Blog Post 48 - Crossing the Panama Canal

Wed 28 Dec 2016 20:17

Blog Post 48 – Crossing the Panama Canal

10/2/16 – 10/4/16

9:22.08N  79:57.1W


Links to 5 min video of canal crossing:


As we got settled in to Flamenco marina and had finally completed the proper check in to the country process, we were now ready to start focusing on our Panama Canal crossing. Crossing the Panama Canal is a huge milestone for our family on this journey. We have literally talked about it for years as we planned this trip. There is a huge decision to be made for a cruising boat coming from the West Coast of the US when you reach Panama City. Do you go west out into the vast Pacific Ocean or do you go east, crossing the Panama Canal and into the Caribbean? It has huge implications for the kind of trip you will be taking.  To cross the Pacific to the Marquesas, French Polynesia (which is the closest island and the first you would reach) is 3746 miles! That is a long, long way. On our boat, we can travel about 144 miles in 24 hours if we are motor sailing at 6 knots. If we cruised at 6 kts the whole time (which is highly unlikely) it would take us a minimum of 26 days and probably more like 30-35 days. That is a long time to be at sea.   Then you have to consider where you are in the world and where you go from there. Most cruisers go to French Polynesia first then make their way across the Pacific towards Australia and New Zealand to wait out hurricane season in the southern hemisphere. You are now at the bottom of the earth with a long way to go to get out. To do so, most likely you will have to cross the Indian Ocean which in one of the most badass oceans in the world. Or you could head East, cross the canal and go into the Caribbean Sea. Surprisingly Jirig and I, nor our kids had ever been to the Caribbean. We vacationed once in Belize but that is it. We also liked the idea of cruising in Europe, Turkey and Greece. By the time we crossed the Atlantic to Europe, we would have 2 years of cruising experience under our belts as opposed to making the Pacific crossing our first year out. For us it was a no brainer. We would be heading for the Caribbean and Europe and then ultimately Turkey. Jirig had not been back to Turkey (where he grew up and lived until he was 28) in over 20 years. So, that is how the decision was made, we would be turning left (East) and crossing the canal.


We had always talked about doing the crossing together, as a family. But when we were delayed in El Salvador, that changed our cruising and crossing timetable. Daniel was now back in Long Beach working for Solar City/Tesla selling solar energy installations for homes. We could not do it without him. He and his Dad had talked about this for so long. He would be so disappointed if he was not there. There are many requirements that need to be met before a boat can cross the canal. One of primary ones is that you have 4 dedicated line handlers, who work nonstop on the deck of the boat, throwing lines back and forth to the handlers up on the canal wall to tie and secure the boat to the sides of the canal while we crossed and each lock filled with water. Jirig trusted Daniel’s capabilities more than anyone on the boat. We decided to fly Daniel down to Panama City for a week to join us for the crossing. He had managed to rearrange his schedule and get a week off of work.  Now that we had the dates settled we were ready to schedule our crossing.


There is a ton of information out there about crossing the canal. People’s firsthand accounts via blog or website, You Tube videos and many cruising guides. It was pretty clear what needed to be done. In addition to the line handlers mentioned above, the first thing you need to do is to contact the Admeasures Office of the Panama Canal Authority.  You have to go to their office in the vast complex that used to be called the Panama Canal Zone. It belonged to the US until they turned over the canal and all its operations, building and facilities over to the Panamanians in 2000. For those of you that have seen the Presidio in San Francisco, it looks very much like that but much, much larger. To find your way around is a challenge but most taxi drivers know the correct building. Once there you fill out a form with the details of your boat, size, length, type and you let them know when you would like to cross etc. For boats travelling east there are no delays but for boats traveling west, it is a different story. Heading to the Pacific from the Caribbean there is 5 times as much small pleasure boat traffic as going from the Pacific to the Caribbean. You also need to confirm that your boat can cruise at 8 knots of speed. There is a stretch of the canal that goes across Gatun Lake and it is a 21-mile trip. In order to cross the Panama Canal in one day, you must be able to maintain a speed of 8 knots to get across the lake in time to cross through the last locks. After the form has been approved by the clerk, she gives you an appointment with the admeasure. He comes out to your boat to inspect it and measure its overall length. The Panama Canal is a commercial interest and as such they want to make sure that every crossing is a profitable one. They will not send one boat thru at a time. If they are going to open those locks they are going to make sure that it is full of paying boats. When they measure your boat they actually walk the length of it with a tape measurer. They include everything. Our boat is documented 48 feet (we think that is inaccurate but it helps in marinas where the usual cut off for a higher price per foot is 50ft). We measured 59 ft. with the admeasure. They include the bow sprit, the davits that hold the dinghy in the back, not just what the length is at the waterline. One thing that the admeasure checks is your bathroom facilities. They want to make sure that you have a functioning head with a door that closes. For boats of less than 70 feet the Panama Canal authority assigns you an advisor. If you are over 70 feet you get a pilot who actually runs your boat through the canal. These advisors and pilots are fussy people. They want nice facilities. You are required to provide them with food and drink for the passage. They strongly recommend that you have a person dedicated for serving food and drinks for the pilot/advisor as well as for the crew. So, I guess that would be me. We had decided to hire experienced line handlers for the crossing. Many cruisers volunteer

