Transiting the Panama Canal

James & Amelia Gould
Sat 19 Apr 2008 00:21

31 March – 15 April 2008 : Panama Canal & Panama City


The Panama Canal is a marvel of human engineering.  It was built between 1880 – 1914 using steam powered machinery and bare hands at huge expense, both monetary and in human lives.  Building the canal nearly bankrupted France and was so important to the American economy that they stepped in to finish the job, and ended up running the canal for 86 years before handing over the canal administration to the Republic of Panama at the end of 1999.  The canal runs approximately North – South through the isthmus of Panama and links the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific via 3 locks on either side.  The locks raise ships 26m above sea level, and are 33.5m wide and 304.8m long.  Water for the locks is supplied by a huge artificial lake (423sq km) created by damming the Chagres River.  This reservoir also supplies all of Panama’s drinking water.  When the waterway was built, the Gatun dam was the largest earth dam ever built, Gatun Lake was the largest man made lake and the three sets of locks were the largest concrete structures in the world.  The canal provides a vital shortcut for cargo ships travelling between the Far East, America and Europe.  It has given rise to Panamax ships which are container carriers built to exactly fit inside the canal locks with little room to spare.  The canal is currently running near to full capacity and is undergoing a huge expansion project where a new set of bigger locks is being built adjacent to the existing locks.  It is a fascinating place with a dramatic history, and we were very excited about taking our little boat through it.


There are three ways a yacht can go through the canal locks: tied alongside a tug going through; centre chamber where the boat is held in the middle of the lock by two bow and two stern lines going up to the top of the lock; or tied to the lock wall using two lines forward and aft.  Centre chamber lockage is the preferred option for yachts, which often go through in a raft of 2-3 yachts so that the duty of handling the lock lines is shared between the yachts.  The Panama Canal Authority (ACP) has very strict regulations for yachts transiting the canal, right down to the number, size and length of ropes that must be used to ensure that they are long enough and strong enough to hold the boat inside the lock.  As in theory a yacht may need to handle 4 separate lines when going through the locks, the ACP insists that a yacht has 4 line handlers plus the skipper onboard during the transit.  As most yachts only have 2 people onboard, this means that there are constantly people looking for line-handlers to help with their transit.  There is also a small black market in long ropes and tyre fenders (no boat carries enough fenders to cover both sides of the boat completely, so many people use old car tyres to protect their boat).  We ended up renting our lines and acquired most of our tyres from a yacht that came through the canal into the Caribbean.  All the big ships go through with a pilot, but for smaller boats ACP supply an Advisor, who has been trained as a small craft pilot but normally has a different day job, and becomes an advisor in his spare time to earn a bit of extra money on the side.


It had always been our intention to do a practice run through the canal on someone else’s boat if we had the time.  This would give us the opportunity to enjoy the transit and take in the scenery without worrying about our own boat.  It will also help us know what to expect when we take Rahula through.  So we were delighted when Jason and Jo asked us to line-handle for their transit on Reverie, as we figured it would be more fun going through with friends than with strangers.  We decided to make a trip of it and stay in Panama City for a few days after the transit, so we left Rahula in the marina again for our own peace of mine (we don’t like leaving her at anchor unattended for more than 24 hours).  Reverie’s transit was booked to start in the evening of 31 March, and James, Christoph and me, the “hired hands” arrived onboard by late afternoon.  The Advisor was initially due to join us at 1600, then it was 1700, then eventually it was 2000.  Jason and Jo had planned to do a BBQ on Gatun lake when we stopped for the night, but as it looked like we were going to have a late night we ate at anchor in Colon, making sure we didn’t drink too much beer so that we were still capable of doing the transit.  As soon as the advisor came onboard we weighed anchor and were on our way. 


