The Panama Canal

The Panama Canal

24. December 2021 Off By Søren

“A pilot must have good nutritious food.  We are not vegetarians”, the inspector from the Panama Canal admonishes me.  And I’m listening very seriously, because rumors have already reached us about pilots who were not happy with the food they got on board, so they ordered takeaway from their favorite restaurant brought out on the boat in the canal – and a nice big bill for the skipper included.

When you sail through the Panama Canal as a small sailing boat, you must have a pilot on board just like the large ships, and as it probably appears above, you are responsible for the catering of the pilot.  In addition, there are a number of other requirements for boat and crew.  Some find their way through the rules and bureaucracy, but we chose to use an agent who then takes care of most things.

The Panama Canal clearly stands out for us as one of the great experiences of our trip.  The impressive construction that cost thousands of lives to build, the logistics, the size of the locks and ships, yes in short everything by the canal is impressive.  And then it’s a bit like walking through a one-way door, once you’re through you’re in the Pacific and then you do not just turn around if you regret it (or you can, of course, you just have to pay 16,000 kroner again).  So that way, there is also something amazing in getting out into the world’s largest ocean, the Pacific Ocean, and maybe a little scary too.

The warnings about the food for the pilot came as part of an inspection before we get permission to transit the canal.  Here the boat is measured and the necessary equipment is checked on board.  Finally, you get your Panama Canal ID number, a number that apparently applies to the entire life of the boat.

Test drive as a linehandler

Each boat must have 4 line handlers who must handle the lines that are thrown out to us on the boat from the canal crew in the lock.  With our two guests Laura C and Luna we were already 5 people, but our really good friend Deniz would not let an opportunity to sail through the canal pass by, so he had flown out to join.

And to demystify what we should be able to do, Laura and Søren sailed with another boat in Shelter Bay marina through the canal as line handlers a few days before we had to go through ourselves.

3 danish boats together

Now we were ready.  The large and long mooring ropes and fenders for use in the locks had been delivered the day before by our agent.

We were 3 Danish boats going through at the same time, and the hope was that we would be tied together in the locks.  The other boats were FantaSea which we departed Lynetten with when our trip began, and Touché which we have also known for a long time.  You only get the time for collecting the pilot 24 hours before, and realized we did not all get the same time.  But that was not something JuanJo from Shelter Bay Marina could not fix, so he made sure we got off together.

The three danish boats Touche, FantaSea og Carpe Diem in the Gatun lake.

And then it was time.  We laid out in the industrial harbor in the area called The Flats, where our pilot came on board.  A nice young man who worked in the Panama Canal on board their security boats, and who had worked as a pilot for sailboats as a cozy job and a little extra money.  And he was super nice.  Also the 2 pilots Laura and I experienced on our trip through with another boat were incredibly nice, so luckily it’s probably just a rumor of bossy pilots.  We had, of course, made sure he was catered for as prescribed.

In the Locks

There is about 1.5 hours sailing to the first locks.  The trip was spent preparing rope and fenders.  In the first locks we are lifted about 27 meters up to Gatun lake.  It always happens with 1 large ship.  Sailboats come in the old locks where the ships can be up to 294 meters long (Panamax).  The new locks are for the larger Neupanamax ships that can be 365 meters long.

The lock behind us to the Caribbean closes

We have to get behind the big ship and just before the lock we raft up the 3 boat.  Touché is the largest boat, so it should be in the middle.  Judith on Touché must now steer us safely in and out of the locks without hitting the sides.  A task she accomplished with bravura.  It will then be FantaSea and us who are responsible for line handling.  It had the clear advantage that Touché’s linehandlers were not in use, so 2 of them played the clarinet through the locks instead of handling the lines. 

On the way into the lock we are met by 4 people on land, 2 on each side, standing and swinging the ropes with monkey fists, and vupti the first is thrown out.  It is picked up and brought to the stern where it is tied to the large mooring rope which is now ready to be pulled up.  The same thing happens in front, and then it’s just sailing slowly into the lock.  In front of us, the locomotives that hold the large ship in place in the lock are in the process of getting their rope in place.  It requires 2 locomotives in each corner, but it is also large ships that must be held very precisely.  The ship we have in front of us has only 1 meter on each side.