Figure 1THe Admeasurer's Office of the Panama Canal Authority


on someone else’s boat to get the experience to get their own boat across. We wanted people that had done this many times before.  We asked around on cruising sites and Facebook and one person stood out. His name was Tito and he had crossed the canal over 700 times. We hired him on the spot. He would bring everything we needed. Old tires covered in plastic trash bags to act as bumpers to keep us off of the wall and away from other boats. He brought the 4 125ft lines as well as 2 additional line handlers, his wife Monica and his son Pedro. They were lovely people. Over the next 3 days we would share many meals and good times together.


With all that done, the crossing scheduled for 10/2 now we were ready to welcome Daniel back to the boat and finally see some of the sights of Panama City. We went out to the Canal Museum at the Mira Flores locks. We wanted to see the locks in action before we experienced them on our boat. The museum was magnificent. What a marvel of technology and engineering the canal is. It has functioned 24/7 for more than 100 years with very little improvement from the original design. We were awestruck. Later we took a long hike through the city’s primary rainforest and got caught in a torrential downpour we will not soon forget. We took the metro all over town and visited the malls. There is great shopping to be had in Panama City, the best I had seen since Mexico. It was great to be in a big city again. Traffic, horns honking, noise, bring it on, it was a nice change from what we have seen lately.


As we explored around the city I began to observe the way the Panamanians deal with the rain. They don’t wear raincoats, carry umbrellas or wear appropriate rain shoes. They just get wet and move on. Here we are with our Patagonia raincoats, our waterproof shoes and backpacks and we look like a bunch of idiots. We are sweating our butts off, it is too hot to wear a raincoat! When it pours they will just step inside a store front or under an awning and wait patiently for the rain to stop. It makes sense to follow their lead. They are fiercely proud of their country and often the first thing they will ask you after introductions have been made is “Do you like Panama? Do you like my country? It is beautiful here” they will say. They are kind and helpful and welcoming. This is a big city and there is crime and poverty here. It is easy to avoid trouble and there is only one neighborhood they advise gringos to avoid, El Chorrillos. Panamanians are very curious and they want to know why you came here and how you came here. We tell them we came on a boat and they automatically assume that we came on a cruise ship. Lots of cruise ships roll through here. When we correct them and tell them we are on our own sailboat then a torrent of further questions follow. It is always a lively discourse.


So, the day of the crossing has arrived. The night before we had moved from the marina to an anchorage near the canal entrance so that the pilot boat delivering our canal advisor would have easy access. Tito and his family had joined us around midnight. It was a horrible night in the anchorage. The swells were hitting the boat broadside and it makes for very uncomfortable conditions. We were up bright and early and the canal advisor arrived at sunrise, right on time. We prepared to leave. On the horizon, we saw the ginormous oil tanker that we would be going through the locks with. It was a beast. Our boat looked like a match compared to that thing. The advisor was on the radio with traffic control and was getting us in position to enter the first lock of the canal. The lines were in place, the handlers were ready, the camera was mounted on the mast and now it was my turn to get to work. A hearty lunch for 8 was coming up.

Figure 2 - Lunch Beef Stew and Rice


Figure 3THe beast of a ship we went through the first locks with


We sailed under the Bridge of the Americas signaling the beginning of the canal and entered the first lock, Mira Flores, at 9:00 AM. It took us about an hour ½ to get through the 2 chambers. After all the boats are in the lock they close the gates and start flooding the lock with water.


