Transiting the Panama Canal - Gatun Lake

Scott-Free’s blog
Steve & Chris
Sat 2 Mar 2013 23:46

09:15.667N 79:54.164W


Distance run: 11 nmiles


On our return from Peru, we had two weeks in which to finish jobs on the boat and provision her for an ocean crossing, as well as for the transit.


Steve did a ‘practice run’ by joining Pepe & Bear on Beez Neez as a line-handler when they did their transit the week before us.  This was an invaluable experience as we now knew what to expect and could be ready.


Each yacht has to have a helmsman and four line-handlers for the transit, so we recruited an Argentinian couple, Roberto & Any, and an Italian lady called Marzia as line-handlers for our transit.  They were also sailors with boats in Shelter Bay and were keen to have the experience.


On the morning of Saturday 2nd March we rigged the boat with tyres for fenders and set off with our temporary crew for the anchorage near to Gatun Locks, where we were under instructions to anchor and wait for the advisor to arrive.  Every small yacht going through the canal has to have an advisor on board.  They are not pilots and do not drive the boat, but they coordinate the locking of the boats.  Our advisor arrived on time and immediately told us to up anchor and motor to the first of the Gatun locks.  Going west, as we were, these are the ‘up’ locks.  There are three and they take us up 85 feet to Gatun Lake in the middle of the canal.



At anchor in The Flats, waiting for the advisor to arrive.


We reached the approach to the first lock around 1700 and had to raft up with two other yachts.  Saliander, a 63’ yacht was in the middle of the raft, we were on its starboard side and Sheer Tenacity was on its port side.  Once tied together, Saliander drove the raft forward into the lock, and the line-handlers on the lock sides threw a heaving line (thin line)with a monkey fist (big knot) on the end onto the two outside boats.  Our line-handlers caught the monkey fists and tied the lines to the thick lines coiled on deck.  The line-handlers on shore walked along, keeping pace with the boat until they reached the bollard on the lock side where the lines needed to be tied.  They then gave a signal and we let go the line so they could haul up the thick mooring line and loop it over the bollard.  We then had to make our end fast on the boat.  It was a very slick operation, controlled by the advisor on Saliander.


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Tied alongside Saliander , approaching Gatun locks.                                                        Inside the first lock, the lock gates closing.


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The height the water will rise.                                                                     Marzia controls the aft shore line.


As the water enters the lock and the boat rises, the lines need to be gradually pulled in to take up the slack.  This takes concentration to ensure that no line is too slack or the boats twist toward the side of the lock.  We were in the lock with a huge cargo ship and there was a lot of turbulence between it and us as the incoming water tried to find somewhere to go.  This put quite some strain on the port aft line each time, and we had a scary few minutes when this aft line on Sheer Tenacity snatched so hard the line handler had to let it out and we started to move towards the lock wall.  Fortunately it was back under control in a couple of minutes and the line-handler was not badly hurt, but it could have been much worse.  The raft of boats together probably weighed 60 tons, and Scott-Free is only a third of that, so we would have had the rest of that weight pushing us into the side of the lock.  Best not to dwell on the consequences of that!


It took about half an hour in each of the three locks, and then we emerged into Gatun Lock, where we untied ourselves from the raft and headed off to pick up a buoy for the night.  The advisor was picked up by a  pilot boat shortly after we were moored and we and our crew settled down to supper of chilli con carne and rice.  Roberto, Any and Marzia had done an excellent job of controlling the lines, and it was with some relief that we enjoyed a drink or two before turning in for the night in anticipation of the 0600 arrival of our advisor the next day to take us the rest of the way through the canal.


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Any & Roberto control the forward line.                                                                                The lock is full, and the Atlantic ocean is way below us now.


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The shore lines have to be very long to reach up to the lock sides.                              The water behind the cargo ship was very turbulent as the lock filled.


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A silly moment – I found it all quite stressful, Steve enjoyed it.                                     The shore line-handler walking the heaving line along.