May 4-5, 2005
Our Transit of the Panama Canal

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(Click on a photo for a larger version)

The Panama Canal is said to be the Eight Wonder of the World. The history of the construction of the Canal is the "saga of human ingenuity and courage: years of sacrifice, crushing defeat, and final victory". Many gave their life in the effort. For most of us live-aboard distance cruisers in small sailing vessels a transit of the Canal is one of The Mile Stones, physically and mentally. After the decision to cross over from the Atlantic side to the Pacific there is in practice "no turning back". Of course you could return to the Caribbean again, but that would really be no point, so in reality you are committed to continue out on the vast Pacific Ocean. Looking from Europe you are definitely much further away than in the Caribbean.

Somewhere in there is the sailing vessel Oz,
well prepared for the Canal transit.

A Panamax class tanker in Gatun Locks,
assisted by six electric "mules".

Watch a video of the Gatun Locks by clicking here

We had to postpone our transit by a couple of days because our engine started to over heat and we had difficulties in trouble shooting the reason. An engine break down during the transit could cause you thousands of dollars in penalties and towing costs. After taking most of the engine almost apart a couple of times, we found and fixed the problem in the fresh water cooling circuit and were finally ready to go.  Aboard were also our English friends Sarah and Beaney and a local taxi-driver-line-handler, Rudy.

The Isthmus of Panama, only about 50 miles wide at its narrowest point was, at the time of construction of the Canal, characterized by mountains, impenetrable jungle, deep swamp, torrential rains, hot sun, debilitating humidity, pestilence and some of the most geologically complex land formations in the world. The area has been subjected to several periods of submersion beneath the sea, thus adding cavities of marine materials to the geological mix. This, in addition to there being six major faults and five major volcanic cores in just the short distance between Colon and Panama City adds to the area's geological challenges.  Engineers of the time of starting the project were unaware of this complex isthmian geology, and perhaps fortunately so, for it might have frightened them off.

Finally, both malaria and yellow fever were endemic.  For several hundred years, outsiders who came to this “Fever Coast,” especially seamen passing through, died from diseases purportedly caused by "miasmal mists" supposedly emanating from swamps and marshes. The relationship between mosquitoes, malaria and yellow fever had not yet been proven when the Canal project started.

Northbound containership exiting Pedro Miguel Locks.

Malla with Rudy, our local linehandler.

However, three natural features made Panama the ideal place to build the canal: the narrow isthmus, a mighty river and exceptionally abundant rainfall. Because of these conditions the engineers of the second (American), and successful building project, decided to build a canal with locks instead of a sea level canal. By building a dam near the mouth of the Chagres River, a navigable lake, Lake Gatún, was created 26 meters above sea level. At one time the biggest artificial lake in the world, it stores the water needed for the lock operations. The concept, in which water plays the main role, is actually very simple and does not involve any pumps; the huge hydraulic lifts work by force of gravity alone, because there is plenty of water up in the lake.

We locked together with Idas Bulker.

Our skipper concentrating, with the two
other yachts of the "nest" in the background

All transiting vessels, even the smallest sailing boats, are required to have a Panama Canal pilot on board. The ones assigned to sailing vessels under 60 feet are called Advisors. Our first Advisor, Rogelio, was dropped off on Scorpio by a pilot boat under way to the first set of locks coming from the Atlantic side, called the Gatún Locks. This huge hydraulic lift raises the boat in three consecutive steps, of nearly 10 meters each, to Lake Gatún. Presently most sailing vessels start their transit late in the afternoon and anchor over night in the lake after the transit of the Gatún Locks. So did even we.

Sailing boats can transit the locks in three different ways: tied alongside the wall, center locked with bow lines and stern lines to both sides (4 lines), or alongside an ACP (Panama Canal Authority) tug. Going alongside the wall is not advised, because the strong turbulence can smash the vessel against the wall. When center locking, boats are usually rafted (or "nested" as they call it here) two or three together. We did our up-locking center locked, nested together with the Australian catamaran Bewdy II and the American sloop Soularity, the cat in the center.

We transited the Gatún locks in the same chamber as the 543 feet dry-bulk carrier Ida's Bulker. In addition to the turbulence created by the water flow from the water filling the chamber, one of the dangers for small boats is the propeller wash of the big ships.

Soularity and Bewdy II starting to build the "nest",
we joined them on the port side of the cat.

The Canal Authority's linehandlers walking with our lines.
Here we are  downlocking. From this level we dropped 10 meters.

The tropical climate of the Panama Canal Basin, with a temperature averaging 80 degrees and an annual rainfall of 105 inches, creates ideal conditions for jungle growth similar to that of Brazil's Amazon jungle. The forest acts like a huge sponge that returns much of the retained water to the lake and rivers. Because of the importance of these jungles, most of the areas around Lake Gatún have been designated national parks. The aims are to ensure that the hydraulic resources function well (the rainforests generate over 40% of the water that the Canal uses for normal operation) and host high biodiversity, with a great variety of animal and plant species, many of them in danger of extinction elsewhere in the Americas.


Our Advisor Jimmy signed our guest book.

Celebrating arrival in the Pacific Ocean:
Henrik, Malla and Dave.


Before our new Advisor arrived early next morning I decided that I had to put on my Scuba gear and go diving to clean the propeller from barnacles. I had noticed the day before that we had difficulties to reach the required speed, 6 knots, to cross the 25 miles wide Lake Gatún to get to the first down-lock in time. The guide book advises to keep a look out for crocodiles if swimming in the lake. The Chagres River was known in the colonial period as the Crocodile River for the large number of caimans and crocodiles living there. We spotted some crocodiles during our transit, but fortunately I did not notice any company when diving.

The Panama Canal Museum in Balboa (above).

Monument of Ferdinand de Lesseps,
who failed to build the canal (right).

Our advisor on the second day was Jimmy Woo. He is the most experienced of all advisors and has made more than 500 transits on sailing boats and also holds the record number of 86 transits during one season. Before noon we had crossed the Gatún Lake and passed through the Gaillard Cut and arrived at the Pedro Miguel Locks, where we dropped almost 10 meters to Lake Miraflores. We were again nested together with Soularity, but the cat Bewdy II was replaced by the Norwegian sloop Hippocampus. The Miraflores Lake is only about one mile wide and therefore we crossed it, without breaking up the raft, to the Miraflores Locks where we were lowered by means of two tiers the remaining 20 meters to the level of the Pacific Ocean.

The launch driver at Balboa Yacht Club

Farewell party with our friends of s/y Simplicity:
Malla, Paul, Chuck, Cindy, Dave and Sarah.

From Miraflores it is only a few miles to the Pacific along the approach channel and having passed under the Bridge of the Americas we picked up a mooring at the Balboa Yacht Club in a suburb of Panama City. It was time to open the Champagne bottle!

At Balboa we met several crews of cruising boats that we had learned to know know in various anchorages during our years in the Caribbean and especially during the three weeks of waiting for the transit in Colón. Most of them were planning to head across the South Pacific along the Coconut Milk Run, with the Galapagos Islands as their first port of call. Less than a hand full of us were setting course for the west coast of the South American mainland.

[ The Panama Canal Authority has an excellent Web Site here.]

Next report: From Panama to Ecuador.

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