Panama Canal

Locking through the Panama Canal feels like a big deal.

DSCF1700When 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.

Crew, peeping through the hatch
Crew, peeping through the hatch

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.

Heading to the first lock
Heading to the first lock
Rental tires for fenders, and rental lines to keep the boat centered
Rental tires for fenders, and rental lines to keep the boat centered

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.

Our lock buddy, being pulled into the next lock by electric trains called "mules"
Our lock buddy, being pulled into the next lock by electric trains called “mules”
Actual, working monkey fist knot--not just a party trick
Actual, working monkey fist knot–not just a party trick
Hauling in the lines
Hauling in the lines

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.DSC_2111

Gotta' keep the crew fed! Glen making popcorn underway
Gotta’ keep the crew fed! Glen making popcorn underway

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.

Morning sleepyheads
Morning sleepyheads

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.

Lines need to be cast off at the same time, working off a sound signal. Alison blew a conch when we were ready to go
Lines need to be cast off at the same time, working off a sound signal. Alison blew a conch when we were ready to go

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.

Reverse zoo
Reverse zoo

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?)

The Pacific!
The Pacific!

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.

10 Comments on “Panama Canal

  1. Dear family,
    Oh this Blog is so nice and you did very beautiful pics… Thank you so much, that you gave me a ride to Shelter Bay and host me few days. It was a awesome time, I’ll never forget. You are a very lovely family with so nice kids. I am glad that I met you. I wish you all the best and so much luck. Always wind in the sails and good weather. I am fine in Costa Rica and I met my friend on time…

    • Hey, Patrizia! We were so happy to meet you, and we’re glad you made it safely to Costa Rica. Enjoy the rest of your trip!

      • Queridos Deb, Michu, Quino and Francesca!
        I keep thinking about how amazing you guys are and
        Love seeing the pictures and stories through my email.
        Thank you for keeping us all posted. “Reverse zoo situation” sounded amusing. You are celebrities!

        Life on land in Oregon is more sedate, for me anyway.
        Michu will remember Robin from our past. I did drive to see him in March where he was on hospice. I was there for five days and he died a couple of days after that with cancer. It was an important time to be there and meant a lot to me to do it. He was glad to see me. It had been years.

        One amazing thing about Calaveras county, CA, where Robin and I lived, is the number of frogs. It rained one night I was there and the frogs were hopping around all over the road, plus one big toad.

        So, in your travels to a nearby library, check out the Mark Twain story “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” There is a contest every year there to get a frog that will jump the longest distance. If you enter with your frog, you are called “a jumper”!

        Frog graphics are everywhere. Quite fun.
        How many frogs do you see in your travels?

        Let me know…
        Love, bug hugs,
        Aunt Bee

        • Bee–We saw dozens of frogs just recently in Portobelo right after a rain. They would not have won any contests–they were only as big asy pinky fingernail! Love from all of us on Milou…

  2. Thanks for the awesome updates. I can’t get enough of cruising updates. Starting reading the SV Totem Blogging Families Afloat posts and also binge read a few of the blogs over Spring Break when not doing awesome stuff with my family, like visiting Joshua Tree NP.

    Hope all is well. Say hello to Michu and the kids.

    Safe travels. -Mike

  3. What a fascinating process and adventure. Thank you for describing it in such detail, I never imagined it would be so involved.

  4. Deb. I am mixed up. Did you go trough the Panama Canal in you boat or your friends . Because you mention you will be better prepare when you cross the Canal in your boat. I’m lost. Any way we did it twice in a cruise ship . I just love how technology makes possible to lift huge ships across the mountains from one ocean to the other. INCREDIBLE. HUGS Hector

    • Hey, Hector–
      We were traveling through the canal with friends on their boat. We don’t expect to go through the Canal on our own boat until June…we are enjoying the San Blas too much!

      And comments on our blog won’t show up until we approve them (we get weird spam), so sometimes we’re away from WiFi and cell service and can’t access the blog. We get there eventually, though.

      Hugs to you and Bob!

  5. I have enjoyed your narratives of all the stops & trip challenges along the way . I am not sure you got my emails . So this is just a test to find out if you got my emails. Hope you are still having a lot of fun, when do you think you all be home ?.
    BIG HUG Hector

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