We arrived at the first set of locks pretty quickly, but had to hang around for a while for a big ship to go through.  Then it was our turn.  Reverie was going through with two other yachts – Lady Sara, with many friends of ours onboard and a small French Ovni.  We rafted up alongside Lady Sara, while the Ovni tied up to a tug ahead of us.  Peter, Lady Sara’s skipper, then deftly steered the two yachts into the first lock (the biggest boat with the biggest engines normally goes in the middle for this exact reason).  Once we were inside the lock handlers on the top of the lock threw down heaving lines to each of the 4 corners of the raft, to which we attached our lock lines.  Our lines were then pulled up, secured to a bollard and we took in the slack.  The lock gates closed and before we had time to take a breath water started flooding into the lock from underneath, causing amazing turbulence on the surface which made the yachts yaw slightly and strained the lines.  As the yachts went up with the rising water level we took in the slack on the lines, trying to do it evenly to make sure the boats stayed level with the lock walls.  The routine repeated itself in the next two locks, and by midnight we were through into Gatun Lake.  We separated from Lady Sara and motored across the inky blackness of the lake, lit only by the flashing of the channel marker buoys.  We secured for the night to a large buoy, waved goodbye to the advisor, and after a few celebratory drinks went to bed absolutely exhausted.


We were up early the following morning as we were told the advisor was due to arrive at 7am for the long transit across the lake and down the locks on the other side.  It was a beautiful morning and the scenery across the lake was stunning.  We could hear howler monkeys in the trees on the water’s edge and looked out for crocodiles we knew were hiding somewhere on the slippery banks.  The Advisor eventually arrived an hour late and we set of on the second stage of the transit.  Motoring across this vast man made lake was fascinating.  There was evidence everywhere that this was once a jungle covered mountain range by the tree stumps sticking out of the water along the channel.  We were told not to deviate out of the dredged channel as there were all sorts of things still sticking up under the water from when the area was flooded by the dam.  It was very hot and we sat underneath the cockpit awning looking for signs of wild life.  At one point we realised that it was April Fool’s day, so we started plotting pranks we could play on Lady Sara’s crew, from saying that the locks on the other side were broken to James’ hand being bitten by a crocodile.  Our Advisor, a young friendly guy, got into the swing of it and made several suggestions.  However, they all required the co-operation of the Advisor on Lady Sara and we were told that he would not play ball.


After a long morning motoring through the lake we arrived at the infamous Galliard Cut.  This was the most difficult part of the canal effort as it is made up of hard rock and soft sand and was subject to frequent landslides.  You could still see the seams of different types of rock in the steep sided banks.  We passed lots of canal machinery including small diggers, huge rigs for planting explosives deep into the bedrock and the second biggest floating crane in the world, used for lifting out the lock doors for maintenance (the largest was working on the Tyne while I was based there so I think I am officially a crane spotter… J) .  Here we saw evidence of the canal expansion project in progress, as they were evening out the bends to allow two ships to pass each other side by side.  Once through the cut and under the new Centennial Bridge we rafted up with the other boats again, this time making a raft of 3 with Lady Sara in the middle again.  The down locks went without any incident, though the people on the French Ovni on the other side of the raft to us were more interested in taking pictures than handling their lines and Jason had to berate them several times as they were responsible for keeping his boat away from the wall.  We waved to all the people watching from the visitor’s centre at the Miraflores Locks and smiled at the web cam.  Then the final lock gate opened, and we charged out with the rush of fresh water in the lock into the salt water of the Pacific Ocean.  Jason and Jo were deservedly very excited, but James and I were a little glum as we had to go back to Colon and do it all again on Rahula.


To cheer us up we had a pleasant few days in Panama City, enjoying being in a cosmopolitan place for a change.  As I said in the last blog, Colon is a complete dump, with absolutely nothing to recommend it.  The town is dirty, run down and has no atmosphere.  There is nothing to catch the eye or interest the imagination (apart from the buses!  J).  Panama City is a different world by comparison.  Here was a city filled with high rise buildings, dual carriageways and air conditioned shopping malls. Finally we could go out to dinner somewhere other than the yacht club.  This we did, frequently, still helping Reverie and Lady Sara’s crew celebrate their arrival in the Pacific.  During one of these evening celebrations POCA was born.  I would explain, but that would give the secret away!


We returned back to Rahula a few days before our transit date, and started making final preparations.  We got hold of our hired lines, and strung our tyres and fenders across both hulls.  I went to the supermarket and bought enough food and snacks to keep 6 people happy for the duration of the transit (as usual, I over catered. It’s the Jew in me.  I have to keep people fed! (Doesn’t bother me…J)).  On Friday 4 April our friend Danny was due to arrive from the UK so we hung around at the yacht club to await his arrival.  While there we met a really nice Dutch couple and an English couple who had just arrived and were waiting to find out their transit date.  We were shocked to find out that the wait for yachts now was 7-8 weeks, as opposed to the 4 weeks we waited.  We called the scheduler too, to find out the time of our transit on Sunday.  That was when we got the biggest, unexpected, stunning news – our transit slot has been put on hold as our payment has not gone through!


