Hello Caribbean! We cleared the last lock of the Panama Canal yesterday early afternoon and we’ve officially arrived in Atlantic waters.
Goodbye Pacific Ocean! Our entire cruising career has been spent in the Pacific’s blue waters and we have experienced a lifetime of amazing experiences squeezed into a single decade. We are sad to leave it behind.
Transiting the Panama Canal from one sea to another was a major highlight in all our cruising adventures. It did not go according to plan, at least not according to the plan we were expecting, but apparently that is standard operating procedure on the Canal – everything changes all the time!
Our agent, Roy Bravo of Emmanuel Agencies, arranged for us to depart early Saturday morning with a schedule that called for us to meet our official pilot at 9 a.m. and complete the transit by 6:30 p.m. that same day. We were absolutely thrilled to be given a daytime slot as the Canal operates 24/7 and a night passage was a strong possibility.
Based on the size of our boat, regulations required us to have four line handlers on board, also four long ropes (lines) and a generous collection of rubber fenders. Roy provided three experienced men for line handlers (May was to be drafted as the fourth, if needed) and an inventory of lines and bumpers. The Panama Canal authority provides a pilot to accompany every vessel and give specific instructions as to how to proceed. Our captain Rod did the driving (admirably, I might add), but the pilot calls the shots.
As we got underway, our adventure unfolded as follows. Per instructions, Saturday morning we sailed offshore to await the arrival of our pilot between Sea Buoys #4 and #6. Pilots are delivered to their assigned vessels by an official canal pilot boat that pulls alongside close enough for him to climb over the rail from one boat to the other.
Having acquired a pilot, AVATAR embarked on a seven mile voyage that took us into the channel entrance, under the Bridge of the Americas, and approached the Miraflores Locks, which lifted us two steps up. Then a mile long sail across Lake Miraflores to enter the third set of locks, the Pedro Miguel locks, which took us up another flight to the top level of the canal. At this uppermost level, we were now 26 meters above sea level.
To navigate through we were assigned to a side channel with three other vessels: a two-decker tour ferry packed with tourists, a 35 meter sailing yacht, and a lightweight fiberglass skiff. Procedure had the first boat, the tour ferry, maneuver into position against the concrete lock wall on its port side where line handlers on land high above work with line handlers on boats below to secure them safely to the wall. The second boat, in this case the sailboat, then rafted up against the starboard side of the ferry.
AVATAR followed behind, also tying up to the wall of the lock, and the smallest boat rafted alongside us. Complicating the maneuvering are the variables of wind gusts (it was windy), and currents created by prop wash from other boats, the mixing of fresh and salt water, and the inflow and outflow of the water filling and draining from the locks.
Once we were all securely fastened together, the lock was sealed and gradually flooded, which caused us to be lifted up elevator fashion as the water level rose. Once the lock was completely filled, matching the water height in the next lock, all four boats disconnected from each other and sailed single file through the opened gates into the next chamber where the entire tying up and rafting procedures were repeated, and then again at the third and final lock of the Pacific side. Webcam photos courtesy of Mike, who monitored our transit via computer at home in Tucson!
From the Pedro Miguel lock we sailed seven scenic miles along a waterway named the Gaillard Cut, carved out of the mountainsides in stepped terraces.
The Gaillard Cut opens up into Lake Gatun, a manmade lake some 164 square miles in area, created by damming up the Río Chagres as the final step in completing the Canal back in the early 1900s. It is a 21 mile sail across the lake, before approaching the three consecutive Gatun Locks where we were to be stepped down to sea level again on the Caribbean side.
This is where our schedule took a big hit. We had suffered three or four small delays to the original timetable, to be taken in stride, but as we approached the Gatun Locks we were told we would not be going through until the next morning! Instead we were instructed to anchor in the lake overnight. Keep in mind, we had three extra guys on board who needed to be fed and housed for the duration. The pilot was picked up by a pilot boat and spirited away, but our three line handlers settled in for the night.
AVATAR doesn’t have the space to sleep six, so Rod situated them in the flying bridge with comfy cushions, blankets and pillows. Lucky for them we had installed an enclosure for the flying bridge last spring in San Diego, as it rained twice during the night (first rain we’ve seen in a month). We were even able to offer a nice freshwater shower on the aft swim step with the handheld spray nozzle and warm water. We had made plans to feed our hired crew lunch on transit day, but now May had to conjure up dinner, followed by breakfast and lunch the following day, as well!
Next morning we woke to the sight of a parade of behemoth ships patiently lined up waiting their slot to transit the Gatun Locks. Our turn finally came, following a pancake breakfast and the arrival of a new pilot on board, and we were on our way again.
Somehow, to me, the downward journey was even more exciting. This time we shared a lock with only two other boats – the same sailboat, Manutara, moored to the wall, with AVATAR rafting alongside.
But the third ‘boat’ in our lock was the oil tanker Nina Victory, 181 meters long, 32 meters wide, weighing 46,000 tons when fully loaded. Nina Victory looked especially large as it was maneuvered into position just off our stern! These huge ships are controlled in the locks by electric locomotives called mules, costing $2.4 million each. Four of these engines were assigned to the Nina Victory. The ship moves forward under its own power but hydraulically operated cables winched under the control of operators in the mules control its position within the walls. Even so, the paint along the sides of the big ships takes a beating. The term ‘Panamax’ refers to the maximum sized ship that can fit through the Panama Canal locks. Nina Victory was pushing the limits of width, if not length.
The size of the locks are mind-boggling. To give you an idea – if one was lifted out of the ground and stood upright on end, it would be taller than the Empire State Building, the tallest building in existence at the time the locks were built. To move just one ship through the series of locks flushes 52 million gallons of fresh water (enough to meet the entire needs of a large city for a couple of days) into the sea, and yet each lock fills (or empties) smoothly in 10 minutes or less. The fresh water is sourced from two lakes including Lake Gatun, and replenished by rainfall of 101 inches per year. However in modern times, these locks are still not big enough to accommodate the biggest ships in the world – and so a $5.5 billion project is currently underway to provide additional, even larger locks. Read here for more fascinating details of canal transit and the need for expansion.
Accomplished in the late 1800s and very early 1900s, the building of the Panama Canal was an amazing engineering feat. Its history encompasses the national pride of four nations (France, the U.S., Columbia and Panama), idealism, political maneuvering, scandals, fortunes gained and lost, a revolution and the creation of a new republic, and triumphs of technology in the same window of time that saw the invention of the automobile and the airplane. More than 20,000 lives were lost building the canal just to the mosquito borne diseases of yellow fever and malaria. If you are intrigued, again I recommend the outstanding National Book Award-winning book The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough that ferrets out every riveting detail of an epic story.
Our own canal crossing was but a tiny blip in the history of this canal, but to us it was a very special achievement.
For a full screen slideshow of the above and additional images, click on any thumbnail below: