Through the Panama Canal

Sometimes on a trip like this there comes your way an unusual opportunity to try something completely different and although it is a outside your normal comfort zone, you know you would kick yourself for ever if you didn’t try it.

Whilst staying at Shelter Bay Marina near Colon the preceding week our friends John and Betti met a guy looking for line handlers to help him though the Panama Canal, we all promptly volunteered. We had been hugely impressed with what we’d seen of the Canal we’d driven along beside it, visited all the locks and even driven under one of the lock gates. The engineering feat is astounding, especially since it is 100 years old this year.

From Panama City we made our way to the Caribbean entry to the Panama Canal by bus and taxi. We reported for duty to Maurice, the Dutch owner of a 45 foot catamaran, he was sailing single-handedly from Europe to Australia. However for the next 24 hours he needed 4 extra people to help him though the 3 sets of locks in the Canal.20140409-172818.jpg20140409-172854.jpg
We sailed out to the mouth of the Canal and anchored up while watching the huge tankers and cargo ships glide past. We felt very, very small.
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For the big boats the Canal authorities provide pilots to captain the boats through the Canal but for the smaller vessels an Advisor comes aboard to help guide them through. Our first advisor Ricky was a competent and cheerful chap, it was especially important as Maurice although an experienced sailor, hadn’t been through before. As for the rest of us, apart from John we were all complete sailing novices. No matter, they just need people competent enough to hold the ropes taut when in the locks to keep the boat straight and stop it crashing into the lock sides. So first job for us line handlers was to learn to tie a bowline.

Let’s just say some people needed far, far more practice than the rest of us.
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We entered the first of three chambers at Gatun lock in the late afternoon. It was very daunting to looking up at the huge high walls as we motored in. Our work began, the port workers expertly threw a small rope with a large “monkey knot” on the end onto the deck from their high vantage point. We’d previously covered all the solar panels with cushions, as this causes one of the most common types of damage during transit. Quickly grabbing it we tied our our thick mooring ropes to their thin rope using the aforementioned bowline, all praying they could remember how to do it properly. We then fed our thick ropes to the port workers who walked along the sides of the lock with it until we were far enough in for them to tie us in. Once they’d done that we had to get all our ropes evenly taut, so the boat wouldn’t swing around in the lock as the water rushed in. As the chamber filled we had to let the rope out evenly. It didn’t seem particularly complicated but in one of the later chambers we saw two sailing boats who came detached from their moorings and were swinging around wildly almost hitting the sides and the other boats nearby. Seeing this I could see how the boat could get horribly damaged if your line handlers weren’t really paying attention. Transiting with us at Gutun was a small cargo ship and a very fancy large yacht. As well as having a full contingent of uniformed crew, they had hugely expensive line handlers from the Canal authority and the ladies on board were wearing evening dresses and sipping champagne for their Canal experience. Hot and sweaty and straining on our ropes, Betti and I were definitely on the wrong boat (although I think we had more fun!)
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The towering lock gates slowly sealed shut behind us and the water started to boil and bubble underneath us as it entered the chamber. We slowly and relatively smoothly rose up, as we let out the rope. Once we’d risen nearly 9 metres, the front gates opened. We were detached from the moorings and we motored through to the next chamber holding our end of the ropes, while a lock worker walked along with the other end. We went through the third chamber as it just got dark. We tied up to a little flotilla of yachts, away for the shipping lane for the night. It was quiet, with just the sounds of the howler monkeys from the nearby jungle and the voices from other boats that night.
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Initially we thought we weren’t sure if we’d be able to do the line handling because of the girls. We knew Steve and I would have to be 100% focused during the locks and of course their safety, especially as they are not used to sailing, was paramount. I felt reassured though as Maurice’s boat was very stable and safe and we also have life jackets for the girls which we made them wear on board. Just to be on the really safe side, we put a movie on for them during our passage though the locks. Square-eyes that they are, we knew they wouldn’t be tempted to move from the inside. Everyone was happy.
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Up early, after a hot airless night with the four of us squeezed in a very small bed, we were surprised that several more boats had joined us during the night.
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Our next advisor, Jose, came out to us early and we motored for several hours through Gatun Lake. Maurice let Steve take the wheel for much of the way as Jose directed him passed monster ships. We felt rather minuscule but not as microscopic as the kayakers crossing the shipping lanes in front of the immense hulls.
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By lunchtime, we could see the passage of boats from the Pacific side slowing. As parts of the Canal are very narrow for the big ships the locks change direction at lunchtime to stop bottlenecks. Soon enough it was our turn at the single chambered Pedro Miguel lock. We now had to drop down 26m to the height of the Pacific Ocean in three stages. By the time we got to Mireflores Lock where the viewing platform was packed with tourists we thought we’d got it down pat and were waving at their webcam. That’s when we saw two other boats break free from their ropes and swing around wildly, so we kept up the concentration. We exited the last chamber without a scratch , breathed a sigh of relief and opened a bottle of bubbly from Maurice. Our trucks were parked up near Balboa Yacht Club just at the entrance of the Canal, so Maurice swiftly veered left away from the shipping route to fuel up for his solo trip across the Pacific and to drop us off.

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We trooped into the Yacht Club bar hot, sweaty and tired but having had a fantastic experience that we hadn’t ever expected. Even better there was a bouncy castle for the girls to let off steam after being cooped up for 24hours, while we enjoyed a few beers.

We spent the next few days in a hotel just where we were dropped off in Panama City. Whilst Steve had to sort paperwork and getting the truck into port we were a bit cooped up in the hotel, although we did enjoy the pool.

First Steve had to go to the police inspectorate to get permission to export the truck. He set off one morning in a convoy of 7 overlanders to a derelict parking lot in a pretty dodgy part of town. Here, after waiting an hour an inspector came to look at the truck. After all of a minutes inspection, where he checked the VIN number Steve was good to go. However the paper giving the permission would only be issued in the afternoon, so rather than hanging around he came back to the hotel.

The merry bunch of overlanders then got a taxi back to an office over the road from the derelict car park. Here things worked pretty efficiently and within a couple of hours he was back with the paper granting permission to export the truck.

Two days later the convoy of overlanding vehicles headed out to the port at Colon to go on the 36 hour journey to Colombia. It took a whole day to process all the paperwork and travel to and from Colon but it all went pretty smoothly. First we had to go to customs to have our vehicle stamp cancelled in the passport. Then we went to an office to get some papers and to pay our port entry fees. We then went into the port where the vehicles were inspected, including by the sniffer dogs.

All the vehicles lined up ready at the port
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South America, here we come!!

5 thoughts on “Through the Panama Canal

  1. Wow! That sounds like an amazing experience that not many people can say they have done. We had the opportunity to help out with the locks in Bath England on a narrow boat and that was a lot of work. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like through the Panama canal! You guys must have been exhausted.

    • Thanks Kerri, it was a lot of fun. The most tiring bit was actually the lack of sleep on the lake in the middle. The 4 of us had to squeeze onto a tiny bed for the night in a boiling cabin with no breeze. We really needed lots of coffee the following morning to get us in any state to hold the ropes tight in the locks. Hope you are enjoying South East Asia.

  2. It was 40 years ago (!) that I (Chris) sailed to Columbia/Panama on a square rigger. We could have used you, you look like a happy crew.
    Chris and Steve

    • That must have been fun. Gilly has just celebrated her 40 th birthday, we may have been happy but I am not sure how skilled.

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