This news totally threw us.  We were both there at the bank when I signed the credit card slip, and at no point did the cashier tell me that the payment was not authorized.  We had called the canal authority every other day in the first 2 weeks to try to get an earlier slot, and we were never told there were problems with our payment.  We called the week before our transit to confirm the date and make sure everything was OK, and we were not told of any problems.  Why did they choose to tell us on the Friday evening before our transit on the Sunday?!


Several distressed calls later shed some light on the issue.  ACP do not take the payment for the canal transit until after you have been through in case you incur any additional charges or fines during your transit.  So all you have to do is sign a blank slip which lets them take the final amount once you have been though.  It turned out that the credit card authorisation we signed was only valid for 10 days.  When ACP tried to reauthorise another payment our bank thought it looked suspect that two large payments were being requested from the same place and so blocked the card.  Neither the bank, nor ACP thought it would be prudent to let us know.  As we had used a credit card we do not use very often, we had no idea it had been blocked.  I gave Citibank a piece of my mind, and after going through endless security questions and swearing on Rahula’s hulls that we definitely wanted the payment to be made finally managed to get the card unblocked.  Then we were faced with the problem of how to make the payment to ACP.  As it was the weekend the bank was shut, so there was no way we could make the payment ourselves before our transit.  We were told to call the canal’s finance officer the following morning to see what she could do.  In the mean time we begged the scheduler not to give our slot away as the though of another 2 month wait filled us with dread.


We spent a sleepless night contemplating the consequences of missing our slot on Sunday.  Then early the following morning we called the canal finance officer and offered her anything (a fax from the bank, our passports, first born child…I actually offered her Amelia as a domestic slave… J) if she let us go through on Sunday.  She said she would see what she could do, and we had a nail biting few hours waiting for her call back.  In the mean time we found out how quickly news travels in the cruising community as we had a string of phone calls from various friends offering help or moral support.  Even those up the Chagres River in the middle of the jungle found out about our troubles!   Finally we got the call we were waiting for and the news wasn’t good.  Without payment we could not go through the canal.  We would have to go into the bank on Monday, or arrange for a payment to be made by someone who has a corporate account with ACP, such as an agent.  Within minutes we were on the phone to an agent a friend recommended, and as soon as we explained the situation he said “no problem, leave it with me”.  It was all so simple from then on (annoyingly so, after all the heartache we had, to have someone say’ don’t worry this is not a problem’ is a relief but weirdly also a bit upsetting…J) .  Within 2 hours our payment had been made, and for an extra $150 (agent’s fee) we managed to hold onto our transit date.  We were so relieved!


Amongst all this we found out that Danny’s flight had been delayed and that he missed his connection in New York, so he would be spending the day there waiting for the next flight to Panama.  He finally arrived late on Saturday night and we told him how he nearly had a week’s holiday in Colon.  The following day was transit day and I could barely contain my excitement!  Our other line handlers, Christoph and Randy, arrived in the late afternoon, and we sat around again waiting for the Advisor.  He finally arrived at 1730 and we immediately set off.  We were transiting with a large (50ft) French yacht and a 45ft Australian boat.  We were the smallest and slowest boat by far.  While the other two boats charged towards the first set of locks at 8 knots, our little engine barely managed to shift the heavily loaded Rahula at 5.5 knots (we had 6 months worth of provisions onboard, 8 tyres, 6 people… far more than our little boat is designed to carry!).  Our advisor started to worry that we would not make our lock time, and would have to wait to go through alone with the next ship.  James stood on the throttle and gave us an extra 0.1 knot, and we just made it in time as the other two yachts were rafting up and preparing to drive into the lock.


