Panama Canal Crossing

Crossing the Canal is one of those once in a lifetime experiences. It’s amazing to cross through the American continent by boat from one big ocean to another. For a small boat making less than 10 knots the crossing takes two days, with an overnight on the Gatun lake. I feel privileged that we are able to make this journey on our own boat. I hope that through this write-up you will be able to somewhat share our experience.

Panama canal locks (Wikipedia)

Day 1, Shelter Bay to Gatun lake. 

It’s finally our turn, we are scheduled to 2pm on February the 29th. But our propeller is still a mess. Early in the morning Steve, the marina mechanic, makes a couple more dives to adjust the pitch of the propeller. We can do this underwater now, as due to the previous work done, we know what we are looking at. We do a couple more test runs going in and out of the marina for three or four times. The configuration of the pitch is done with only two adjustment screws. Still it is a very confusing bit of geometry. In the end we managed to get an acceptable configuration, still a bit too heavy on the engine, but at least we are now going forward (and backward) at a reasonable speed.

Around noon the two line handlers joined the boat, together with six very large fenders to protect the delicate shiny fibreglass of Ah Ma. Four long and strong lines should hold her in place in the locks. The line handlers didn’t speak much English. But they are experienced guys, hand-picked by our agent, Stanley. The guys have been doing canal crossings for many years. The pilot would join our boat at the anchorage, just outside of the Marina.

Fenders and lines delivered

It is my opinion that it is a good idea to have some experienced line handlers on board instead adventure seeking tourists that have never been on a boat before. The local guys can communicate with the Canal guide, Pilot and shore handlers and have been through the exercise many times. And they know how to tie a line. This makes for a calm boat with people that are not easily startled by the experience.

At 2pm we hailed the Shelter Bay Marina on channel 74 for one last time, announcing our departure and thanking them for their good care. We were on our way, making way. It is just a short run to the anchorage. Here we dropped the hook and waited for the pilot boat to arrive. We learned that nothing in the Canal transit goes according to a predetermined schedule. Our pilot arrived at 4pm.

Pilot boat en-route

We welcomed Jo aboard, a very friendly pilot in training, with many years of seafaring experience. He did a great job explaining all procedures and guiding us to Aqua Clara, the first set of locks. The Aqua Clara Locks lead us from the Atlantic Ocean up to the Gatun basin. A series of three chambers rises Ah Ma to 85 feet above sea level.

Inside Aqua Clara, going up.

Near the locks we tied up with an Australian/Chinese couple on a Jeanneau 39. The boat was tied to our starboard side and as we were the bigger boat we had to tow the Jeanneau into the lock. This meant that we were in the middle of the chamber, and the Jeanneau would be ‘against’ the wall. The lock chamber is over 100 feet wide, so nobody is really anywhere near the wall.

Rafting up

It took some getting used to manoeuvring the pack into the lock. We have little to no underwater ship, two rudders on the side of the boat, and only a thin fin keel and a relatively flat bottom. It takes some time for the pack to follow the directions of the helm. Especially when moving from a stationary position. This made for some ‘exciting’ moments when moving from one lock chamber to the next. We were pulled to hard starboard by the load on the starboard side. But our powerful reverse pitch came in handy in preventing disaster.

Doors open into lake Gatun

Nevertheless, the proceedings at the lock went without incident. The inexperienced line handlers on the Jeanneau made for a lot of screaming and anxiety from the captain on the boat next to us.

Within a couple of hours we exited into the Gatun freshwater lake. It was already dark already, so I followed the lights to the mooring field. Here we tied up to a large buoy where Jo was picked up by his pilot boat. Soon after we arrived the Jeanneau pulled up next to us and tied up to the opposite side of the buoy for the night.

The first point of attention was to feed the hungry crew. I lit up the BBQ whilst Linda fried up some delicious noodles. Within half an hour, delicious BBQ pork noodles were served. 

BBQ pork served

Everybody was tired from a long day on the water, so after only a few beers everyone retreated to their rooms for a good night’s sleep. The line handlers slept in the cockpit.

Day 2, Gatun to Playita. 

The next morning, only an hour later than scheduled we were boarded by canal advisor David. He had quite a different approach from Jo the previous day. Whilst Jo encouraged us to make good time to the next locks, trying to pass as early as possible, David instructed us to slowly follow the Jeanneau as we were to tie up with them again at the next lock, some 25 miles down. So we motored along the green buoys at a snail’s pace.

Gatun lake, early morning

After a couple of hours of motoring I handed the wheel to our first mate. He came all the way from New Zealand to join our efforts, and would have to leave our party in Galapagos. So I thought, steering Ah Ma through a couple of locks would be a worthy the experience.

We passed through the Gaillard cut, the narrow one way section of the Canal without incident. Around lunch time we lined up behind the Pedro Miguel locks. A single chamber that will bring us down to the Miraflores locks another mile down the canal. 

Here the Jeanneau was told to moor next to the wall before entering the lock. We tied up to their port side. Again a lot of anxiety next door as the instructions from canal advisor David were confusing and contradicting. Luckily our first mate was as cool as a cucumber and the experienced line handlers had seen it all many times before, so they kept their cool as well. 

Panamax
Panamax selfy.

After some waiting we finally moved to the front of the lock, followed by an enormous Panamax tanker. A Panamax is a boat that just fits the Canal,  leaving only 3 feet on either side. Quite an impressive sight. 

Out of the Pedro Miguel lock we were finally released from the Jeanneau and moved to the next and final locks, Miraflores. Here we waited for another hour or so. In this time the plan for getting through changed three or four times, confusing everyone on the boat.  When we finally entered the lock. This time we were instructed to moor at the lock wall. The Jeanneau now tied to our port side from here. The ride through to the last two chambers into the Pacific went without any further incident but with loads of confusion and anxiety. David was giving contradicting instructions to both our first mate as well as the captain of the Jeanneu next to us. There was also some worry about currents pushing us about, but it all turned out uneventful, which is good. It was a great feeling when those last doors opened, our first big crossing lies ahead. One step closer to bringing Ah Ma home. 

Last stop, Pacific
last stop, Pacific

It was dark when we exited into the Pacific and the smell of the salt water was pertinent. I navigated Ah Ma past the lights, under the bridge of the Americas, towards La Playita marina. 

Entering La Playita in the dark was interesting as we had to cut through an anchor field to reach the Marina entrance. But with our skipper on the bow we zig zagged through the boats and pulled in to slip B11 without incident. 

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