Transiting the Panama Canal

We arrived in Colon, Panama after six days of sailing from Cuba. Colon is where all ships wait to transit from the Atlantic to the Pacific side. We read a lot of information beforehand from the internet to prepare us for the transit but we were not looking forward to this because we read that it was very complicated and that there was a lot of bureaucratic red tape. You could hire an agent to arrange everything for $400 but we took the chance and decided to do it ourselves. The most important step was to send a registration form with our ship information four days before our arrival so that it could be processed in the ACP (Authorities of the Canal of Panama) system. We tried sending the form from Cuba but since the internet there was very limited we were not able to do this, so we asked our friends Jan and Conny to help us fill in the form and send it for us which they gladly did.

When we arrived in Colon we called the ACP the next morning and thanks to Jan and Conny we were already in the system. That same morning someone from the ACP was sent to measure our boat and check if we met the standards. We didn’t even have to do anything like fill in the forms because he did that for us. After an hour he approved our boat so that afternoon we went to the bank to pay the costs of the transit. A couple of hours later we called the ACP and told them the payment was made and they informed us that our transit was planned for four days later. So in fact, everything went smoothly and it was a piece of cake 😜.

The next step was to rent some tires as extra protection for the boat and long lines to hold us in the middle of the lock. There are a lot of people who rent out lines and tires so we only needed to make a phone call to arrange these. We also needed to find three line handlers. A line handler is someone who needs to hold a line while we are ascending and descending in the locks. Professional line handlers can be hired for $100 per person but there are a lot of people who are willing to do this for free because they want to experience transiting the Panama Canal or just enjoy doing this. We only have to provide them with food, drinks and a bed during the transit. There are several ways to find volunteers like through the internet, in the yacht club or you can ask other cruisers. For our first line handler we asked Olga, a Polish student who was taking a year off to travel to New Zealand before taking her Masters. She was helping out an American boat that was scheduled to transit before us so we asked if she was willing to do the transit all over again and she was happy to do so. For the second and third line handler we were lucky we met Umberto a Dutch cruiser who was sailing with his 90(!!) year old mother to Fiji. He lived in Panama for a while so he called his friend Jose who was glad to help out and Jose said he would take care of the third line handler. Finally, Erwin needed to check the bottom of the boat because the minimum speed in the canal is 5 knots and we were having a lot of difficulty reaching the 5 knots. He thought there was something caught in the propeller but there was nothing there so it must be the algae and barnacles growing on the bottom of the hull. Erwin worked the whole morning scraping and removing all the barnacles.

The day before our scheduled transit we called the ACP to confirm the time and date and they told us that our date was moved to two days later. During the transit there is always a canal advisor on board but since the World Atlantic Rally Cruise was there a few days before us they had a shortage on advisors. We couldn’t believe it because we already had everything set so we had to ask the line handlers if they could come two days later. Fortunately, they were all available. Since we had two days to wait we decided to go to the supermarket to buy the provisions we needed for the Pacific crossing. We didn’t want to go to Colon town because first of all it is a filthy place with not much to see and people (even the locals) warned us to be careful because it is not safe to walk on the streets.

Navy soldiers who did a routine check up of our documents.

The Panama canal has three locks going up and three locks going down and in between the locks is the Gatun lake which is 36 n.m. long. The difference of the water level in each lock is nine meters and each lock is filled with one million liters of water. The transit will take two days and we will anchor for the night in the Gatun lake and continue the next day. During the whole transit there are 6 people on board, the captain, four line handlers and the Panama Canal advisor. While anchored at the Gatun lake you are not allowed to get off your boat except for the canal advisor who will be picked up by a pilot boat at night and another advisor will be brought the next morning.

One of our line handlers, Jose is retired but he worked in the Panama Canal for more than 25 years. He has so much experience transiting the canal that we in fact didn’t even need a canal advisor because we had our own private advisor. For many years, he was also a captain of different ships and has sailed to many parts of the world. So, we decided to appoint Jose as the captain during the transit. Erwin was one of the line handlers and I was the photographer. Olga had done the transit a week before so she knew exactly what to do and the third one Ivan, Jose’s son-in-law was transiting for the first time.

On the day of the transit we had to go to another anchorage where we met the advisor. There were also two other boats there who we were to transit with, a catamaran and a mono hull. When we were close to the entrance of the lock all three boats were first tied to each other like a raft, the catamaran in the middle and the mono hulls on the sides.

Once all three boats were tied together we motored slowly to the first lock.

Once we were in the lock a monkey fist (rope with a knot at the end) was thrown to the two boats tied to the outside of the raft. With this rope we tied the long lines (which we rented) and the lines were secured to a boulder on the wall. So, the whole raft was secured in the middle of the lock with four lines to the wall. The lock was filled with water and it was quite turbulent because it ascended 9 meters in 15-20 minutes so there was a lot of tension on the lines. Once the first lock was filled the whole raft motored slowly to the second lock. There were four men on the wall that walked with the lines to the second lock and the whole procedure was repeated two times more. Once we were outside the lock we untied the raft and we motored to a huge mooring about a mile away where we stayed for the night.

Before the advisor left he told us we needed to be ready at 6:30 a.m. the next day because another advisor would be brought in. The next morning we all got up at 6:00 a.m. and although we didn’t see them, we could hear the howling of the monkeys. We waited for the advisor who finally showed up at 9:00 a.m. (!) We motored 36 n.m. and Erwin’s work really paid off because we were averaging 6.5-7 knots easily. Halfway through, the advisor even told us to slow down a bit because we were going too fast and we would arrive too early at the locks.

We followed the same procedure at the locks at the end of the lake. The only difference was that we descended three times so the water was not turbulent at all. There was also a huge container ship behind us and that was really impressive. The idea of seeing the Pacific Ocean once the doors of the last lock opened was quite exciting.

To conclude, everything went very smoothly thanks to a great crew. We had a great time and had fun during the transit and although we have experienced locks in Holland many times, the Panama Canal was certainly a memorable experience.

At the end of the transit, we opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate another milestone but not just the successful transit of the canal but also the start of a new chapter on our journey!