A sailing blog about a skipper and his yacht

13th – 18th February Panama Canal

by | Feb 19, 2017 | Voyage Logs | 2 comments

A few days before my own scheduled transit I went through the canal as a line handler on Philip’s boat Wandering Star, a 45’ Irwin ketch. The other line handlers were an English couple from Morpheus, my neighbours on the pontoon and a young Panamanian Carlos. Late afternoon and we picked up the transit advisor at the Flats anchorage and motored to the Gatun locks. Before entering we rafted up with a catamaran in the centre us to starboard and a big pilot house ketch to port. The Panamain canal line handlers ashore threw us hauling lines weighted with monkeys fists, we attached the mooring warps to them, we were walked into the lock and once in place the linehandlers ashore dropped the loops over bollards and the linehandlers on the boats took up the slack. Lock doors closed and water flooded in, the turbulence was considerable, there was a lot of strain on the lines and taking in the lines as the raft rose was hard. There are 3 Gatun locks and we passed from one to the other with the linehandlers ashore casting us off and walking us through to the next lock. Going through at the same time was a big freighter in front of us, they have only a few feet clearance either side so move very slowly, guided by the mules( electric trains) to which they are tied so it all took some time. By the time we were through the 3rd lock and could de-raft it had already been dark for some time and we motored to anchor near the designated mooring bouy to spend the night in Gatun Lake. Our transit advisor left us and we could settle down to eat and drink a few beers.
Resuming the transit the next morning with a new advisor, we motored across the lake then through the cuts past Gamboa and through the Gaillard cut, past Gold hill, under the Centenario bridge and so to the San Pedro lock where the descent to the Pacific begins. Rafting up again we entered the lock , this time in front of a freighter. Down-locking is much more gentle with no turbulence. On through the Minaflores lake to the 2 Minaflores locks and then finally to the Pacific. Just a few more miles and under the Bridge of the Americas and there is Balboa Yacht Club with its moorings. The club boatman ran us ashore and we said our farewells to Philip and taxied back to Shelter Bay. It was a worthwhile experience and had prepared me for my own transit.
For my transit I enlisted the English crew of Tintin, recently arrived and scheduled to transit a few days later. Motoring out of the marina Sea Bear felt heavy and sluggish with 5 aboard. At the flats waiting for the advisor I talked through the procedure with the crew and when the advisor arrived we set off for the locks.

Approaching Gatun locks

Entering Gatun Locks

In Gatun locks

Sea Bear was rafted alongside 2 big yachts and the advisors said the 2 big yachts would do all the line handling and manoeuvring. We were just grateful passengers and so had an easy time of it. Passing through the Gatun locks was quicker this time so we were moored up to the big buoy before dark. Dinner was cooked and eaten and some beers drunk. Now Sea Bear has only 3 bunks so I slept in the cockpit and another elected to sleep on the foredeck It was a fine night.

Mooring buoy Gatun Lake

Sunrise Gatun Lake

The advisor had warned that they would be early next morning and indeed Larry, our new advisor turned up at 6.45 and we were off. Tea was already brewed so I let one of the crew helm whilst I cooked breakfast for all.

Panamax on Gatun Lake

When doing your transit application you must specify your cruising speed, I had specified 5 knots, this is the minimum speed allowed. I was little concerned at being able to maintain this especially so heavily laden as we were but we averaged 5.7 for the next 5 hours that we took to motor the 28.6 mies across the lake and to the San Pedro lock, where we arrived at 11.45. The lake is quite beautiful with lots of tree covered islands, on the biggest of which is the Smithsonian Tropical research station. We did this time see a crocodile basking in the shallow of one island.

Gaillard cut, Gold hill & Bridge Centanario

Down-locking this time was quite quick, no big freighter to wait for, rafted together again with Arielle, and a French Onvi, we locked through with a big sail training ship and a passenger ferry.

San Pedro Lock

Exiting the San Pedro lock we spotted another crocodile. Shortly after 2pm our advisor was picked up and we moored to a mooring buoy at Balboa Yacht club. It had been and easy and stress free transit.

Bridge of the Americas

I went ashore in the club boat with my crew and dropped of the tyre fenders (3$ each to hire 1$ each to drop off). The crew of Arielle were at the yacht club and we drank some beer before they went off in the taxi that we had pre-arranged back to Shelter Bay.
Connected up to wifi I discovered that John Whittle, an old friend and work associate from my time as a climbing guide had suddenly died. So no joy at being through to the Pacific. The day ended on a sombre note and I drank the last of my beer in remembrance of him.

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