer came up with 51’ and some inches. The toll is $800 for vessels under 50 ft. and $1300 for boats 50-100. So we paid $1300 in tolls, some $755 in taxes and other fees, and $400 for Roy’s services.

Did you go alone, or did anyone go with you?

We had help, and good company! All small boats must have four “line handlers” aboard (see more below), in addition to the captain. Carol Robinson and Amy Brisson flew down from the States to join us, and cruising friends Ken and Marilyn Frick of Dream Ketch’r joined us from their boat, already in Panama.

How long is the Canal?

The Canal is 46 miles long. It has 3 sets of locks: one set on the Atlantic side (the Gatun Locks), one set at the Pacific side (Miraflores Locks, near Panama City) and one set at the Pacific end of Lake Gatun. (Trivia fact: When Lake Gatun was created by the US Army Corps of Engineers, it was the world’s largest artificial lake.) The canal passage through the lake follows a set of buoys where the lake is kept dredged to a depth of 40 feet. In preparation for the new Canal, the ACP is straightening some curves and widening some places.

How long does it take to go through?

That depends. Big ships can do it in 8-10 hours. For small boats like us, the passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific is done in 2 stages: From Colon to Lake Gatun via the Gatun locks the first evening, then Lake Gatun and the two sets of locks at the Pacific end, the next day. Our advisor came aboard at about 8:00 the evening of our departure. We went through the Gatun Locks and moored for the night at about 10:00, just on the other side of the locks. We left the mooring the next morning at 6:30 and got to Panama City at about 2:30 in the afternoon. So, about 10 hours of motoring, all told.

How did you know what to do?

Roy instructed us to leave the marina at 4:15 PM and go to an area of the Colon harbor called “the flats” to pick up our ACP advisor. From that point, the advisor would explain everything. Every vessel transiting the Canal must have either a pilot (for large ships) or an advisor (for hand-lined boats). Advisors are ACP employees who may be in training to become pilots, or who may drive tugs or other support boats in the Canal. Being an advisor is extra income for them, and it's customary to provide them with lots of good food while they're aboard. All are intimately familiar with the Canal (and often with its history). Advisors (and pilots) do not steer the boat – they explain what is happening, going to happen, and how to react to it. In other words, they advise. Ultimately, the Captain is still in charge, and any mishaps are totally on him.

How does a boat go through the locks?

All vessels go through the canal under their own power. If Akka had been a big ship, she'd be centered in the lock by small electric train engines called “mules”. There would be either two or four mules on each side of the lock, handling steel hawsers. The mules don't pull or stop the ship.

In our case, the mules were replaced by our onboard line-handlers: Carol, Amy, Ken and Marilyn. Rob drove and Andi kept things organized as well as providing delicious meals.

When we checked in with the Cristobal canal traffic control center, we got a Canal transit number: 44A. The even number indicated that we were going from the Atlantic to Pacific; the “A” meant we were hand-lining. Hastroberto, our first advisor, arrived and told us that another sailboat, a 60’ catamaran, would be going through the locks (“locking through”) with us. This meant that our 2 small boats would be tied together (rafted) and be in the center of the locks behind a large ship, so we would only need line handlers on one side of our boat. But the catamaran's agent apparently got the ACP to allow her to go through alone, center-lock and not tied to us. So we waited as night fell, and Andi made sandwiches for the gang. At long last, we were directed into the Gatun Locks, a set of 3 locks that lift boats 85’ from the Atlantic (Caribbean) to Gatun lake. (BTW, each “lock” is actually 2 sets of side-by-side locks.)

What’s it like to go through the locks?

Amazing.

Remember we mentioned that Roy provided fenders and lines? The fenders were eight car tires, completely wrapped in black plastic. We hung them along Akka’s sides to protect her from other vessels and the lock walls. Roy also supplied four bright blue 150’ ¾” polypropylene lines – two for each side of the bow, two for each side of the stern.

