April 16, 2017: Happy Easter! We celebrated this year by, ho hum, transiting the Panama Canal in our own boat. Everyone gets to experience that, right? Wow, this was definitely a bucket list kind of day. Our day started early. We woke up at 4:30am to prepare the boat to get off the dock as soon as our line handlers, who were supposed to arrive at 5am, showed up so that we could be at the appropriate buoy to have our advisor dropped off at 6am by pilot boat. The procedure is that you wait by one of the buoys that mark the Canal traffic zone, usually between buoy 2 to 4, but 6 is right outside our marina, so we asked Flemenco Station permission to wait there, which was perfectly fine. Good thing too, as our line handlers showed up at 5:53am. Yikes. All of a sudden it’s “hurry hard”!
We quickly untied the last dock line and scurried out past the anchorage. We were at the buoy in time for them to drop off our advisor, Moses. It was a sign that on Easter we were assigned Moses – we couldn’t have gotten a better person. He knew our two line handlers and could count on them, and they were thrilled to see Moses, telling us he was very good. Jose and Juan, the line handlers, are 18 and 20 years old and going to university; they make money by hiring themselves out as line handlers. They each get $100 for the job and were well worth every cent. Despite arriving late, they were “professionalism personified”. They knew exactly what needed to be done all day long, without any input from our advisor.
So a little about how a private vessel transits the Canal. The Canal authority classifies any boat under 65 feet as a private vessel. Private vessels are assigned a Canal Port Authority advisor, whose regular job can be anywhere within the Canal and they “volunteer” to transit with boats on their days off. However, they do get paid by the Authority to do so; $400 for 8 hours and $600 for anything over eight hours. Lucky for us, Moses’ day job is training and supervising the tug boats (he ran a tug for years), so he has a ton of experience, understands how to maneuver a boat, and has been an advisor for many years. A private boat is required to have 4 line handlers, 2 for the bow and 2 for the stern.
There are a lot of different configurations for private vessels to go through the lock. The center chamber is the most work, as we were advised that you may have to get close to the wall on one side to receive the two monkey fists and then motor across to the other side for those two monkey fists, then back to the middle, and then all four line handlers work hard to keep you in the center. That was our our friends’ experience. Brad’s experience, when he was line handling, was that they just threw the monkey fists across to the boat in the center of the lock, no maneuvering required to get close. You can be side-tied to a tug or a ferry, which is tied to the lock wall. This is absolutely no work for you, other than tying yourself to the tug and untying yourself very quickly before he moves forward to the next lock. You can also be rafted up with one or two other boats, with one of the boats doing the maneuvering for the whole group of you, for the most part. Once you enter a lock you have a Canal employee on the wall, who throws you a monkey fist, hopefully to the bow of your boat, which is nowhere near your solar panels, and then a line handler wraps the monkey fist around the loop in the 150 foot line on your boat and the worker walks with your boat as you move forward with the light trailer line, until they are near the bollard you will be tied to, where they start pulling the monkey fist up until they are able to slip your looped line over the bollard. Then it is up to the line handlers to take in or pay out line as you are up-locking and down-locking, to keep your bow facing forward and your boat off the concrete walls!
Once we arrived just short of the first Miraflores Lock, we were instructed to come alongside Quicksilver to side tie to them so we could lock through as a unit. Brad did an excellent job of approaching them and maneuvering our boat alongside and Jose and Juan got us tied up fast – bow and stern – with our rented 150 foot lines and a couple of our dock lines as spring lines. Because we rafted with another sailboat, it meant that our boat only used two of our line handlers, meaning if you hired two professionals as we did, you get to enjoy the experience and take lots of pictures, or work as teams of two, with breaks for both if you have friends on board.
Brad was the star of the day. He did all the driving for the raft, with Moses only occasionally asking Quicksilver’s skipper to help out with a small forward or backward thrust to keep us from getting cockeyed in the lock chamber. Essentially, we became a catamaran – two hulls with two motors so we could maneuver like a twin screw boat if needed. Our boat was the heavier boat, so we did most of the maneuvering through the locks. Brad did an amazing job and we were never in any hairy situations. Our advisor would tell both boats when to go forward or back; make course adjustments and how hard to throttle up or down. He also communicated with the Canal workers on the lock walls, telling them to hurry if needed; and also all line handlers on both boats, telling them when to loosen the lines so we could move forward into the next lock. The advisor on Quicksilver coordinated the rafting up process and also kept an eye on the fenders between our two boats, asked for adjustments on occasion, and was hands-on with their line handlers, who were fellow cruisers. They had never line handled before and volunteered to do it for the experience, before bringing their own boats through. Everyone worked together like a well-oiled machine. As a side note, the advisor also does all the communication with the Canal Authority via the Flemenco and Cristobal Stations (the Canal’s air traffic control) as soon as he is on board and until he leaves your vessel, giving them your updated positions and coordinating and timing whether you can get through the second set of locks on the same day. We were extremely fortunate to be able to complete our transit in one day.
