Panama Canal Transit
The distance between the Monkey Island (Linton) to Colon (the city-port at the entrance of Panama Canal on the Atlantic side) is 25 NM. We start at 07:00 a.m. in light north winds 8-10kts together with S/V Anka. Our speed is about 2-3 kts. Anka passes us on engine and soon disappears on the horizon. We keep sailing slowly. At about 10:00 a.m. the wind picks up behind us and we fly our undersized secondhand spinnaker which we bought for 150EU in Martinique a few months ago and until now haven’t had the chance to try out properly. It works like charm!
We make good speed and progress and the captain is happy. There are these rare moments of bliss while sailing and everything is just perfect: the sea, the wind, the sails, and even the fish cooperates. We pull out a nice big kingfish enough to feed two families.
Early in the afternoon we approach Colon- one of the biggest ports in the world, a free trade zone, and the gateway between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. It is also one of the most dangerous poverty-ridden cities in Panama where walking in the streets even in broad daylight is not advisable.
Many big cargo ships are stationed outside the harbor, at anchor, waiting for their turn to transit the canal. It is the largest community of ships we have ever seen. At night, illuminated, they look like a city in the distance floating on the surface of the sea. We enter between two artificial rock walls in a vast bay. This is the last time we sail in the Caribbean Sea aboard S/V Fata Morgana for a very long time. Inside, the bay is calm like a large blue field with more big ships at anchor and green and red buoys indicating the shipping channels leading to the entrance of Panama Canal.
We are at the point of no return. A new chapter in our voyage is about to begin. Panama Canal is one of the 7 wonders of the industrial world, along with the Hoover Dam and London’s Sewerage system among others. It connects the two biggest oceans on the planet, and crossing it aboard a boat is the ultimate way to experience it.
I think of my father who was a mariner. It is the anniversary of his death 6 years ago. Today, I am occupying a space, occupied by him before and I am looking for his traces in the air. He has been here crossing the canal aboard a ship some years ago, when he used to work as an officer aboard a cargo ship transporting grain. I look at the containerships getting loaded at the docks, the hge boats heading to or exiting the locks and I imagine my dad up there on the bridge smiling and waving at me. In a way, I share this experience with him.
Our friends are already nice and cozy at Shelter Bay Marina when we drop anchor just outside the marina’s entrance and invite them for dinner. Breaded fish sticks and beer on the menu.
The next day we move to the place indicated as Small Craft Anchorage on the charts but it turns out there is no way we can access shore from there. The only place around Colon where yachts can drop anchor and dinghy to shore is in front of Club Nautico, with space for not more than a few boats and it is not protected at all from weather. It is just downwind from the huge loading facilities of the port, with ships and pilot boats passing close by all the time. There is a 3-dollar fee per person for the use of the dinghy dock at Club Nautico. No way we can go ashore in Colon for free! Everywhere there are commercial ports and loading docks, fences and no adequate facilities for small yachts at all. This made our preparation for the transit very unpleasant.
The crew of S/V Anka is in a hurry, so we agree to employ the services of an agent together and cross the canal as soon as possible. An agent will deal with all the formalities around the canal transit: schedule boat survey with the measuring office, as the fee for the canal depends on the boat length and tonnage, providing tires as fenders, special ropes, as well as line handlers, required for the transit, and finally- schedule the transit date and hour. All this is extremely simple and straightforward to do without an agent and we could have easily done it ourselves avoiding the extra fee…which makes Ivo super grumpy. Our friends Ruth and Duncan aboard S/V Impetuous Too have published a great article: How to Transit the Panama Canal as Cheaply as Possible. It is worth checking out.
After a few days the time is set and we are all ready to go. Aboard with us are one transit advisor and three local kids whom the agent, Tito, brought as line-handlers. According to regulation, each boat is required to have a transit advisor who will advise the captain what to do in the canal and locks, and four line-handlers besides the captain. Aboard S/V Anka there are another advisor, a pilot, the agent Tito with his wife and daughter and one or two line-handlers. Because Maya and Alex are only 11 and 10-years-old, they cannot be line-handlers, the minimum age is 14. But one of the kids Tito brought doesn’t look much older than Maya and I highly doubt it he is 14 and knows what to do. Plus, the two boats (Fata Morgana and Anka) will be tied side by side inside the locks, a procedure called “nesting” and this means that each boat will only need half the ropes, half the tires and two line-handlers. All the other people who came are just there for the ride and the food. We felt pretty screwed by Tito, even though everything was done according to procedure… The good think about all this is, that Tito runs an organization to take kids off the streets and keep them away from the gangs; he helps them, takes care of them and gives them a chance at decent life. These kids call themselves: Tito’s Sons, and they are many. Three of them are aboard S/V Fata Morgana having a blast transiting the Panama Canal (two of them for a first time), enjoying the ride, helping with the ropes and earning some cash.
In the late afternoon we enter the first set of locks, the Gatun locks, behind a huge ship which barely fits in the space. Next to him we seem like a joke. (Small yachts always go together with big ships inside the locks.) The Panama Canal is a three-part journey. At the Atlantic and the Pacific ends are the locks- three sets of huge doors and chambers, and in the middle, some 26 meters above sea level, is the artificial lake Gatun and the many winding artificial channels.
The massive medieval-looking 2-meter thick steel doors close behind us. The two yachts are together in the center, the ropes are secured on both sides. We feel super excited and happy to share this unique experience together with our friends aboard Anka. Our two boats together represent Bulgaria, Romania, Canada and Australia. Pretty awesome.
