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
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
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
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
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
What’s it like to go
through the locks?
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,
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
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
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
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
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?
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.