Passage Through the Panama Canal

October 19, 2021


We had planned to leave the marina and start our Panama Canal transit on Tuesday, early afternoon.  We had just come back from a trip to San Blas for two days to meet the native Kuna people and to get a glimpse of this wonderful archipelago.

Domi swam under the boat to check on the paint job we’d recently had done. He noticed that the paint on the propeller was peeling off. When we returned to the marina, the workmen told us that they would of course give our money back – which would not have been of much use. We would have preferred for them  to do the job properly. In the end, the day before the canal crossing, they pulled the boat out of the water again, chiseled off the peeling paint and the following morning gave it another layer of fresh paint. Around midday our boat was back in the water.  A couple hours later we had to leave.

Because of this incident, our preparation for the canal crossing became even more exciting given the tight schedule. The boat was put back into the water the very last minute. We had one more hour to go in the marina, cleaned and prepared the saloon for the incoming guests: the two line handlers will sleep here: Michell and Glenn, a nice Australian couple. We had met them in the marina. They plan to cross the canal in January on their catamaran.
Our departure was delayed by two hours, and then by another one …

While we were waiting for the transit, the crew of SeaLegacy1 came over to our boat for an information session. They will be our buddy boat during the two day crossing. We had already agreed in the summer to cross over to the Pacific Ocean together. Domi explained us about the crossing, who needs to do what at the locks, what we need to pay attention to … there were nine of us, plus the children.

We offered our guests some almond pogacsa and home made ice cream.   Both were an imminent success.  After the info session, we had to cover the solar panels on the boat.  Some comforters served as makeshift protection. We wanted to avoid the panels getting broken when the ’monkey fist’ is thrown onto our boat. This bunched up line (looks like a fist, hence the name) had to be fastened to the blue line, which we had recieved from the crossing agency, so that the canal line handlers could pull the blue line to shore.

Heading to the Panama Canal

At around 4.30 PM, we said goodbye to Shelterbay Marina, and amid frantic hand waves we sailed out to the bay in front of it and anchored our boat at the designated spot.  Here we waited for the arrival of the canal advisor, and for further directions about when and where to go, and at what speed.

In the meantime we witnessed a pretty sunset, and the rise of a full moon. At around 6.30PM our man, Ivan,  arrived. We waited until our buddy boat had its canal advisor on board as well. We started motoring towards the canal and were going incredibly slowly (about 1 knot), which gave us enough time to cook dinner, eat, and we even had time to have some ice cream.  Not far from the entry to the canal we tied the two boats together. We had to wait for a giant of a cargo ship to enter into the lock before us, then it was our turn. Usually they let two-three smaller boats into the lock alongside a big cargo ship. Both boats had been fixed tightly on shore at four different points. The lockgate has slowly closed behind us. Bye-bye Atlantic Ocean!

I was pleased that Domi had gone through the Panama Canal before (the first part at daylight). This gave me a certain sense of security, as it was much harder to navigate now, in darkness.

In the first lock

At the first line throw everyone was aboard, we had the girls stand behind the mast, to keep them safe from the flying monkey fists. They were so excited, watched the happenings for a while longer from the deck, then went down to sleep. By now all the pogacsas  – which the girls and I baked together for the occasion – were gone. It started to rain on and off.

We had to go through a system of three locks. In the first, we had quite a bit of excitement as the cargo ship in front of us shifted into gear which generated awkward currents affecting mostly our buddy boat. The line handlers had no choice but to pull the boat really close to the sidewall of the lock to avoid potential damage.  The Panama Canal advisors were furious with the driver of the cargo ship. It was very scary to watch.  Luckily, as it was an intentional maneuver, only the puffers of our partner boat got a bit damaged.

In the Gatun Lake

It took us about three hours to reach lake Gatun. Our buddy boat’s designated night spot was on the other side of the lake.  They got their by 2AM.  We got lucky as we could go to bed already at midnight, tied to an enormous buoy.  We said good bye to Ivan, and the service boat picked him up from the buoy.

The night passed without much to report, we only occasionally felt big waves when a giant cargo ship went by.  The following day we welcomed a new advisor on board. He was expected to show up between 6 and 7 AM.  He got there by the time we had finished breakfast. Right away we freed the boat from the anchorage and set out across the lake at a pace dictated by him. It was a bit overcast at first, but then the sun arrived triumphantly.

The red-soiled shores peeked out from underneath lots of green as we were sailing along. From time to time we had to yield to huge ships with dangerous cargo such as explosive gases.  We spotted beautiful birds on the way. For lunch we had cero mackarel, we cauth it a few days erlier with yummy steamed veggies and rice and strawberry ice cream for dessert.  We comfortably finished lunch while going toward our target, the next lock, with our buddy boat at our side.  We tied the two boats together again and ’swam’ into the lock.  Then the system gradually started to let the water out of the lock.

The last part

The huge cargo ship was behind us this time around. It could barely squeeze between the concrete walls of the lock, its massive body widened out above shore level. The width of the lock was 110 feet, the cargo ship was 106 feet wide, so there were some 2 feet on each side to spare. It was literally unbelievable.
The line handlers had a bit easier job on this stretch.  As the waterlevel was decreasing in the lock they gradually let the lines loose, keeping them somewhat tight though.

The Pacific Ocean

Between 3 and 4 PM we reached the final double iron gates and out there, behind them, there she was, the Pacific Ocean!  We felt excited, a strange tingling feeling in our body signaling that we have finally arrived to the Pacific. The sight was not particularly pretty as we were still in the lock system, but one of our dreams had come true at this moment. We have arrived to the Pacific Ocean! We untied the lines connecting our boats and said good bye to our friends for a little while. It had been a great experience to cross the canal with them!

We clinked our glasses and said a celebratory toast. Then saw off our canal advisor who successfully guided us through the second leg of the trip. Sailing away from the industrial zone we reached the anchorage where we could return the equipment we had borrowed for the crossing.  As we sailed on, we could detect the skyline of Panama City.