Feb. 28 – March 1 – Panama Canal transit

Transiting the Panama Canal was the exclamation point at the end of “We completed our circumnavigation!”  Eight years, 51,000 nm, 41 countries and now we’re heading back to Berkeley.

The Panama Canal has been on our horizon the past two years and looking back we see it’s a lot about waiting and patience.  So many decisions to make before we even got to the Canal.  Use an Agent checking into Panama and transiting the Canal or do it ourselves?  We opted to use Erick Galvez of Centenario Consulting who was helpful with all the paperwork, permits, Admeasuring inspection, lines, fenders, handlers and Advisor.  There’s a lot involved in going through and Noonsite is a good source of information.  Noonsite

Soon as we arrived Shelter Bay Marina we got our registry number, had our Admeasure inspection to ensure Chesapeake complied with regulations for transit–holding tanks, AIS, bathroom for use by Advisor and line handlers, adequate fuel, ability to make 5-8 kt at all times.  We also had to choose our positioning inside the lock–outside near the wall (no way), rafted to a tugboat (too much backwash), or rafted up with other sailboats (preferably as the middle boat–yes).  We opted for rafting with other sailboats.  Feeding the crew was explained–provide lunch, dinner, breakfast and lunch for all on board, along with water and snacks.  We were advised to feed them well-–no vegetarian meals!

Here’s a detailed explanation of the transit process if interested.  Procedures

We had to wait until Carnival was over before we could get an Advisor and transit date.  On February 28 four young men with no English came aboard with 8 mooring fenders and 4 sets of 7/8 x 125ft long polypropylene line.  At 12:40 we headed to The Flats, the area before the Canal, and waited for our Advisor.  Moses arrived at 16:30 and we rafted up with another sailboat and motored into Gatun Lock to wait while a big tugboat came behind us followed by a tanker.  We watched men onshore throw weighted lines onto our boat to be used to keep us in the center of the lock as the men walked along the seawall and we motored through the lock.  The doors closed and water rose and fell hundreds of feet.  We were the last boats through the lock today.  We cleared Gatun Lock in the dark, about 17:30, detached our lines and motored a mile to Gatun Lake for the night.  No mooring balls were available so we rafted up with 3 other boats by 20:30.  Dinner was served, Moses was picked up and the line handlers slept all over the boat.   It was the end to a long and exhausting day.

Next morning, March 1, started just after sunrise making breakfast for the line handlers before the next Advisor came.  At 9:50, well after the other boats had departed, Francisco arrived.  It was 25.5 nm to a waiting area outside Pedro Miguel Lock where we rafted up with the 63 ft boat in the middle flanked by us and a smaller boat.  And we waited.  At 16:15 we went into the lock, closely followed by a barge and tanker.  Then we went through Miraflores at 18:40 with the same barge and cargo ship.  The last gate opened and out we went into the dark.  No time to celebrate.  We had to drift near Balboa Yacht Club so the handlers, lines and fenders could be picked up.  We continued to wait for Erick to bring us our Zarpa and pick up Francisco.  By 19:30 we cautiously made our way over to La Playita to anchor.  Thankfully we still had our track from 2010.  We were too wired yet exhausted to fully comprehend our accomplishment but a calmness descended around us.

Here’s the path the Canal takes

panama canal drawing

panama canal profile

The mechanics of how the locks work is simple. Panama and The Canal is located 85ft/26m (at its highest point) above sea level.  So a boat has to be lifted up at one end and lowered back down at the other end. Three sets of locks accomplish this.  On the Caribbean side, starting with the Gatun Locks, passing through Pedro Miguel Locks and finally Miraflores Locks, then sailing under the Bridge of the Americas to arrive at the Pacific Ocean.

Here’s an interesting YouTube video of the Canal expansion.

And then there are the facts about the Canal Facts

I think I have Canal obsession after looking at all my phones and then trying to get a good aerial shot online.  Instead here’s a shot you don’t often see.

b and w photo canal