Panama Canal Transit: Day one

Vries Peter Pons
Sun 20 Mar 2011 14:00

The first thing we tackled when we arrived on March 10th at Shelter Bay Marina, the marina closest to the Atlantic side entry of the Panama Canal, was our transit through the Panama Canal. We chose the quicker route of having Eric Galvèz, an specialized agent, handle all formalities for us. This included an appointment with the Admeasurer of the ACP (Panama Canal Authorities), getting us as soon as possible on the transit list, and no need for a USD 891,- deposit, which you only get reimbursed once you have transited the Canal without damaging it. Moreover he provided us with the mandatory 4 thick, 36m  long mooring lines and not so mandatory, but indispensable 30 car tires to protect Aquamante’s sensitive skin from the “unfinished concrete walls” of the locks, an alarmingly accurate description in one of the pilot guides we use. And in spite of this one is supposed to put up a deposit, because the ACP worries we could damage the locks! Anyway, all of this at a price of some USD 1100,- including his fee of USD 250.-, which is not so bad, if the only alternative is sailing around Cape Horn!


m_P3200052A couple of days later the Admeasurer visited us, measured the length of Aquamante, had us sign lots of paperwork, most importantly all kinds of indemnities to get them off the hook, if we would end up between the lock doors or worse. He also asked for our boat speed, which, as we had been told by everyone,  should be at least 8 knots (which is physically impossible for many of the smaller sailing boats to make, but that does not matter), but checked none of the requirements the boat should comply with. The next day Eric confirmed that Aquamante was scheduled to transit the Panama Canal on 20-21 March 2011. In the past the ACP tried to get yachts transit in one day, starting very early in the morning, but since smaller yachts could never make the required speed, they recently decided to have all yachts pass the night in the Gatun Lake before continuing.


It was a close call for us to have Aquamante ready for the scheduled date, as we were in the midst of a job on the generator, which was not finished until one day before. Postponing our transit was no option, as we would have been added to the end of the waiting list, delaying our transit by at least some 10 days. To add to the excitement of the imminent transit our 4 mooring lines and 29 tires arrived only by noon on the day of our transit, two hours before our departure from Shelter Bay to make it in time for the locks. Luckily our 4 line handlers Carl, Lucas, Scott and Weynand, carefully selected during the previous days on basis of skills, team spirit and fun from the stock of sailors at Shelter Bay Marina, were all in time, and could assist in preparing Aquamante for the transit.


Having at least 4 line handlers on board is a requirement by the ACP, and many sailors planning to transit the canal volunteer as line handlers to get some practice before they transit with their own boat. We did the same, helping a couple from Sausalito, CA on board SY Dreamkeeper, whom we met in Shelter Bay Marina transit a week before our own transit.


m_2011-03-20 Aquamante Panama Canal Transit 022.jpgm_2011-03-13 Dreamcatcher Panama Canal Transit 033Around 14.00h we motor from Shelter Bay Marina to the Flats, a mooring area to wait for the Advisor to come on board. Advisors are an unofficial sort of pilot, often administrative staff of the ACP who volunteer to accompany boats under 65 feet in the transit. Whereas ACP pilots really get the ultimate command over ships transiting the Canal, Advisors just do what they are called, they advise, and ultimate responsibility remains with the skipper. But such advice is nonetheless invaluable, and therefore a good relationship with the Advisor is key. As everyone had told us in advance, such relationships are greatly enhanced by stuffing the Advisor with food and drinks, which Daph had meticulously prepared in advance.


At 16.45h, only an hour or so after the agreed time, our Advisor is dropped off by a pilot vessel, and we immediately lift anchor to set sail for the three chambers of the Gatun Locks at the Atlantic side of the Canal.


These locks, of which each chamber is some 50% larger than the Oranjesluizen of Amsterdam, (but, comforting detail for the Dutch, a third smaller than the Noordersluis connecting the Noordzeekanaal to the North Sea, which was built in 1929 (thank you, Wikipedia)), should bring us to the Gatun Lake, 30 m above sea level. After some hints from skipper and crew of Aquamante and our Advisor suggests to “nest” with SY Abora, an Amel 53 of a German couple with Aquamante as the leading boat, because of her heavier displacement and more powerful engine. “Nesting” means you tie two or three boats alongside each other and cross the locks together.


