As your screen plotter springs to life showing the AIS symbols of a large assortment of cargo ships, cruise vessels and oil tankers, you’re left in no doubt that you’re approaching the breakwater to Cristobal, home to the northern entrance of the Panama Canal, one of the Seven Engineering Wonders of the World. Celebrating 100 years of operation in August this year, the Panama Canal is a vital link between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans with over 14,000 ships passing through each year.
Whilst sheltering the Atlantic side of the canal, the Cristobal breakwater is also home to Cristobal harbour, anchorage areas for vessels awaiting transit, and Shelter Bay Marina. It’s soon evident that the Panama Canal Authority is in charge as they give clear and concise instructions to ships as to how they must proceed; a wrong manoeuvre and a sharp rebuke is dished out. On board Adina we see a gap in the steady movement of ships in the entrance to the breakwater and radio for clearance, explaining we are bound for the marina. We opted to stay in the Shelter Bay Marina whilst completing formalities for our transit as not only does it have good facilities but also offers daily free minibus rides to the slightly shady town of Colon to enable you to stock up your boat. For us, as for many cruisers, this represented the last chance for any serious provisioning for the coming months of sailing in the Pacific before arriving in Tahiti, over 4500 nautical miles away.
First up, you need to complete formalities. The Panama Canal Authority has done a good job in explaining all the procedures required to transit the canal so, whilst many sailors opt to use an agent to handle the paperwork, we opted to do it ourselves. In advance of arrival, we had e-mailed the necessary form to register our intention to transit and acquire a transit number. With this done we then booked our appointment with the Ad Measurer for the day after our arrival. The Ad Measurers come out in their official uniform, sweating away in the heat of the day inspecting your boat, taking specific measurements and checking it is capable of completing the transit. Prices increase rapidly once you are deemed to be over 50ft and with rates that eat into any cruising budget it’s not uncommon for yachts to remove davits to ensure they save some pennies! Once the measurements had been captured, a couple of hours later we headed to a bank in Colon to pay our fee. Adina’s transit cost US$1875, including a refundable US$891 deposit, as would be the same for any vessel up to 50ft in length. Payment made, we made a quick phone call to request a transit slot and were pleased to find we were given one only a few days later.
With our date and time confirmed, we then set about final preparations in the hubbub of the marina. Sailors swap greetings, discussing where they are in the process and if they are one of the lucky ones who have secured a transit. We rented four very thick 125ft lines and additional fenders in the form of not so attractive old tyres wrapped up in plastic bags. Next we needed to find line handlers; each yacht must have a skipper and four line handlers for the transit. You can pay locals or even better you find some friendly sailors looking for experience in advance of completing their own transit. Good fortune favoured us as just as Susie was putting up a notice looking for three line handlers, a Swiss family was putting up a notice with three of them looking to do the transit as practice exactly when ours was scheduled. It’s splendid when a plan comes together! We promptly agreed to the deal and made arrangements for sundowners to get to know one another a little better.
Finally our transit day arrived and we spent most of it pacing around making last minute preparations. You know what lies ahead of you, you are looking forward to it but it’s just as daunting as setting off on a long ocean passage, the jangling nerves are there, you hope all your preparation pays off, that you’ve not missed something. Finally we welcomed our excited line handlers on board, fired up our engine and moved to the designated anchorage area within the Cristobal breakwater to await our transit advisor, a pilot who would accompany and guide us as we proceeded through the locks. When travelling north to south, yachts now commonly transit the first set of up locks at night time, sharing a lock with a container vessel. Come 7pm, with much fanfare a pilot boat pulled up alongside Adina with an advisor and a rookie in training. Quick hellos out of the way, no time wasted, we raised anchor and were off. We slipped into the main channel only moving aside to let the 100-odd metre long ship that was to be accompanying us in the lock pass by. This is as up close and personal to container ships you’re ever going to get and to be quite frank ever probably want to get.
Yachts can transit the canal in one of three ways, the choice of method being made for you by the Authorities. The most common is in a raft of up to three yachts with ropes from either side of the raft to the shore. The most feared is an alongside transit where you go alone and are secured to one of the side walls; with the strong water flows in the locks it is easy to bump into the rough sides. Finally there is alongside a tug and you just have to hope the tug is yacht friendly and does not speed away. As we navigated towards the locks we established that we were lucky and were to transit the first locks on our own and in the centre with four lines direct to shore, no rafting required. Not so lucky ahead of us were 3 catamarans rafted up who, then being so wide, bumped the walls!