The locks are incredible to see up close. Each lock has two sets of steel doors, for ease of maintenance and in case a cargo ship can’t stop and crashes into one door. In that situation the second set of doors will hold the water in. Moses told us the dam in Gatun Lake is there to hold the water in the lake. When the area was first flooded to operate the locks, it took three years to fill Gatun Lake to the required depth. At today’s rainfall levels, it is estimated that it would take six years to fill the lake. So if a lock was breached and let out too much water, not only would the repair to that lock slow up the Canal, but, if it were so severe that they weren’t able to keep water within the locks, both lanes of the original locks would be affected and operations ceased. If there was a catastrophic breach anywhere in the lake and too much water was let out of the lake, the Canal would not be able to operate until the levels were high enough again. If the breach was so catastrophic that the lake would empty, it could take potentially six years before the Canal could operate again! No bueno.
For the first set of three locks, we were in the lock behind a large cargo ship, the Silver Euplecta. Beside us in the next lock was Holland America’s Veendam. For the second set of locks, we were in front of the large cargo ship, Cos Knight. Although they are huge and were relatively close, there was still empty water between us. It is impressive to watch the white water rapids come towards you when you are behind one; they give their prop a little twist to help the mules move them forward to the next lock. Moses had us wait until the prop wash calmed down again before the lines were slackened off so we could move forward, so it really didn’t affect us as our line handlers kept us straight. When you are in front of cargo ships, they wait until you are tied up again to the bollards before they begin moving forward.
Once we were through the last Gatun Lock, we needed to drop Moses off onto a pilot boat in an area they call the flats. We were told that if we arrived after dark we could anchor there, but I can’t see where. It’s an industrial port where cargo ships come and go and offload sea cans 24 hours a day. There definitely wouldn’t be much sleep happening, that’s for sure. As it turned out, we headed towards Shelter Bay Marina in the dwindling light of sunset and didn’t quite make it into the Marina before dark. Shelter Bay itself advises against coming in at night, as there is an uncharted reef that extends 150 metres out from the mouth of the Marina and too many boats have hit that reef on the way in.
We crossed the ship anchorage in plenty of light. Our advice there is to keep a watchful eye on the large ships as you go behind them, and don’t assume that they are raising their anchor to leave, as they may just be re-anchoring and will be backing down on it at an alarmingly fast pace right towards you! As we approached the “marked” channel leading to Shelter Bay, we lost the last light of the day. Not every green buoy has a working light on it. The most crucial green buoy, the last one marking the channel before the reef, did not have a working light and they are quite small and hard to see in the dark. You would think they would be maintained properly, given the number of boats lately that have hit that reef! You definitely don’t want to cut corners coming in here. Also, you want to keep the port side of your boat close to the green and yellow marina buoys, not in the middle of the channel halfway between the breakwater and the buoys, as would be your natural instinct. The channel is shallow in places and gets worse the closer to the breakwater you get. There are also two cell towers on shore, one that looks like a lighthouse that you line up with until you get to the mouth of the Marina. We thankfully got in safely with the help of our experienced line handlers, and Brad, having been in there on another boat,volunteered for us as a line handler.
What we have learned that may be of interest to those who are planning to transit the Canal: we opted to hire an agent for various reasons, but one was we were hoping that having an agent would bump us up in the schedule when the Canal decided to schedule a rally type of crossing for the 24 private vessels. We did get through a week earlier than our original date of April 25, but a boat that was given the date of April 24 and who did not hire an agent, transited a week before us. It seems that the key to success is to call the Canal Authority every day to ask about your transit day, until they schedule you early to get rid of you. That seemed to work for a couple of boats we happened to speak with. We highly recommend Erick Galvez with Centenario & Co – he responded very quickly to emails, is efficient and thorough, provided excellent fenders and lines, and hired two very experienced line handlers, as promised. When we phoned to tell him our line handlers hadn’t arrived yet at 5:45, he quickly called them and phoned us right back saying they would be there in 7 minutes … and they were. And then just as Moses had got on board and was saying hello, Erick called us back to ensure we were okay and to apologize that the line handlers were late. Professional and great service!
The Canal wait times were three weeks when we went through, and the Canal put through 24 boats from the Caribbean to the Pacific in an effort to shorten those times on Easter weekend. Most, if not all, of those boats were doing the Puddlejump to French Polynesia and needed to get started before the hurricane season. The Canal put 12 boats through as a group on Friday, no large ship in with them, overnighting on Gatun Lake and finishing on Saturday, and 12 boats on Sunday that finished on Monday. That is the way they put rallies like the ARC through, and that takes a lot of advisors and a lot of monkey-fist-throwing employees on the wall.
Very important advice for those following us through the Canal: Do not rely too heavily on the expertise of your line handlers just because they are your agent’s “best guy” and have done it a hundred times. Our friends were put through the Gatun Locks very late in the day, and went against their gut instinct to anchor out for the night. Instead, they followed the advice of their agent to rely on the local knowledge and expertise of their line handler who then, unbeknownst to them, took a shortcut into Shelter Bay where they ended up on the uncharted reef. They had to call a Mayday in 30 knot winds and building seas, and their sailboat is still on the hard being repaired. It is a mystery how or why it happened, when the reef is well-known by all the locals and their line handler was indeed a local who lives in Colon. We also heard that two other boats ran aground after being told to go outside of the Canal traffic zone markers, to allow the cargo ship behind them plenty of room to pass. They were able to eventually rock themselves back into deeper water, but it is important to stay within the channel markers everywhere within the Canal Zone. It is unclear who advised them to get out of the way, as we heard this information third hand. If you want to know more about the uncharted reef and where it is, check the discussion on Noonsite.
Most importantly, enjoy the experience. We sure did!