We followed a large container ship into the locks, impressed by the height of the heavy gates and cement walls that towered above us. Two ACP line handlers awaited on the jetties alongside us. They whistled to get our attention, then each threw a long light line high above our decks. We ducked, because the line is weighted with a “monkey fist” – a complex knot about the size of a tennis ball tied around a lump of lead! Our line handlers (Amy and Ken on our bow, Carol and Marilyn on our stern) tied the light lines to the big 3’ loops we had already tied in our heavier lines with bowline knots. As we motored into the lock, the ACP line handlers walked along the walls, keeping pace with us until we were in position behind the ship. Another whistle from the ACP line handlers signaled our crew to pay out the heavy blue lines as the ACP guys hauled them up, dropped the loops over large bollards, untied their small lines and walked away. Now it was the responsibility of Rob and our 4 line handlers to keep Akka – 44A – centered in the locks. The advisor warned us that we would experience turbulence as the lock filled. But first we marveled at the sheer size of the lock gates, each over 300 tons of metal, as they swung closed behind us and meshed into one another. Built in Ohio in 1912 and put into service in the Canal in 1914, they have never needed replacement. At both ends of the sets of locks are double gates, so that if a ship doesn't stop in time when she's in the lock, she'll only break one set of gates and the water will be held in (or out of) the lock. This has, apparently, happened.

Once the gates were closed, the locks began filling. Some 52 million gallons of Lake Gatun water filled the lock in about 10 minutes! The flow is from enormous tubes at the bottom of the locks, entirely by gravity; there are no pumps. Our stalwart line handlers pulled in on our lines to keep them taut and keep us centered as the water boiled in. What a sensation, made more surreal under the yellow sodium lights, as we rose. Bells clanged, horns sounded and the front gates swung open. The ACP line handlers appeared on the walls, removed our lines from the bollards and walked along with us as we moved into the second set of locks. Rob drove carefully in the turbulence caused by the ship we were following. Once we were in, the lines were again looped on bollards, the gates closed, and we again rose. This process was repeated one more time and we were in Lake Gatun. Hastroberto directed us to a mooring buoy about a mile away from the locks, where we would spend the night. He wished us a good passage as a launch came to take him away. A new advisor would arrive at 6:30 AM to take us the rest of the way.

What was it like in Lake Gatun?

It felt a little strange, because we were so isolated but also so close to the construction site for the new Gatun locks, just a few hundred meters away from where we sat at the mooring. In fact, when Amy and Carol had toured those works two days before, they took a picture of a water spout almost exactly where we were moored! But the night we spent there was very quiet, just us and the catamaran at another mooring nearby. It was warm but we didn't swim – we had been warned that crocodiles patrolled the area.

Before we settled in for the night, Rob, Ken, Marilyn and Amy enjoyed a few hands of bridge. Our crew was not entirely chosen at random!

Six thirty arrived early, and with it came Jael, our new advisor, leaping nimbly from the launch to our deck. His first news was that Akka’s number was now 44AC, the “C” indicating that we’d spend the night. As the sun rose, we untied from the mooring buoy and followed the catamaran into the channel through Gatun Lake. The catamaran took off and we soon lost sight of her in the curves of the channel. Andi went below to make breakfast. The quiche was a big hit.

All vessels in the Canal are supposed to go at least 8 knots – we had known that and had of course stated that as our speed – but 8 knots was really pushing Akka's old 70-horsepower engine. Our advisor could also see that, and by chatting by VHF radio with other vessels’ pilots and Canal Traffic Control he determined that we could slow down to about 5½ knots and still arrive at the next set of locks at our scheduled time, as long as we “cut” some of the corners. So for the next 5 hours, we motored through one of the world’s largest man-made lakes, leaving the channel from time to time to straighten out the twisty route, then getting back in our place between the big channel buoys whenever a ship appeared.

Wasn't the Lake Gatun passage boring?

It could have been boring, but the jungle scenery, the boat traffic, the maintenance vessels and the construction efforts for the new, larger canal (which will also use Lake Gatun) made it interesting. Canal maintenance is 24/7. Large dredges work constantly to ensure depths of at least 40’ throughout. Where the land is reasonably flat, we saw earthmovers clearing the banks to eliminate points of land and straighten the channel. This will be important when the new locks are open to even longer and wider (so-called “post-Panamax”) ships. The current locks are 1000’ long and 110’ wide; the new ones will be 1400’ long and 180’ wide.

At some places, the canal sides are cliffs or bluffs that have been blasted or bulldozed away. Occasionally, we saw sections of PVC pipe sticking out of the hillsides where dynamite was placed in order to blow away the hillside. Some of the steeper cliffs have been reinforced with tie-rods.

