A land divided, a world united…

…the Panama Canal

Sunlight over the Canal

We transited the Panama Canal with Pipistrelle on Friday 11th and Saturday 12th February.   We left the Atlantic Ocean and entered the Pacific and crossed between North and South America in a matter of 24 hours.

What an experience!  Now for the blog article ……..

The history of the Canal is fascinating, as its concept goes back as far as 1534.  An abbreviated background we feel would be of interest.  Back in the days of the gold rush, there was a need to get ships and cargos from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and vice versa.  In those days small ships were dismantled, and together with their cargos, transported overland to and from Portobelo on the Caribbean side.  Mules were used for transport.

In 1850 construction began on the Panama Railway, which opened in 1855.   At this time Panama was part of Columbia.  In 1879 an agreement was made between Columbia and a French company to build the Canal, and this ended in dismal failure in 1899.  Another attempt was made by the French in 1894, and again the sheer magnitude of the amount of soil and rock that needed to be removed, and the toll created by malaria, pushed the company into bankruptcy.

President Roosevelt then took an interest, and in 1903 Panama declared independence from Columbia, and the U.S. undertook the construction of a canal across the Isthmus.  It took 10 years, the labour of 75,000 men, and $400 million to complete the task.  The Panama Canal opened to traffic on August 15, 1914.  Since then there have been more than 850,000 transits through the Canal.  The Americans then ran the Canal Company until December 31st 1999, when President Jimmy Carter, finally handed the Canal back to the Republic of Panama.   The Americans created a huge amount of infrastructure, such as Fort Sherman where Shelter Bay Marina now is.  A lot of the infrastructure the Panamanians could not look after and therefore some is in ruins while some is guarded to ensure squatters do not move in.

There are museums in both Panama City, which we visited, and the Miraflores Locks.  The amount of material to read and absorb is mind boggling!

Having read a number of articles about the Panama Canal, and having been advised that an agent took all the hard work away, it wasn’t until we met some cruisers in Isla Linton that we found out that organizing the formalities of the transit was really not complicated.

Brian and Helen left us at Shelter Bay Marina, and with the “free” bus that they lay on to Colon, we teamed up with Bernd and Ellie from Elbe to organize the transit without the help of an agent.  Tito was our first contact by phone, to arrange the tyres $3 each, and 125 ft warps, $15 each, for the transit.

The next port of call was the signal station within the port, to arrange for the Admeasurement, a left over American expression, of the yachts.  Pipistrelle last transitted the Canal in 2001, the information was still on file, and so for us it was a form-filling exercise.  Otherwise the yachts are physically measured, and those under 50ft overall pay one fee, those over another.  A telephone call was then required to confirm the date of the arrival of the Admeasurer.

After that all that is required is to visit Citibank in Colon, adjacent to the Port Authority, and to pay the fee in cash.  Within this sum is a buffer, almost 2/3rds of the fee, which is returned providing that the yacht does not break down and create hold ups, or need to be towed.  The Shelter Bay bus driver helped by driving the extra few yards to the bank, so exposure to robbery was minimized!  Colon is a dangerous place!

A telephone call after 1600 the same day to the Scheduler, and the date is organized!

Tito duly delivered 10 car tyres covered in black plastic, which were hung on the sides of Pipistrelle as fenders, and the 4 warps.

Tyres come on board

4 x 125 ft polypropolene warps

Bernd attaching tyres

Before we took Pipistrelle through, we acted as line handlers for our German friends Bernd and Elli on Elbe, for what turned out to be a perfect transit, so we knew the ropes!

The Elbe Team - Bernd, Elli, Elaine, Manfred (photo by Bob)

On Friday 11th February Pipistrelle’s big day arrived, and having removed flexible solar panels from the bimini and covered the semi-flexible ones on the coachroof to prevent damage from the monkey fists (more later), we finally left the marina with our own line handlers on board.  In addition to the skipper, the requirement is for four others – Elaine, Bernd and Roger & Marion.  We sailed (the genoa was unfurled!) to The Flats, an anchorage south of the Signal Station, to await the arrival of the Adviser, a person trained by the Port Authority, who is learning and working his way up to being a Pilot.

William duly arrived at 1600, and we set off, only to be told to slow down as the ship that we were sharing the locks with was way behind us.  With a following wind, we had enough speed to turn the engine off and sail under bare poles at nearly 2.3 knots!

