From the time I envisioned taking our floating home through the Panama Canal, I began to hear warnings and horror stories of dramatic transits from other boats that were damaged enroute, experienced significant delays in transit or had to deal with something else entirely unexpected. What I found was that there was a lot of anxiety and preparation beforehand for what ended up being a smooth canal transit. I give great credit to our professional advisor and line handlers for imparting their knowledge and experience during transit, thereby allowing us to truly enjoy the journey. I also credit the research we did beforehand (mostly thanks to Chad) and going through a licensed and bonded agent to coordinate the process.
It IS an experience for sure, not just another passage (as if such a thing exists in cruising😜). There are multiple points of risk and vulnerability throughout this experience where anything could go wrong, so this is no time for complacency. On the flip side, how many times did I plan to transit the historic Panama Canal with my family? Enough said. Approaching it with a healthy frame of mind and a bit of enjoyment seemed to balance out the anxiety of what COULD go wrong. The challenge we had to tackle was to relinquish control (super easy for most of us, right?😳) When it comes to the safety of our family and home, trust is not something easily given away. However, once we realized we had local experts aboard, it was time to listen and heed their advice.
Shortly after our advisor stepped aboard (…in the dark, from a pilot boat while we were underway…), we knew we were in good hands. He told us how important it was to enjoy the experience amidst ensuring a safe transit. The line handlers had already come aboard with a wave of exuberance which further cemented our good vibe for the day. Having faith in our team that we’d only just met in the darkness of our cockpit was invaluable. We had the next several hours together and needed to work as a cohesive element.
15 hours of fun
While you may hear many varied experiences of cruising sailboats transiting the Panama Canal, I can only write from the standpoint of our unique encounter with “The Big Ditch”. This particular experience in transiting the canal was being center tied, nested (rafted-up) with 2 other boats we knew, transiting from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea in July with an advisor and (3) line handlers hired through our agent.
Here’s a timeline for the day:
0345- Line handlers arrive at the marina, and we depart La Playita Marina for the pilot buoy
0504- Advisor arrives by pilot boat
0609- Under the Bridge of the Americas
0650- Rafted up to M/V Soulmate, our center boat in the raft-up, followed by S/V Kyrie, completing our “nest”
0718- Monkey fists away! Lines tossed in Miraflores Locks chamber #1
0724- Lock gate closes, Farewell Pacific Ocean!
0857- Pedro Miguel Lock
0930- Gatun Lake
1534- Docked outside Gatun Locks and raft up with S/V Kyrie
1612- Gatun Locks chamber #1
1710- Gates open, welcome to the Caribbean!
1800- Advisor departs the boat at the Pilot Station
1850- Docked at Shelter Bay Marina
What NOT to expect:
Here were some preconceived notions I had (or had heard) that were debunked …..
- Helms person will never leave the helm– Once the monkey fists were tossed, lines were tied on and our raft-up was secured; the lock gates close behind you and the line handlers have the bulk of the work to keep you centered safely in the locks. Aside from standing by for emergency maneuvers, the helmsman or woman was able to step away from the helm to witness the magnificent power of our boat rising several feet within mere minutes. It is your boat to manage, so don’t expect to leave your post for long, but we found it entirely reasonable to take a brief hiatus for some quick photo ops. It was a memorable experience to watch our home float 54 feet above the only ocean we had sailed upon, knowing this would be our last glimpse of it from Tulum V. Likewise, the excitement was palpable as we caught our first peek at the Caribbean Sea as a family from her bow. Bottom Line: Chad and I planned to rotate on the helm which worked just fine with good communication amongst us and in conjunction with our advisor (who encouraged family photo ops when appropriate).
- You must prepare a gourmet spread and abide by strict serving times– Funny enough, an anecdotal survey of those of us responsible for galley duty during the transit revealed that the anticipation of this single element proved the most stressful of the entire preparation period! It is made very clear that you must have 3 hot meals prepared per day to serve to your advisor and crew. Now this sounds simple enough, I mean we do quite a bit of cooking onboard, but if we have 4 additional guests aboard, it is usually for 1 meal. Not knowing what our exact schedule would be, we had to remain flexible with some prepared items ready to go. The day ended up being pretty self-explanatory: At 0345 coffee and small baked goods seemed to suffice (buying Cinnabon beforehand turned out to be a huge hit!) Once we were through the first set of locks there was time to prepare a hot breakfast, and just before the last locks I prepared lunch (some of which had already been precooked requiring minimal prep time). This was our big meal of the day. Brownies and ice cream magically appeared much later as we were stalled awaiting our turn for the last locks and snacks were welcome throughout the day. Dinner was not necessary as we were already to the marina and all the line handlers wanted to do was board their transportation to get home to their families (understandably). Bottom Line: At the end of the day, simplicity sufficed. Our guests were appreciative of everything we served and with a little planning and prep work, the day rolled on smoothly. [Our advisor said the “sandwich” prohibition was bunk…but peanut butter sandwiches were discouraged. He said if we had served a subway type of sandwich, he would eat it up.]