The other options for smaller boats to transit the Canal are:

“center”: in the middle of the lock with 4 lines from port and starboard bow and stern to the boulders on the walls (that’s where the four line handlers come into play);

“wall”: directly against the “unfinished concrete wall”, which is rarely done in case of sail boats, as the mast can hit the wall due to the turbulence in the locks;

“alongside”: alongside a tug boat or other larger vessel, you simply tie up and enjoy the ride up or down without having to do anything.

The only other option, transiting with the aid of 4 to 6 locomotives is reserved for the really big ships.


After tying up, and checking whether all the tires of each boat were in the right place, the “nested” couple set off towards the entrance under Aquamante’s motor power, while Vries was responsible for steering the raft. Having two boats tied up alongside makes transits more efficient for the ACP, and has the added advantage that each boat only handles two lines to the walls instead of four. Disadvantage is that you can have very professional line handlers on board, but if the line handlers on the other boat screw up, you suffer the consequences and often even sooner than the other boat. So teamwork with the other crew is essential, and the Advisors on each boat cannot do much about that. Fortunately this went pretty well with our German friends, although the atmosphere seemed a bit tense during the whole process. The opposite was the case on Aquamante: everyone was excited to experience the adventure of a transit and focused on what needed to be done, but very relaxed at the same time, with lots of jokes flying around. m_2011-03-20 Aquamante Panama Canal Transit 026.jpg


Meanwhile Daph frantically sms-ed her brother in law in the Netherlands that we were approaching the locks, so that they could watch our transit on one of the webcams of the ACP. Judging the comments we received afterwards, the quality of this ACP service gets mixed reviews.


m_2011-03-20 Aquamante Panama Canal Transit 012.jpgm_2011-03-20 Aquamante Panama Canal Transit 014.jpgThe first thing the line handlers need to do well , when you arrive at the locks is to catch the monkey fists and tie our lines to it. A monkey fist is a very solid object wrapped in rope and attached to a thin line. It is hurled in the general direction of the boat by ACP trained monkey fist pitchers, who keep hold of the end of this thin line. The challenge is to catch it without being hit by it. Once caught, it is tied to the loop in one of the lines, and the ACP pitcher walks, at the pace of the boats, along the chamber wall to the appropriate boulders. Once the doors start to close, the pitcher hauls the line and throws the loop around the boulder, after which the line handlers take up the slack. So much for the theory, which in our case luckily worked out in practice as well.



m_2011-03-20 Aquamante Panama Canal Transit 010.jpgWhen going up to the Gatun Lake, the first chamber of the Gatun Locks is the most dangerous one: in this chamber fresh water is mixed with salt water, which, due to the different density and the speed at which this is done (every 30 seconds you rise by a meter), causes severe turbulence. The turbulence pulls and pushes and would smash a boat against the chamber wall or doors, if the lines are not kept under tension at all times. If you add the prop wash of big ships in front of you to this, it is not hard to understand that things can go wrong quite dramatically in this blender of mega proportions. So the lines were kept tight and the passage through the three chambers passed rather uneventfully. Since then, we’ve heard various stories about crushed bowsprits and worse, lost limbs, which makes you realize, that indeed it does go wrong every so often.













m_P3200134.jpgIt had just turned dark when we exited the third chamber of the locks. From entering the first chamber the whole process of getting us 30 m up to the Gatun Lake had lasted less than 1½ hours. We untied from our little sister Abora and set course for a giant mooring nearby, where we would spend the night. We tied up on one side of the mooring, said goodbye to our Advisor who was picked up by a Pilot boat, and some 15 minutes later Abora tied up on the other side.


Meanwhile Daph dazzled the crew with drinks, snacks, appetizers and a lovely dinner, a great opportunity to celebrate a successful end of the first part of the transit. Whereas we grew louder by the minute, our neighbours of Abora had a rather quiet evening. They chatted in German with their Swiss line handlers, which made their other line handler, a young English guy and friend of our line handler Carl, cross the mooring buoy to join us for after dinner drinks. Since the next Advisor, our guide through the remainder of the Canal to the Pacific, would arrive around 6.00h the next morning, we called it a day, and a momentous one for that matter, sometime after midnight.