Transiting the Panama Canal in September

We had read different versions on how to do the Panama Canal transit and decided to do it all ourselves and not use an agent. A few days before heading to Colon, we went to Noonsite (which is a website for sailors) and found a form , that we filled out and sent back to the Panama Canal people to let them know when we were going to be arriving, our boat info and our planned transit date. After sending the form through the internet, we called to confirm that they had received the form and they said yes. We did it in Spanish, but they also spoke English.

We arrived into Colon the early morning of the 3 September and we anchored in the area called The Flats. We tried to called the admeasures office to get our measuring date sorted, but didn’t get any answer. We tried and tried, and when we didn’t get an answer, we called the Pacific side (there are the two numbers to ring) and they did answer and said they would come the next morning around 10 am. The next morning we decided to ring again to confirm that they were coming, and they let us know that they weren’t going to be able to come that day and to please ring them the following day to check if they could.

We were really upset because we were eager to get the boat measured so that things could speed up but there was nothing we could do. Next thing was to move the boat to the Club Natutico to be able to have access to shore because the problem in The Flats is that there isn’t a dinghy landing nearby.

Once we were at the Club Nautico we approached our neighbouring boat and said hi and asked them what the deal was to go to shore. They explained to us where to go and we went to the Club and had a look around Colon. Sadly, Colon is a horrible city, full of poverty and it’s not safe. Nothing happened to us, but every time we would go into town, someone would tell us “be careful!” so it made us feel paranoid and scared all the time. The yacht club is a pretty safe place to leave the dinghy, but every time you go into town they make you pay $6 dollars.

Luckily, by Saturday morning, we rung again and they said to go to the flats, that they would measure our boat that day. We were waiting for maybe 3 to 4 hours, but they did show up and it was a very simple and well organized procedure. The guy that came to our boat, filled all the paperwork for us, measured our boat and made sure that everything on board works well. Then he told us that on Monday we could pay the fee and then ring to know the day that we would be transiting the canal. Because we are a small vessel our fee was $1875 but we got back $875 after crossing the canal. That amount works as a bond, so if everything goes well while you transit it, they will give you that money back at the end.

Monday morning we went to the bank and paid and then at 6pm we rung again and they told us that the next available slot was Friday or Saturday. We decided to go on the Saturday. To transit the canal, first you need to have 4 people to handle the lines on the boat and also you need to have tyres to protect you from either the walls or other boats and big proper lines. We rented the lines and tyres from Tito( you can find his number in Noonsite). Tito is very professional and brings the tyres and lines where you are and also picks them up again when you have crossed to the other side.

The line handlers we found through a website called www.panamalinehandlers.com . You need to write your information and the date you are thinking of transiting the canal and then volunteers will contact you if they are interested or available. We got really lucky and got in touch with Russel and Diane, a lovely couple, he’s Australian and she’s kiwi but they now live in Panama city and have done the canal transit around 5 times. They brought a friend with them and they were such great help. All we had to pay, was their bus fare and feed them while they were with us. It made such a big difference to have such nice and knowledgeable people with us, as it made everything run smoother.

Those days that we had to wait in Colon for our transit were spent shopping and restocking the boat with food for the next year.

Saturday came and our volunteer line handlers arrived before midday. We fed them some lunch and moved the boat to the flats where we had to wait until our advisor would come onboard. Luckily he didn’t’ take too long and we were moving towards the first lock around 3pm.

Mick was on the helm, Diane and I, were in the two back corners and Russel and Dale were up front. Our advisor was a very gentle man called Victor who even brought us some magazines about the canal as a present. All vessels transiting the canal have to have either a pilot on board for the larger vessels or an advisor for the small ones like us.

The first lock was an upward lock which we completed in the position of centre chamber. This meant that our boat was on its own in the centre of the lock held in position by the four mooring lines. In this position all 4 line handlers have to be active the whole time, and when the water starts rising, we had to pull and make sure that all sides were levelled. We worked together with 4 canal workers that handle the lines on their side. We had to repeat this process three different times as there are 3 different levels going up.

We really enjoyed this first part and being centre chamber as we felt that we had more control over the whole situation. Once you pass this first lock, you go into the Gatun Lake and spend the night there. We made it to the lake almost before dark and our advisor got picked up. We started hearing some noises and although we couldn’t really see them, we figured out they were manatees swimming around our boat. We had dinner and a few drinks and went to bed early as the next morning we had to be up around 6am.

We were up around 6:30 am but the new advisor didn’t show up until 9 am. Once he arrived, we started motoring to the Miraflores locks which were 25 miles away. It was beautiful going through the lake and the excitement was building up as we didn’t know how we were going to cross the canal in this next part.

This time, we had to be rafted up against a tourist ferry boat so it was a bit more stressful because we had to throw our lines to them every time and then disengage again to motor to the next part. We had to do this at least 4 times, but this part was easier than the first set of locks as these are downward locks. Once we were rafted up to the ferry boat all we had left to do was sit and watch how the water level dropped and then the stressful part began again once we had to disengage and deal with water turbulence to drive to the next set of locks. It was funny being rafted against them though because we had like 50 tourists looking down to our boat, some of them, asking us question and others just simply staring at us.

And then the last lock opened and we could head out to the Pacific Ocean. It was an amazing feeling to be finally on the other side and it was such a surreal experience. We were also so relieved and happy that nothing bad happened and everything went relatively smooth. So we all had a celebratory drink and cheered to have made it through the canal!

We left our line handlers in the Balboa Yacht Club and headed out to La Playita, a famous anchorage in a little island called Flamenco outside Panama City. This island is connected to the city by a long causeway. We set our anchor and watched the sunset and were thrilled to be starting a new chapter in our sailing lives.

Author: Isabel Romero

founder of Mingas por el Mar

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