Transiting the Panama Canal

Lynn & Mike ..around the world
Mike Drinkrow & Lynn v/d Hoven
Fri 9 Mar 2012 18:49
08:54.54N 079:31.62W

Transiting the Panama Canal:

The history of the canal is fairly well known, but in summary:  When this land was controlled by Colombia, the French, under leadership of Ferdinand  de Lesseps, started planning a canal to cross the Isthmus of Panama, with  construction commencing in 1880. However due to disease, harsh climatic conditions and financial mismanagement things did not work out ..and over 20 000 lives were lost!

In 1903, Panama claimed independence and drew up a treaty with the USA to construct and run a canal. After 10 years and some incredible engineering, disease management and a very large bucket of money, the canal was completed.  Albeit with continued upgrades and on-going maintenance, the canal has run efficiently 24/7 ever since.  At the end of 1999 the Americans handed back the control of the canal to the Panamanians.  The canal is now undergoing major expansion with new longer and wider locks to be launched in 2014. It is quite an incredible thing to behold!  There is a good map of the canal on my previous entry.

On Wednesday afternoon we left Shelter Bay marina and anchored on The Flats, an area just before the first locks.  In addition to Mike and I, we also had on board:  3 expert line-handlers  (James, Edwin and Jorge);  4 very thick 40m lines;  seven fat fenders and a number of motor car tires – all needed for the transit.  At 4pm our Advisor Roy boarded and  we quickly set off for the Gatun locks.



MIKE & ROY                                                                                        OUR LINE-HANDLERS

The basic route from the Atlantic to the Pacific:  From the port of Cristobal (Colon) you go up  3 locks, then cross the lake and then down 3 locks back to the port of Balboa (Panama City) The distance covered is about 60nm  and you travel from west to east .. and if you think that is a mistake.. checkout a map! 

The first 3 locks (Gatun locks) are each 33.5m wide and 305m long, and together raise the vessel by 26 meters.  They are separated my massive doors that control the water flow from the Gatun Lake, which is gravity fed into the locks. All the water that controls the locks comes from this massive manmade lake, which dams up the Chagres River.  As we are in the dry season, to conserve water, the Canal Authorities are doing fewer transits for private yachts and we have to be squeezed in. This means that the entire transit now has to be done in one go, from late afternoon, overnight to the early morning.  Usually this is done over two days, in daylight.


TIME2 DWARFED IN THE FIRST LOCK                                                             A MULE CONTROLLING THE SHIP AHEAD


While large ships are dragged thru the locks with mules (4 trains with cables), private yachts are tied to the side of the locks in various ways. Usually a few yachts are tied together and two lines from each side are used to keep the yacht in the middle of the lock. After lead-line is thrown down to your yacht, a line-handler ties your thick line to it, which is pulled up and tied to a bollard. As the water comes in, the line-handler slowly brings in the line, keeping it taught at all times.  In our case, we were tied to the side of the lock and only two lines were sent up to the bollards. This is the worst way you can go through the locks, but the Advisor insisted! The lock doors were then closed and the water is flooded in, creating all kinds of turbulence.


THE GIANT DOORS OF THE FIRST GATUN LOCK CLOSE                                            TIME2  SIDE-TIED TO THE WALL

As we were “side-tied”, much more control was needed, to keep us from crashing into the very rough walls.  Using the bow and stern thrusters, and some excellent maneuvering skills, Mike was able to keep us off the walls.  While two line-handlers managed controlled the tightening of the lines, the other one and I, fended off with boat hooks!  A pretty stressful time… THREE times over, as we went through each lock!


KEEPING THE LINES TAUGHT                                                    NEARLY AT THE TOP

By now it was dark and Mike had to motor  us across the Gatun Lake, which thankfully is very well buoyed and the Advisor knows very well.  At this time we could all eat and the four of us in the back could rest a bit.

Sadly we missed some beautiful scenery, including the spectacular Guillard Cut as it was night and all we could see were spot lights – however the view of the Centenary Bridge was special.


ENTERING PEDRO MIGUEL IN THE DARK                                                    THE CENTENARY BRIDGE 


Around 10pm we reached the Pedro Miguel lock, where we were side tied to a barge and lowered  nine meters.  Going down is a little less stressful than going up – but still much maneuvering is required. At this stage we also started having overheating problems on the hydraulics which drive the bow and stern thruster.  Mike and I then started a process of switching everything off for a few minutes at a time to let things cool down.  As the doors finally opened, Time 2 was sucked out of the locks and the Advisor told Mike to accelerate to keep control.  We then we hit some turbulence, the boat rocked dramatically - I went flying  ..  and sadly, so did my camera, which crashed into the deck  ...  never to work again!  (Luckily we still have Mike’s)

A short trip across the Miraflores Lake brought us to the 2 Miraflores locks. The “Pacific” locks are almost double the length of the Atlantic ones, and have much higher lock doors, due to the extreme tidal range in the Pacific (up to 5.5m).

Again we were tied to the wall, and again we were fending off like crazy as well as trying to keep the system cool.  Mike continued to do a sterling job and no damage was done.  At about 11.30pm we were through the last lock and continued to the port of Balboa.  Our Advisor was picked up by a Pilot boat and we headed towards La Playita anchorage. As we got closer we heard a call for Time2 on the radio. It was our friend Des on Island Fling who had waited up for us.  It is pretty difficult to anchor in the dark in a busy port, so we were very thankful to have his guidance.  He then came over with Chad on Zabacat and they kindly took our line-handlers, the tire fenders and lines back to shore with their dinghy.  What a joy!

So after eight pretty stressful hours Time2 is now safely anchored in the Pacific. We will stay here for a few days before heading off to the outer islands and up to Costa Rica

PS: I made a number of video-clips of the transit ..sadly much of it was in the dark – but we will edit it and be able to show something when we get home.