Along the way, we passed several interesting places, including the prison in which Noriega is still held and the Titan crane. Among the largest floating cranes in the world, Titan can lift 350 metric tons. It was built in Hitler's Germany, claimed by the US as WWII booty and brought to Long Beach, California. The story has it that when it was re-assembled, the first thing they had to do was to paint over the swastikas! In 1999, the US sent it to Panama where it is used to maintain the canal lock gates.

The most famous – or notorious – section of the Canal is the 7½ -mile stretch called the Culebra Cut. This was the area that caused the most problems during the canal construction, first for the French, then for the US Corps of Engineers. A large hill was blasted away to make the Cut, but its composition was unstable, causing numerous landslides. It used to be pretty dramatic to go through, narrow and twisty with steep sides, but now that it has been widened for the new canal, the drama is lessened.

Around 11:30 AM we arrived at the San Pedro Miguel locks to begin our down-locking. The Lake Gatun phase of our transit was complete, without incident.

Was down-locking any different from going up?

A little different. By now, we’d caught up with the catamaran and the ACP wasn’t sympathetic to their requests to go through alone, so we tied our two boats together. Our advisor and theirs consulted and decided that the catamaran would be the control boat; we would keep our engine on but Rob was instructed not to use it to propel us, just to keep the catamaran from slewing sideways due to Akka's drag alongside her. Of course, he was still to use power in an emergency, if necessary.

At the end of the pier that separates the two sets of locks is a large red and green arrow. We watched it carefully as the red arrow pointed straight up, meaning we had to wait. Then slowly, it rotated so the green arrow pointed to the lock we were to enter. Together, Akka – now 44AC – and the catamaran entered the lock. Now, we only had to tend lines on the starboard side, so our port-side handlers got a break. The two monkey fists flew over and Ken and Carol tied on our starboard side lines.

This time, the dock workers were level with us in the flooded lock when we started, so our line handlers sent the heavy polypropylene across immediately to be dropped over the bollards. As we dropped 27 feet to the next level, our line handlers kept the lines just taut enough so that Akka and the cat stayed in the middle of the lock, away from those unforgiving concrete walls.

When the Canal was first built, ships fit easily in the enormous locks. But nowadays many of the ships that transit the Canal are “Panamax”, as big as the Canal Authority will allow. When they're in a lock it looks as if they were touching both walls, though the clearance is actually 2' on each side.

Once through the San Pedro Miguel locks, we were in the short channel to Miraflores. The two sets of locks on the Pacific end of the Canal, at San Pedro and Miraflores, serve different purposes. The San Pedro locks hold the water in Lake Gatun (and, critically, the Culebra Cut) and lower the ships down to near sea level. The Miraflores locks also lower the ships somewhat but they also solve the problem of the 20' Pacific tides (there is little or no tide in the Caribbean). Even the French, who planned a sea-level canal, were planning to put tidal locks at the Pacific end.

On our way to Miraflores, Andi hastened below to begin preparation for our celebratory dinner. We kept “rafted up” with the catamaran for the short passage between the two sets of locks, then passed through Miraflores without issue. Preoccupied with meal preparation, Andi didn't see much of those locks, but other people did – there are webcams above the locks (http://www.pancanal.com/eng/photo/camera-java.html). So who knows? Maybe hundreds of people saw us lock through. Thousands, probably not.

By then we were all “old hands”. Jael didn't give us much advice on boat handling, commenting that “I can see you all know what you're doing, so there's no need for me to say anything.” Pretty nice praise for our crew, from, literally, a pro.

Our last image of the Canal was the Bridge of the Americas, which carries traffic on the Highway of the Americas, high above the waterway. We had no schedule, now, so we took our time getting to the bridge in order to truly savor Andi's teriyaki chicken and vegetable stir-fry and, of course, a bottle of champagne! The ACP launch met us just south of the Bridge of the Americas, and Jael, content and well-fed, said good-bye. With that, Akka entered the Pacific Ocean for the first time.

So, was it exciting to go through the Panama Canal?

To paraphrase our friend Gene Rankin, who handled lines with us for another boat last year, “A crisis-free passage through the Canal is the most exciting boring thing you can do.” Thank goodness, our transit was exactly that.