The skipper is expected to provide a meal for the pilot and indeed the regulations state that if he is not satisfied with it he can request a meal from ashore sent out by a pilot boat at your expense. No surprise then that the advisors are well fed and ours even announced it was time for dinner as we waited to enter the first lock by asking, “Is my dinner cooked?”
Approaching the first lock in the dark everything suddenly starts to light up. A big, bright neon arrow clearly indicates which lock you must proceed to. Ahead there is a flurry of activity as the container vessel enters the orange floodlit lock. It is secured with lines to small locomotives that would feature well in an episode of Dr. Who. These clang out bell noises which indicate they are moving or stopping, which in turn means another locomotive should take appropriate action. Everyone is a little nervous, excited, but also alert and focused. You really need a good focused crew, any errors and you will pay; yachts do get damaged. The advisor guides us keeping a speed of 3 knots and then telling us where to stop. Lines with a monkey fist knot are thrown down to the yacht and you secure these to your own lines which are then taken ashore and secured to a bollard. The key trick is not to get hit by the monkey knot which arrives at some speed, thudding down on your boat having been thrown from a fair height on top of the lock sides. Our luck was a little short as only three men turned up on shore. Much shouting and a fourth man thankfully appeared, hurling his monkey ball down towards us. You’re not sure whether to catch it or shout “Duck!”
All is then still and the large gates close behind you as an alarm sounds. It’s a little eerie, it’s all real and now it’s the turn of the line handlers on Adina. Susie, Hueras, Jacques and Jacqueline each have to sweat in their own line as the lock slowly but steadily fills with water. The flood of water is surprisingly noiseless but you can see its swirling pools. You recall the warnings that anything that goes overboard (including pets) cannot be retrieved and it sends a slight shiver down your spine. Constantly taking in any slack, the line handlers ensure Adina is kept in the centre of the lock and well away from its dark brooding sides. Once we’ve risen to the top, the giant gates ahead slowly open and we motor at a slow 3 knots as the line handlers ashore now walk with our lines up the steps to the next lock getting much exercise, and the process is repeated. Any pause in activity and we grab the opportunity to silently take in the history of these 100 year old locks. We stand and admire the thick black and brown heavily pitted walls built so long ago, trying to imagine the process and the number of people involved in building them. Back in the real world we also couldn’t help but gaze up at the towering container vessel transiting with us who similarly have crew standing at the back looking down in some amazement at us.
After the three locks up we find ourselves in the Gatun Lake where we raft up to a mooring buoy for the night, along with the three other catamarans who were ahead of us. After their bumpy ride it’s no surprise they are all befriending us and wanting to accompany us the next day in the down locks. A quick dinner, Panamanian beer and sleep.
Awaking early the next day, a new advisor arrives and off we go again. Today we travel 30 odd miles to the first down locks. While we must motor our advisor says we can also use our sails if we want to. We snake our way along the Gatun Lake turning left and right through the many bends as we wind our way towards the Pacific Ocean. Each leg brings different wind and we even get going as fast as 8 knots over the ground on some stretches with the sails taking over from the engine. The lake is a veritable feast to the eyes with lush green jungle in abundance and we can hear the howling monkeys in their depths. We also keep a good lookout for alligators that populate these waters. Feeling like you’re on a jungle cruise, it’s slightly surreal when every now and then a cruise ship or container vessel silently glides by on its way to the Atlantic.
For the final three down locks we raft alongside an American catamaran. Between the locks the skippers have to work hard as large rushes of water on the downward locks send strong flows of water from astern. Our advisor is also a tug boat pilot and expertly tells us how to manoeuver our rafted vessels to handle the currents. In no time at all we have arrived at the last Miraflores lock. A visitor centre here means there is a large crowd watching. The locks also have webcams and knowing we have family and friends looking out for us, our advisor arranges for the webcam to be focused on Adina. Susie and I go the front of the boat and wave to the webcams – it certainly does the trick as we get several texts from people rather excited to be able to see us while eating their dinner back in the UK. Waves over, we get ready for the last descent.
The final gates open and before us lies the Pacific Ocean. It’s an emotional moment for us, exhausted and thrilled, we realise we’ve transited the Panama Canal and reached the Pacific where a whole new world of adventures awaits Adina. A day never forgotten. Happy 100 years Panama Canal.