We have sailed through the Caledonian Canal in Scotland, so we have tried the methods in the locks before.  It is similar here, although it is much larger, and we here must be aware of the current the large ship’s propellers can create when they are started.  The lock up to Gatun lake runs smoothly, and shortly after dark all 3 boats are moored at a very large buoy located first in Gatun lake just for this purpose.

A Stowaway

We are told that the next morning at 7:30 there will be a new pilot on board so we have to be ready.  I’m awake early so the drone comes up for a ride.  Already at 7 o’clock, however, we can see a pilot boat coming towards us.  They are early but it’s fine to get going.  Again we get a super nice pilot on board.  We are more and more convinced that it is just rumors with the strict pilots.

Denis with the stowaway opossum.

Day 2 through Gatun Lake to the locks out to the Pacific Ocean starts with a 5 hour cruise to the locks.  We sail quietly through a mix of beautiful islands as well as excavated canals.  At some point, the speed is down as we wait for a ship categorized as high risk (transporting liquefied gas) to pass at a permitted location.  FantaSea waves to us and points up at the mast.  On our furled genoa sits a opossum.  We definitely do not want having it on board even though it looks cute.  It must have come on board via our low-hanging fenders at the anchor buoy.  It jumps over on one of the halyards which Laura and Søren then slowly pull down, and finally Deniz can reach it and take it off.  The only defense from the opossum was to pee while Deniz hurried to throw it into the water – they can obviously swim since it had come on board.

In the Pacific Ocean

We reach the last locks in the early afternoon.  Now we have to lock down, and then it’s us who are at the front of the lock, again tied together, and a new large ship behind us.  It can be a little overwhelming to see such a large ship being pulled all the way towards you, but there was complete control over it.

In the lock we had a rather unique experience.  One of the employees in the Panama Canal had his last working day before he retired, and it is marked by the ships in the last lock are sounding their rather powerful fog horns.  It was very loud and a more touching experience than we had thought.  Luckily we had been warned about it, and we just had to get going on our own fog horn, even though it could hardly be heard among the large fog horns of the big ships.

And then the gate opens to the Pacific Ocean, at least to the canal out to the Pacific Ocean.  Very touching and there was cheering on the 3 boats.  We were now in the Pacific – it was difficult to comprehend.

Moorings lines and fenders were picked up by the agent at Balboa Marina, and then we were able to sail around to the anchorage with a somewhat different background than we were used to: the Panama City Skyline.

Panama City skyline at night seen from Las Brisas anchorage.

Facts / good advice

We sailed through the canal September 2021. At this time we collected the following:

You will be asked about your max motoring speed.  This is not where you brag about you once got it up to 8 knots after a freshly cleaned hull and propeller, or say 8 because you think that is the minimum requirement.  They plan based on the speed you say and ask you to keep it for several hours (from north to south it is a few hours on the first day and about 5 hours on the second day).  Therefore: Say a realistic number, and preferably 1/2 knot below, e.g.  5.5 knots.

In the event of engine problems, you will be towed back or forward at your own expense.  It is very expensive and often with damage to your cleats etc. as a result.  Make sure your engine is well serviced before sailing through the canal.

The 4 line handlers must be at least 16 years old and must be able to do some hard work, even though it most of the time is quite easy.  If you can not find line handlers yourself, you can get some through your agent.  They cost about $ 100 each.  Most often, you can find other sailors in the marina who would like to join.

Find a boat in the marina that lacks linehandlers and take them through the canal.  Typically, you are not paid for it, other than food and a taxi back to your boat, but you learn what it takes through the canal, both for skipper and line traders.

Bunker fuel well in advance, no later than the day before.  If something goes wrong getting fuel it costs to postpone the transit, or even worse not to have enough diesel.  The engine runs all day both days.

Provide enough cold water in unopened bottles for the pilot.  It is a requirement that they are unopened.

It is a good idea to wrap solar cells.  But you can easily in the locks (the pilot helps) ask the employees, who throw the lines with monkey fists, to throw them at the bow and then transport them to the aft mooring line – there is plenty of time for this.