Panama: Canal and City

The Panama Canal is not our first canal transit; in fact, despite it’s popularity, it’s the shortest canal we’ve transited, both in lift (height above sea level) and length. In 2015, our first canal was New York State’s Erie Canal – 35 locks rising 172 metres above sea-level into the Great Lakes. From there we passed through around 30 locks on the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee-Tombigbee (Tenn-Tom) Rivers to exit into the Gulf of Mexico. The largest lock on the Tenn-Tom – The Whitten Lock – by itself is a single lift of over 25 metres. Our next foray through canals and locks would be the enjoyable Standing Mast Route in the Netherlands in 2018. The Dutch certainly have a well engineered system of locks and bridges throughout the small country. Our next canal experience was the Göta Canal – 190 kilometres and 58 locks from Sweden’s east coast through to Gothenburg on the west coast. Known as the ‘Divorce Canal’ due to it’s demands on stressed-out husbands and wives who normally team up on this canal with dozens of other vessels, we made it through, with a vow to perhaps reconsider any more canal transits. After all, Blue Heeler is a sailing vessel, not a motor-boat.

So, with all that practice, the Panama Canal by comparison (82kms, six locks and a rise above sea-level of less than 26 metres) should be easy enough.

Source: Pancanal.com

In my last post I listed the pros and cons of paying for experienced line-handlers aboard vs backpackers. Since we didn’t have a time for our transit until the day before, and line-handlers not as available as they may have been in pre-COVID years, we decided to hire three guys to help us out – I was the fourth line handler while Wayne retained his role as skipper.

Worthwhile having line handlers who know their stuff

Outside Shelter Bay Marina we anchored outside, where we would wait for the Transit Advisor to join us. It’s mandatory to have a Transit Advisor and four line handlers through the canal and they must also have shelter from the sun and rain. The agent provided four 40m x 25mm ropes and eight fenders, dropped off the day before we departed and the lads set these up around the boat while we waited.

Transit Advisor joins us outside Shelter Bay Marina, Panama

The senior of the trio (ironically named Junior), chatted to us in English, while the two lads went below to watch US baseball, take a nap and generally waited around to be called on deck to handle the lines. Their English wasn’t as developed as Junior’s, so for two days I was referred to as ‘Sir’. That’s okay, I’ve been called worse!

Also mandatory and stipulated by the Agent, is for the Transit Advisor and line handlers to have a proper hot meal on transit. The day before I prepared a huge crockpot full of meaty pasta sauce and al dente pasta for the team. All afternoon the aroma wafted around the boat until the evening where we could tuck in. Another prerequisite is to have bottled water for all hands. As we’d be motoring for hours, the tank water would be warm and not refreshing to drink. While the taste of our tank water is fine, some boats do have manky water so I can understand their desire for bottled water. If for any reason the Transit Advisor doesn’t like the food or you run out of bottled water, the cost to have a decent meal or bottled water shipped in will set you back US$450 and that’s just for the pilot to bring it out! I was pretty certain I had enough water on board but when the first words out of the lad’s mouths was “Agua”, I got a little nervous that they would drink the boat dry! All was fine and with some supplemental cans of Coke and Tetra packs of fruit juice, the lads were satisfied.

WebCam footage shows Blue Heeler transiting the Gatun Lock

We arrived at the lock just before 7pm in darkness. The Gatun Locks are well lit up so we could see okay to receive the lines thrown from the Canal workers on shore. As I couldn’t take any photos, the WebCam image above shows how small our little vessel is, all alone in the lock. I made a short video of our transit which shows the process.

The transit through the locks took around two hours. We were the only yacht on the transit, following a small passenger ship the National Geographic Quest.

Once through the three locks, we motored in darkness a couple of miles to a mooring area. The Transit Advisor stayed only during the transit and was whisked away by a pilot vessel into the darkness while the remaining crew enjoyed a couple of beers. The three line handlers stayed aboard for the night, bunking on the saloon settees, with Junior preferring the great outdoors in the cockpit.

Large mooring in Gatun Lake

The concept of a canal across the isthmus was imagined back in the 1500s. Construction of the canal originally commenced by the French in the late 1800s, but due to lack of capital and a high mortality rate the project was shelved. The US took it over in 1904, the year after Panama’s independence and completed the canal by 1914. The acquisition was controversial and for many years the Panamanians fought for their sovereignty. This issue would begin to quell in the 1970s and the canal was handed back to Panama on 31st December 1999, giving Panama full control of the country’s major revenue source. The sea level rise is a mere 25 metres, so each lock rise is around seven metres. However, the chambers are over 360m long and can fit some of the world’s largest ships.

Other locks we’ve transited allowed us to tie up to a floating bollard, or hang off a long line, using boat hooks to keep the boat from bumping into the thick concrete walls as the water turbulence floods the lock. The Panama Canal system has onshore Canal workers throwing a ‘monkey fist’, and light-line to which we tie a bowline to the 40m x 25mm ropes we have at each quarter of the vessel; each having a 1m bowline. The workers then haul the heavy ropes to the bollards at the top of the lock. Each of the four line handlers then pulls in slack as the vessel rises, or releases the line as it lowers. We were expecting to be rafted up to other boats; typically a larger more powerful boat would take the centre position and we’d raft up to them, effectively negating the need for two of our line handlers. But in our case, we were the only yacht transiting so we each had to work the lines.

