Leg 2: Panama Canal
Departing: Panama City, Panama
Arriving: Colón, Panama
Distance: 50 nautical miles
Dates: 17 April 2010 – 18 May 2010
# of Days: 2 days
Crew: Rachel, Karl, Phil, Daniel, and Jeffrey
To Transit or Not To Transit?—That is the Question
Isn’t it always the case that once you know how a process works, it appears that the whole process is obvious and even, dare I say, easy? This was certainly the case with the Panama Canal. The accounts we had read of transiting the canal made the endeavor seem dubious and at times dangerous. Boats crushed against the rough side walls of the lock’s chambers. Handlines ripping cleats clean out of the decks. Solar panels being shattered by the lead-filled monkey fist knots used by the canal line handlers. Boats spinning out of control in tights chambers with the force of the freighter’s propwash. Careless travel advisors who misguide the uninitiated. Karl wondered if we would be better off tackling The Horn than to risk the perils of the canal. To add to this, the process for arranging canal transit was a complete mystery. Our internet searches were essentially fruitless, other than indicating that most cruisers decide to hire an agent to assist with the process whereas comparatively few attempt the process on their own. But be warned that to do it on your own may mean increased risks of mugging! Villains may be lurking near canal offices to snag wads of cash from your clutches. The Horn was sounding all the more tempting despite it’s notoriety of sailboats being dismasted or pitchpoled in the raging winds and seas. Yet, a plan in place has its own inertia, and we charged forward despite our misgivings.
It is no secret that both Karl and I are rather frugal. We don’t spend much money on fashionable clothes (at least not new fashionable clothes) and are more “do it yourself” types – well, both for the savings and for knowledge and experience gained from the DIY approach. So it took some doing for us to decide to hire an agent to arrange for our canal transit. Ultimately, we appealed to our desire to help others in need; that is, we saw it as our contribution to supporting the financial well being of some Panamanian families. At the very least our agent expedited the process, although even then we had to wait a week before we were able to start our transit. The process is, hmm, you might say, thorough, but certainly not efficient. Here’s a brief overview: Once the process is started you have to schedule the Admeasurer to come measure your boat (the cost of transit is based on length of vessel). The Admeasurer only measures from 8am-2pm. Even if your appointed time is 9am (as our was), the Admeasurer may not come for a few hours depending on unknown factors. Once the vessel has been measured, these documents must be taken to the bank to pay the canal transit fees. The bank accepts payment until 1:30pm. Once you’ve paid the fee you can then call the Scheduler to arrange your transit day, but only after 6pm on the day you paid the fee. So while it is theoretically possible to complete these steps in one day, in practice it is more on the order of 3-4 days, and this is just to get to the point of getting on the schedule. We also learned that yachts (although we still guffaw at that title for our boat) all transit at the same time, and at the end of the north- or south-bound transits for that day.
In the end, we had arrived in Panama City on May 4th and were scheduled to start our two-day transit on May 17th. In the interim we worked on projects, provisioned, and enjoyed a little of Panama.
Transiting the Canal
Our transit advisor joined us on Monday morning around 9am. We were transiting with 3 powerboats. We would raft up next to one of the powerboats. The first set of locks was the Miraflores Locks which has two chambers, or two steps up to Miraflores Lake. Each step up was approximately 30 feet. We then crossed Miraflores Lake to the Pedro Miguel Locks for the 3rd and final step up to the elevation of Lake Gatun. Once through Pedro Miguel (and another 30-some feet) we entered the 9-mile long “Cut” through the Continental Divide. Here there is only enough room for ships to transit in one direction or the other (either northbound to the Atlantic or southbound to the Pacific). While the Panama Canal Authority (PCA) has widened the cut to accommodate two ships width, the Pilots have so far refused to pilot ships in both directions through the cut believing it too risky to have ships passing in both directions through the narrow cut. The PCA, in response, is in the process of carving down more of the hillsides for greater visibility in the Cut. The narrows then open into Miraflores Lake, a once broad valley where the Gatun River flowed north to the Atlantic.
Sailing Through a Forest Canopy
The lake is dotted with small tree-covered islets, what once were hilltops where one might look far in the distance to glimpse the sparkling blue ocean waters. Once the dam was completed it took a full seven years to fill the lake to operable height. The entities that could leave did. The local people were required to moved to new villages erected by the U.S. government. The animals shifted with the rising waters to outlying areas. But the trees could not flee. They stood where they were as the waters breach their roots and made a steady climb up their trunks to their limbs and leaves. Today they still stand like ghosts beneath the surface of the water. Now ships pass above their boughs as birds had done in centuries past. I was reminded of the story “The Wreck of the Zephyr,” in which a young boy learns to sail the winds so well that he can rise above the water through the forest canopy. Yet the winds changed over the land and would not carry the boy and his boat over the treetops. Today only the wreck of his boat can be seen high above the water in the trees.