Wind behind us - bare poles @ 2.28 kn!

As we approached the locks, it turned out the 400 ft. ship the adviser had been expecting was replaced by a different 600 footer, Spar Jade which was accompanied by a tug.  In addition a small passenger ship entered the chamber behind us – the passengers enjoyed spectator sport while sipping cocktails!

Spar Jade and tug approaching

Mules and men awaiting transiting vessels

Monkey fist throwers

Close quarters on the bow!

And so we entered the first of the 3 Gaton Locks, Dona Zita a French yacht nested with us for completion of the first day’s transit.  We found ourselves within feet of the tug in front, and the aft line from Dona Zita was within inches at times of the passenger ship behind us.  Dona Zita’s French skipper was single handed apart from a dog that was very similar to an Alsatian, and the Adviser on board had taken over the engine and steering controls.  The skipper had employed professional line handlers, and spent his time skipping around taking photos, while the dog barked, creating stress for everybody in a tight squeeze where a huge amount of concentration was needed.

All went well until the first lock gates were opened, and the tug skipper opened the throttles to his engines, even though Bob had specifically requested that the mules (railway engines) be used to pull the ship clear to start with.  This was too much for one of our lines, and a 2 minute period of high tension reigned, until we managed to regain control of the situation!

Gatun Lock Building and mule

Double lock gates at exit to Gatun Lake

The next two chambers were no problem, and we emerged into Gatun Lake where we moored to a buoy already occupied by a super yacht chase boat that had been refused passage through to Colon.  Eventually a port control boat arrived and took off four of their crew, and provided sleeping bags and food for the remaining two!  Dona Zita + Alsatian occupied the other buoy, until it was joined by the two other yachts that were following us through that evening.

Extra large mooring buoys

Panama is currently engaged in doubling the number of locks at both ends of the Canal, and the work is not envisaged to be finished until 2014.  It is a huge project, with work continuing 24/7.  Our mooring buoy for the night is very close to the new Gatun Locks, and an army of workers and huge trucks and earthmovers work through until 0400, when there is a break until 0630.  Despite the noise we managed to sleep!

At 0600 we were waiting for our adviser for the day to arrive and Edgar we had met before on our transit with Elbe.  Again he was superb – very professional.   We were under way heading for the Pedro Miguel lock by 06.30.  Watching the sun rise over Gatun Lake is magical.  Gatun Lake was created by the construction of two dams, now used to create hydro electric power.  It covers a vast area, and whilst private vessels are allowed in controlled areas, we saw very few.

Our route followed the buoyed channel, a largely boring passage, though to cope with the additional traffic the route is being widened, even to the extent of totally removing islands.  Here again we unfurled the genoa and sailed for stretches.


Sailing on Lake Gatun

Titan the crane plus gigantic car transporter at Gamboa

Terracing to prevent landslides

Centennial Bridge

As we motored down past Gamboa and through the Gaillard Cut towards the Pedro Miguel lock, we slowed right down, and eventually Bob kept Pipistrelle in the shade of the Centennial Bridge to kill time, by ferry gliding backwards and forwards across the cut.  Eventually we were able to enter the lock, and this time there were only four yachts, nested 2 x 2 – what bliss!    We remained nested for the short trip across the Miraflores Lake and then took the monkey fists for the remaining journey down.

Calling the UK from via satphone - "Hello - can you see us?"

Webcam view from Miraflores Visitor Centre - Pipistrelle 2nd row starboard

After the descent through the two Miraflores locks we were safely out and into another ocean – the Pacific!  After Edgar was picked up by a launch, we proceeded round to the Las Brisas anchorage to celebrate by enjoying a glass or two of champagne, and relax!

Edgar gets a lift back from the launch

The Panama transit is such an exciting adventure.  For us it is a unique experience and marks a milestone in our travels.

The time we are spending in Panama City is vital preparation for the passages to come, not only to ensure that Pipistrelle is in good fettle, but also that her valuable crew are fit, and that we have stocked up on sufficient essential provisions to last for 8 months and that we will not be able to buy on the South Sea Islands.  We have also arranged dental check-ups, spectacle repairs, pharmacy visits to stock up on medical supplies.  Boat and engine spares are either being shipped in from the UK or the US, as well as being purchased in the City.

More about City adventures in the next blog!

Panama City skyline

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