Heavy lines eased as we float down

Back at Gatun Lake, at 5.30am I sat out in the cool to watch the sunrise and watch the ships in the distance, while the lads gently snored below.  By 6.30am, the kettle had boiled for hot coffee and I’d prepared scrambled eggs, toast and jam for the waking crew. Our Transit Advisor was due to arrive after 7.30am and eventually turned up at 8.30am, and off we went across Gatun Lake at a consistent 7kn to keep the lock schedule.

The day was uneventful, and we didn’t get close to any big ships or see any wildlife in the jungle. We did have to wait at one point as a huge container ship navigated around a narrow corner so we used the time to have a sandwich lunch. By 1.30pm we’d arrived a the first of the three southern locks – the Pedro Miguel lock.

All hands keeping out of the hot sun

This time, as we were on our way down, we entered the lock first with a huge ship and tug behind us. Going down is easier and each line is gently eased helped by the weight of the boat. Once through the first lock we motored a half mile or so into the second lock – Miraflores. We tied up and waited for the behemoth behind us to follow in. This time we would tie up to a tug, which meant I didn’t have to do any more line handling and could take a few happy snaps while the lads managed the ropes.

Large ship follows us into the southern locks
The WebCam photo shows how small Blue Heeler is compared to a large ship

The process repeated and once the third and final lock drained, the lock gates opened and we entered into the Pacific Ocean! Overall, the trip was stress-free, and the three line handlers were efficient and knew what to do and when.

Four miles south of the Miraflores Lock passing under the ‘Bridge of the Americas’, the guys secured us to a mooring at the Balboa Yacht Club near Panama City. Almost immediately, the BYC water taxi appeared to collect the fenders and lines, and the lads – we thanked each of them and they left with a fistful of ‘dead Presidents’.

Atlantic to Pacific – just like that, our transit was over. The other option was to sail around Cape Horn; while it may have been more exciting, and certainly much more challenging, it would have taken a couple of years at least, not to mention the stress on the boat (and our insurance company wasn’t too happy either!). By the end of the transit our boat was littered with half drunk bottles of water, much like a scene out of the sci-fi movie ‘Signs’.

Now that we are on the Pacific side, we must prepare for our 8000nm (15,000 kilometre) passage across the Pacific Ocean – the first leg a 4000nm passage to the Marquesas in French Polynesia.

South of the Miraflores locks is the Balboa Yacht Club where most yachts coming out of the Canal drop off their fenders and lines. Some continue south to the fancy La Playita or Flamenco marinas, but the simplicity of the Balboa Yacht Club suits us. Only moorings are available and the amenities are simple, but clean. The bar area is closed (due to COVID I expect) but a TGI Friday restaurant is nearby. To get ashore, the BYC water taxi is responsive to either a call on VHF06, or a whistle and wave as he passes by.

Balboa Yacht Club Water Taxi

The old part of Panama City, chandleries, and the Albrook Shopping Complex are a short drive away, as well as plenty of supermarkets. We’ve found that Ubers are the best way to get around; they are usually cleaner, have better aircon, and don’t charge a ‘gringo tax’ like other taxi drivers may do. In fairness, the local taxi guys can also ‘value add’ by taking you to specific places and have local knowledge for yachties. The BYC usually has diesel, but not during our stay, so we arranged to have some jerries filled with a local taxi guy. You can usually negotiate a fare if you want him to hang around while you run errands.

Of course we had to visit the Panama Canal Museum in the old part of the city. The informative displays have a strong focus on the struggle for Panamanians to take back their land from the US. The Panama Canal is certainly an impressive engineering project.

A walk through the Casco Viejo, the old city, the buildings date back to the late 1600s, built after privateer Henry Morgan, destroyed the city. As you’d expect, there are plenty of shops selling Panama hats!

Cathedral of Panama, Plaza de la Independencia

With so many nautical miles ahead of us and at least eight months of transiting Pacific Islands, provisioning has taken precedence over the past few weeks, if not months. The final splurge in Panama City has the boat filled with canned and dry goods, fresh vegetables, and of course some light refreshments to see us through, at least for a while!

Our final few days will be spent waiting for a weather window to begin our passage south and check out with Immigration and Customs. Our plan is to head south around Galapagos, then west towards Marquesas – wind on this leg will be fickle and we may have to motor a couple of days to get through the Doldrums. We don’t have plans to visit Galapagos and I’ll cover that in my next post.

I’ll be posting to this blog from offshore with our IridiumGo and you can follow our progress using the GPS Tracking at the top of the page. If you want to drop us a line and let us know what’s going on in this crazy world, we’d love to hear from you – BlueHeelerHR39(at)myiridium.net. (As we have low bandwith, text only, no attachments).

Until then…

About blueheelerhr39

Sailing the world aboard Blue Heeler
This entry was posted in 2022, Panama. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Panama: Canal and City

  1. Fair winds for your passage, it was good to see you again here in the Pacific.

    Like

  2. Brian and Gail says:

    Great video

    Like

  3. Elaine Sollars says:

    Stay safe hope the weathers kind to you

    Like

  4. Chris Marchant says:

    Don’t miss the Galapagos unless there is a COVID issue. At least visit one island and see the others by speedboat. They really are unique.

    Like

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