- Expect a 2 day transit– I had listened to many cruisers who had just transited the canal over the course of 2 days. What I failed to realize was that they were all coming from the other direction! Two days means finding places for your line handlers to sleep and ensuring you have additional meals prepared, so we took this all into account for planning purposes. While we needed to be prepared for 2 days, this is a more likely scenario when coming from the Caribbean Sea. When entering from the Pacific it is very possible, if not expected (even for slower sailboats like us) to transit in 1 day. Bottom Line: Different direction = different timeline. When in doubt, discuss with your agent.
- It is better to have people you know handle the lines– This is highly subjective, but here are my thoughts and our unique experience. It is well understood that you must have 4 adult, able bodied line handlers aboard to transit the canal. While having friends or fellow sailors aboard who are up for the experience and knowledgeable in anything nautical would be feasible, I would still hire 1 or 2 professional line handlers from a reputable source. The reason is this: The hired line handlers have the experience and technical knowledge in how to safely handle your boat through the canal. Furthermore, they can anticipate and work cohesively with the canal staff (many of whom they know) should any unpleasant experience arise because they’ve done this several times before. If you can manage to have friends help out, I highly recommend the experience, but hiring 1 or 2 line handlers (at $100/day) so that they can show you the ropes (literally) is money well spent. They handled lines and fenders at every step of the way from leaving the dock, getting the advisor aboard, rafting up then separating, and docking in the slip afterwards. While you must have 4 line handlers available, in the case of a raft-up, you may only need 2 line handlers to truly “handle the lines” as you’re rising or falling in the locks. Therefore, if you had friends who were willing to work the lines, but are mostly there for the experience, there is a good chance they will be able to find a balance of work and enjoyment. At the time of our transit, a combination of nationwide strikes with intermittent roadblocks and border closures, plus my poor ability to predict the timing of our transit prevented friends from coming aboard for this experience. While we would have loved to have transited with friends, we couldn’t have asked for anything more in the 3 line handlers we hired to ensure a smooth transit. Bottom Line: If you have room, invite friends aboard for the experience, but hire line handlers to help manage your boat safely in the locks.
- Expect to follow an exact plan– If you are a cruiser, you already know to not get married to an EXACT PLAN. Here, you are at the will of the Panama Canal Transit Authority and newsflash: You’re the small kid on the block. While their goal is to get every vessel through safely, in this world size matters and as such takes precedence. We had planned to raft-up with our much faster, much more powerful powerboat through the entirety of the transit, but after the first sets of locks, it was advantageous for them to transit with the next cargo ship and get through the canal while they had a window to go. Having some dwell time while awaiting our time slot for the Gatún Locks, we docked outside the locks, then rafted-up to our fellow sailboat, S/V Kyrie for the final 3 locks. No worries, we still made it through smoothly and got to experience powering ourselves through the chambers together. Due to staffing or scheduling, advisors may request that you side tie or you may be asked to go faster/slower to make the next window in conjunction with a very large ship. Bottom Line: Stay flexible and be ready to gun it…then hurry up and wait.
- Expect a stressful evolution– At the end of the day, we were simultaneously exhausted and excited clearly on our 17th wind. The reality is that any stress was self-inflicted. The professionalism of our incredible advisor and our enthusiastic line-handlers ensured a safe and very memorable experience. We were happy we took precautions to streamline our boat and do the necessary research beforehand, but also allowed ourselves time to enjoy the experience.
Welcome to the Caribbean!
The tension started to ease as we approached the final chamber of the Gatún Locks and peered out at a brand-new body of water to explore, the Caribbean Sea. The rain was picking up with lightning in the distance, but we were in the final stretch. We couldn’t resist playing The Pirates of the Caribbean theme song, which resulted in smiles all around, I mean why not? As the gates opened in the final chamber, the might of the Caribbean breathed down upon us – wind, rain, and current all pushing against us as if to say “Welcome to the fun side of the canal!” We gunned it in order to make it to the marina before sunset and overcome the forces of nature that were all working against us, only to pause as a ginormous Neo-Panamax ship passed us, giving us one last reminder of the canal’s astounding impact on global trade. Our trusted advisor departed the boat just as he arrived, in a flash via a deftly maneuvered pilot boat, only this time in sheets of rain. Just beyond the Atlantic Bridge, we had little distance to go before hearing a welcoming voice from Eddie at Shelter Bay Marina on the VHF radio. The weather eased just as we pulled in and tied up to the dock. Our line handlers grabbed the fenders and lines and we bid them adieu. We made it!
A few more pics so you realize the sizes we were dealing with:
And so this ends our series on prepping for and crossing the Panama Canal. We hope our writing has been informational as well as entertaining…allowing potential and fellow cruisers and boaters to gain insight and knowledge from the writing.
Here’s some of the other writing we’ve done on the prep and actual crossing of the Canal:
Thank you for reading. Best complement you can give us….FOLLOW our site as we continue to live and cruise our beloved Aleutian-51 with dog, kitty and kids.