Sunday, February 23, 2014

Excitement in the Panama Canal

Rafted up going through the Panama Canal
Most people I know who have made the passage through the Panama Canal have done it on a cruise ship. We have had the rare experience of transiting in our own boat and it was quite an experience to remember. The process is long and it involves some interesting sailing skills. Of course, we don't actually sail through the canal, but rather motor while rafted (tied to other boats).

Keeping our eyes on things!
There are very strict regulations for making the passage which the World Cruising Club manages for us through their agent. You must have an agent to deal with the Panama Canal Authority. You are given an assigned date and time. If you miss it there is an $800 fine plus you must reschedule and pay all of your transit fees again. Prior to leaving the marina, an Admeasurer comes on board to measure your vessel and determine your tonnage so they can calculate your transit fees. He also checks to make sure you have the proper equipment and clean facilities for their Advisor who boards before the transit.

Approaching the Canal from The Flats in our "nest"
We learned that the Canal is a real boon to the Panamanian government as it gives the government around $2.5 billion USD a year. That is why there is so much building going on in Panama City. The number of ships anchored waiting to for their passage assignment was amazing. Our chart plotter was splattered with AIS targets on both sides of the Canal. And now they are building a new canal so wider ships can pass.

We left Shelter Bay Marina at 1530 to begin our passage. We waited in an area called The Flats for the our Canal Advisor, Victor, to board. Each boat has an Advisor on board to assist though the process as the line handling is quite challenging. The delivery boat comes up next to you and a guy steps from one boat to the other with great skill. The helmsman of the delivery boat was very good at easing his boat to ours without bumping us.

There are actually three stages to the transit. First you pass into the Gatun Locks on the east end. This lock has three chambers to raise you up to the level on the interior Gatun Lake - about 26 meters or 84 feet. Each chamber is 110 feet wide and 1000 feet long. The length of this lock set is over a mile long from the entrance to the exit into Gatun Lake.

We are required to serve hot meals to the Advisor
We left The Flats around 1630 and moved toward the approach area. As we were motoring, we came up to the starboard of Vivo, a large catamaran, and exchanged docking lines to hold us tight against the fenders between us.

Then another monohull, Avocet, did the same on the port side. We are now one unit or as they call it, nesting. It was an interesting test of the nerves having to come up against another yacht while underway. It sure tested my helmsman skills, but I was successful.

The WARC Fleet passing through the Panama Canal
All went well through the first chamber. Each yacht is thrown a pair of monkey fists (messenger lines) that are then attached to the handling lines we have on board. The Advisor gives instructions on tying the special knots that need to be tied to the lines from the linehandlers on the mainland who walk along the wall and carry their end of the line. For the big ships there are electric automotives that move along a track to maintain the correct pressure on the lines.

This is not the guy who mess up the lines!
After passing into the chamber and getting all 14 boats in the 1000 foot area, the huge steel lock doors close behind you and the water begins to rise. It takes 15-20 minutes to fill the chamber with water. The linehandlers on the yachts (our crew) have to constantly take up the slack in the lines as the boats float higher in the lock. Once the chamber is full of water, we were instructed to move forward into the next lock. The process was repeated again.

Then the excitement happened! The ACP linehandler on our stern line was asleep at the switch, as they say! As he was walking up the incline and paying out line, he failed to see that the messenger line became lodged in a concrete crevice. While he kept walking, the line was holding us back and turning our nest sideways. There was a lot of Spanish being thrown back and forth across the canal. I am guessing it was swearing! In fact, I am sure it was and it was very loud!

Here are the lock gates closing behind us. Next the area
will fill with water and we will all rise up to the top level.
Unfortunately, the linehandler did not realize he was the cause of the problem and kept walking and paying out line. Then our messenger line broke and we were loose on the stern. This caused Avocet to get too close to the wall on the other side. There was concern for their rigging as it was close to a light post and their bow was headed toward the concrete wall. It was a little scary for a while.

Mike on Vivo and Dennis had to maintain control
after the workers on land messed up.
In the meantime, our guys managed to retrieve the loose end of the messenger line and tie it to our bowline and send it back up to the mainland. We did not see the guy who screwed up again. I wonder where he is working now??? Once we got squared away, literally, we were on our way to the next chamber. Of course, the boats ahead of us and
behind us were wondering what was going on. Later we learned the rumor in the fleet was that the guys on Trillium messed up. Our entire "nest" will set that straight!

Excitement in the dark - again!
We made the passage through the third chamber without incident and went well into Gatun Lake in the dark. Under the direction of the Advisor, Victor, we docked on a huge bouy where four WARC boats rafted for the night. Then Victor was picked up by another boat and we all went to bed for a few hours until our Advisor for day two arrived.


  1. Hi from Mi! Looks like you made good time on your track to the Galapagos. Fun following your progress. Re: canal blog pics... "pink and green" id tape on your dingy motor? The east side loves it. Nexus had to sail back outside of the park boundaries for bottom cleaning? What a hassle! Thanks for updates and great pics! Best, Jim and Carolyn

  2. Regarding the trip Nexus made just chalk it up to red tap. I will explain in later blogs.


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