Figure 4 The Bridge of the Americas, the official entrance to the Panama Canal



Figure 5 Pilot Boat

Figure 6 - Our Canal Advisor Carlos

About a quarter of a mile later we entered the second set of locks, Pedro Miguel at 11:00 and were out of there by 11:30.


The mood on the boat was intense and focused. Everyone had a job to do. The line handlers manned their positions fore and aft. Jirig stayed on the bridge with the advisor. He had it the worst, not only did he have to manage the boat but he had to monitor that everyone on the deck was doing what they were supposed to. He never left the bridge the entire time, he did not even take a bathroom break. I ran around making sure everyone had something cool to drink and was well fed. Nico was my step and fetch. With 8 adults on the boat we went through massive amounts of food and drink. Keeping everything cold and having enough ice on hand was crucial.

Figure 7 Entering the Mira Flores lock

Figure 8 It was a pretty tight fit!


We then had a 21-mile trek across Gatun Lake to get to the last lock, Gatun Lock. We got thru the first to locks and into Gatun Lake on time. Now we had to traverse the 21 mile length of the lake. We asked the advisor how fast we should go and he said 7 knots would be fine. Now the trip turned into a leisurely cruise. People kicked back and napped while I made another hearty meal. It was hot outside without a cloud in the sky and it was broiling inside the boat with me cooking. There was no breeze to be had. Everyone except Jirig went to sleep at some point. When we arrived at the Gatun locks we were told that the ship we were supposed to go through with had already transited through the locks ad as a result we would have to spend the night in the lake and wait to finish the crossing the next day. Everyone was disappointed.

Figure 9 The doors on the lock closing

Figure 10  - Family pic as we are starting passage thru canal

Everyone was hot and sweaty. The guys wanted to jump into the lake and swim. There are supposed to be crocs in this lake but Tito assured everyone that they only came out in the morning. The guys jumped in the water, Nico and I were having no part of it. As far as we were concerned if there were crocs in the morning they could easily hang around until the afternoon. No sooner did they jump in then the Panama Canal Authority rangers came buy and told them to get out. Yes, the lake was infested with crocs, all of the time. I looked and the nice calm, beautiful lake a little differently after that!

Figure 11 Gatun Lake

Figure 12 Massive mooring buoy we were tied to


That night we had a party of sorts. After dinner we put on some music and broke out the alcohol which had been absent thus far. We danced and rocked out to everyone’s different music and a good time was had by all. Nico even danced!


The next morning, we got jacked around by the canal authority one more time. They told us we would have to wait until 12:30 to transit the last locks. At 12:30 they told us it would be 3:30 or later unless we wanted to go tied to the side. There was a storm brewing on the horizon. We were afraid that if we did not accept their offer we would be spending another night on the lake. We reluctantly agreed. Going through the locks side tied to the wall is the least favorable position to be in for a cruising sailboat. If anything goes wrong your boat gets slammed into the rough concrete wall. Our line handlers we hired had done this all before. They assured us that with the proper handling and piloting of the boat we could get through without damage. We went for it. It was exhilarating and scary at the same time. Our boat was literally inches from the wall of the canal. We could see little crabs and crustaceans clinging to the wall. There were a few tense moments but we got through without a scratch!

Figure 13 Just passing the time....

Figure 14 - Sunset over Gatun Lake

When we emerged from the Gatun Locks into the Atlantic (the canal officials call it the “Atlantic side” not the Caribbean) the sun was just setting. We slowed the boat to let our pilot off and we headed for Shelter Bay Marina just a mile down the channel. It was pretty tricky getting in but once inside we all breathed a sigh of relief. We had done it! We had crossed the Panama Canal!


Figure 15 - Jirig rocking out in the cockpit

Figure 16 - Dancing on the bow

Figure 17 - my boys dancing together

Figure 18 - Daniel showing Nico some moves

It was time for Daniel to return to Long Beach for a stint at working fulltime for the first time in his life. He hated to go back. We would be hanging here for the next week or so to plan our next move. We had been so focused on the goal of crossing the canal that we have done little planning for after that milestone event. We had talked about heading up the backside of Central America and up towards Belize. But after having spent the last 4 months there we were ready to move on. We had heard wonderful things about Bocas Del Toro, the San Blas Islands and also Cartagena, Columbia. They were in opposite directions. We settled in to the marina and started planning our next move.