Updated on June 11, 2017
Locking through the Panama Canal feels like a big deal.
When we traveled through the locks in the Erie Canal, we were exclusively among tourists. The lock operators knew we were novices at line handling, and were patient and clear with instructions. In Panama, most of the canal traffic is commercial. Getting through the locks is a professional process, and big bucks. They don’t have time to explain things when you get there. That’s why it’s hugely helpful to travel through the locks at least once before you go through on your own boat.
Fortunately, there are a lot of boats looking for help. To go through the Canal, each boat must have a captain to dive the boat; four adults to act as line handlers; and a canal advisor, hired thought the Canal Authority. As most boats are only traveling with two adults, there’s a huge market for line handlers. Locking through with Sapphires did both of us a favor, and our German backpacker friend Patrizia rounded out the crew.
Before entering the Canal proper, private boats need to leave the marina and anchor in “the Flats”, where a pilot boat will meet you with your advisor. We’d heard that pilots are generally not dropped off until around 4, but were told to be at the Flats by 2; our pilot came out to us almost immediately. We weren’t ready! We still had to cover our solar panels with seat cushions so they wouldn’t be damaged by messenger lines flying down from above, and secure the many tires that would act as fenders around the boat. Fortunately, we had plenty of waiting-around time in front of the first lock, as the freighter in front of us lumbered into position. The advisor let us know as soon as he came aboard that we’d be locking through with only the freighter—no other boats would be rafting to us, so the fenders could actually wait.
We slowly motored into the huge lock, with Michu and Patrizia on the bow cleats and Glen and I on the stern, Alison driving, and the kids on photo duty. Crew on both sides of the canal threw down messenger lines with monkey fists to us, towards the bow to avoid the rigging; we tied off to our rented lines and fed them out as the workers hauled them up. As the locks filled, our job as line handlers was to pull the slack out of the lines and keep the boat centered in the locks. Mission accomplished—we came smoothly through the first three locks, all in series, and motored out into Lake Gatun to spend the night.
We tied up to a huge buoy, and our advisor hopped off onto another pilot boat. Pasta and wine followed, although everyone was too exhausted from the excitement of the day and last-minute prep to make much of a night of it.
This is another tricky part for smaller boats transiting the Canal: when you travel from the Caribbean to the Pacific, you generally overnight in the lake, and have to find a place for everyone on the boat to sleep! No worries for a big catamaran like Sapphire; the girls all slept in the tramps up in the bows, and Michu and I took the spare bedroom. Not sure where we’ll be sleeping everyone on our boat! Someone will have to take the cockpit…hope the bugs aren’t too bad.
A new advisor came by the next morning at 8, with the bad news that we weren’t expected to enter the last set of locks until 3:30 that afternoon. Fortunately, he had skills, and managed to finagle us into an earlier lock alongside a ferry. Rafting meant easier work for the line handlers—we just had to tie up to the ferry with a bow and stern line, and we were done; but it was tricky maneuvering for Glen to come alongside safely, without bashing into the steel boat. We also found ourselves in a kind of reverse-zoo situation, with the tourists on the ferry leaning across their railings to ask us questions about our transit. We got some cold drinks handed to us, and ended up on a lot of folks’ home movies.
The end of our practice transit came in a rush—exiting the Miraflores Locks, packing up our bags (forgot the dob kit!), managing the launch from the Balboa Yacht Club with Sapphire’s agent, offloading the rented lines and tires, and saying good-bye to our friends. They’re off to Costa Rica; from there, they’ll head to Galapagos, Marquesas, and French Polynesia before putting their boat on the market in Hawaii in November. (Anyone in the market for an Outremer 55?)
For us, the transit felt momentous and ordinary at the same time. The Panama Canal is one of the wonders of the world, and to go from one ocean to another on a sailboat is an incredible thing. On the other hand, locking through is a regimented, industrial process, with a great deal of waiting around followed by the unavoidably normal activity of pulling on a rope. It’s amazing, and it’s tedious, all at the same time. Either way, we are better prepared as a family, and know what to expect when we bring through our own boat in a couple of months.