As we were so much smaller than the French boat at the centre, the Advisors decided that we would only handle the starboard stern line, while the French boat would have the starboard bow line.  This meant we had lots of extra people for handling one line, and made our job pretty easy.  Bruno, the skipper of the French yacht, was an excellent boat handler and kept the yachts in the centre of the lock throughout.  As the lock was being flooded, I noticed that we were going up much faster this time than when we had been though on Reverie.  It seemed that the lock keepers were keen to get home, and so had fully opened the valves.  This put a lot of strain on the lines, and at one point there was a loud crack from our cleat which resonated around the high walls of the lock.  We panicked, as if our cleat gave way the raft could lose control.  James examined the cleat and the surrounding area carefully, but there was no sign of any damage.  We put the noise down to the line straining under the load, and the Advisors asked the lock keeper to keep things gentle.  From then on the other locks went without incident.  By 2200 we were moored to the buoys in the lake and had cracked open a beer.  We were nearly in the Pacific!


Another early start the following day to repeat the long passage across Gatun Lake.  As dawn broke we were surprised to find how much lower Rahula was sitting in the fresh water of the lake.  We had expected to go down a little, but our galley drain, a third of the way up the hull, was submerged!  As was the engine nacelle, so we realised all the extra drag would slow us down even more.  This time we warned our new Advisor that we were slow, so we made a head start on the other two boats.  The other boats soon overtook us though…  As soon as there was a breath of wind we got some sails out, giving us an extra little bit.  I force fed everyone the whole way in an effort to get rid of some of the weight and we made it to the down locks with plenty of time.  Yet again we passed through without any problem, and this time James and I cheered when we motored out into the Pacific.  We had made it!


We left all our ropes, tyres and line handlers at the Balboa Yacht Club and were pleased to see Rahula back to her usual motoring speed.  We anchored on the edge of the bay and opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate our arrival in the Pacific Ocean.  It was a great feeling to finally be here after such a long wait on the other side.  Going through the Panama Canal was an amazing experience, one of the highlights of our trip for me.  The sheer scale and ingenuity of it is amazing and taking a small yacht through it, past all the vast container ships is an event I will never forget.


We spent the next few days with Danny exploring the tourist sights in Panama City.  We went to the Visitor’s Centre at the Miraflores lock to see the locks from the other side, and were able to watch two huge Panamax ships squeeze into the adjacent locks with little room to spare.  The locks that seemed so big when we were in them looked miniscule when the ships loomed over them.  The visitor’s centre contained a fascinating museum of the canal’s history and lots of information about the running of the canal.  We wandered around the old city, and were surprised to see lots of Spanish colonial architecture, a stark contrast to the high buildings a block away.  Most of these buildings were in a sorry state, and were left to crumble and decay.  There was, however, evidence of money being poured into the area as several of the buildings were newly restored.  The old city reminded me very much of Cartagena, but without the polish.  The old city housed another canal museum which included a collection of memorabilia related to the canal.  All the descriptions were in Spanish, but it was interesting to see all the original documents and plans.  We visited the usual cathedral and town fortifications before the heat became too much and we headed back to Rahula.   


Despite being in Panama for over a month we had still not been to the jungle proper, and as this was one of the main attractions in the country we tried to arrange a day’s hiking with Danny.  The closest James and I got to the jungle was walking though the nature reserve around the marina in Colon, which was filled with Howler monkeys, sloths and toucans (though the only examples of the latter two we saw were pets of one boat in the marina).  We called several tour operators, and despite being promised calls back nothing ever materialised.  So we decided to go for a walk through the Metropolitan Park, which was the nearest thing we could get to jungle without car.  We had a pleasant walk though the park marveling at the huge trees and spotting monkeys, large butterflies and other insects.  It was a fun way to spend the day, but the sound of traffic and planes overhead marred the jungle experience somewhat.


Danny flew back on Friday 11 April, and we were sad to see him go.  He was the first of our friends to come and visit us since we left and it was nice to spend time wth him and have a connection with home.  We spent our last weekend in Panama waiting for the engine parts we had ordered weeks before (and were told would arrive in 10 days) and stocking up on fresh food for the long passage to the Galapagos Islands.  I went to the local wholesale market and bought a whole stem of bananas for $1.50, as well as pineapples, mangos and other tasty fruit for next to nothing.  Our parts finally arrived late on Monday night.  James fitted them the following day, and once we were sure we had a fully working engine we set off for the Galapagos, excited to be venturing into the Pacific and crossing the Equator.



This diary was sent via our satellite phone, and so I was unable to include the usual photos.  To see pictures of our adventure please go to