Water starts rushing in, swirling and bubbling like a boiling lake taking us higher and higher. 52 million gallons of fresh water for each set of locks. The chamber fills. We enter the second one. The water-elevator takes us a level higher to the third and last chamber and we go up and up again.
As the last doors open, we are 26 meters higher and inside a freshwater lake. Gatun Lake covering about 470 square kilometers (180 sq mi) is an artificial lake, result from the building of the Gatun Dam and the summit of Panama Canal. It provides the millions of gallons of water necessary to operate the Panama Canal locks each time a ship passes through.
It is already late. The advisor tells us to motor to a big red buoy near the lake shores away from the shipping channel where we spend the night. We feed our young line-handlers hamburgers for dinner and let them find the most comfortable spots to sleep in the cockpit or outside on the trampolines. The next morning the journey continues. Another advisor boards Fata Morgana and we slowly start motoring through the marked channels inside the lake of yellow waters towards the Pacific. A few slow hours to pass the next 25-30 miles. No, sailing is strictly prohibited; no matter how much Ivo tries to convince the advisor that the wind and sails will speed up the boat considerably. We keep to the side of the channels as big ships constantly pass us in both directions. Approximately 40 ships transit the canal every day.
The nature here is stunningly beautiful and wild. I imagined something industrial, channels made of concrete and iron all the way, but aside from the locks, the Gatun Lake stretch is wild, green and completely uninhabited for miles and miles. The shores are covered in tropical trees home of monkeys and birds undisturbed in their natural habitat, and in the waters of the lake hides the mighty crocodile. This stretch of the journey is tranquil and slow and one has time to relax and ponder. I think about the people who came up with the idea to build a canal linking the oceans; and of the people who dug up all this dirt one hundred years ago to make it possible. It is all very fascinating.
With the increase of maritime trade in the 18th and 19th centuries, more and more ships began crisscrossing the watery ways of the world and the idea to join the two greatest oceans at the narrowest place of the American continent- the Isthmus of Panama became a project.
It has been done before. The Suez Canal was excavated at sea level and in 1869 it allowed ships to travel between Europe and South Asia. It took 10 years to build and it was a great success for the Suez Canal Company, generating huge profits. Ten years later, in 1881, the same French company signed another contract for the construction of the Panama Canal. But the task proved much harder than the French had estimated. Tropical jungle filled with venomous snakes, spiders and mosquitoes carrying yellow fever and malaria, torrential rains and floods killed 20 thousand workers and made it doubtful that a sea-level canal here is at all possible. Ten years and nearly 300 million dollars later, the corrupted inefficient Suez Canal Company went bankrupt and left the job unfinished.
Four days after the independence of Panama, which was part of Colombia until 1903, USA received (in exchange for the military supported granted to the new nation) the rights to build and indefinitely administer the Panama Canal Zone. The construction of the abandoned French project restarted in 1904 under the new American owners.
The Americans replaced the old inadequate French equipment with a hundred new large, railroad-mounted steam shovels, enormous steam-powered cranes, giant hydraulic rock crushers, cement mixers, dredges, and pneumatic power drills, nearly all of which manufactured by new and extensive machine-building technology developed and built in the United States for the largest American engineering project to date- an investment that cost the Unites States the equivalent of about 8.5 billion dollars.
In 1914, just over a hundred years ago, the 50 mile (77km) Panama Canal consisting of several artificial channels and lakes, and three sets of locks, joined the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and begun operations with the first transit of the cargo ship SS Ancon. The canal created a shortcut for ships that no longer had to make the long and treacherous passage around Cape Horn- the southernmost point of South America considered the most dangerous area for navigation in the world.
For the next nearly one century, the United States of America had control of the Canal Zone and of course, generate huge profits. On December 31st , 1999- the last day of the old millennium- Panama officially became the new owner of the Canal, which remains to this day the chief revenue source for the country. The canal is also officially politically and permanently neutral, providing service to ships of all nations.
After a few hours we approach the next locks on the Pacific side. First is the Pedro Miguel chamber- a single set of locks and only a few miles from the Miraflores double chamber. This time we are first in the chambers and our giant companion is looming behind us. There is a big multi-story building on the east side of the locks with balconies filled with spectators here to watch the show.
There are also satellite cameras broadcasting live from the locks 24/7. People everywhere on the planet can watch the operations in Miraflores live at all times.
We feel kind of popular right now with all the public watching us and we are super excited. We are also a bit nervous.
So far everything has been easy with no problems, but the descent is supposed to be scarier and more dangerous than the ascent, as the draining water creates nasty rapids and currents and the yachts may lose control at the exit and smash to the walls. It also looks super strange being up here, and no water ahead. It is like coming to the edge of a waterfall. I imagine the doors of the last lock will open and we will fall down vertically!
But it all goes smooth again; the water elevator gently takes us down under the focused gaze of herons and pelicans scavenging the chambers for dead fish caught in the whirlpools.
The last doors open. In front of us is the Pacific Ocean.
Panama Canal Facts
• The size of the locks determines the maximum size of a ship that can pass through them. The locks are 110 feet wide and 1050 feet long. Ships that are wider or longer than this cannot use the Panama Canal. Most ships worldwide are built to the maximum size allowed in Panama Canal. These are known as Panamax vessels.
• Tolls for the canal are set by the Panama Canal Authority and are based on vessel type, size, the type of cargo carried, weight and water displacement. The most expensive regular toll for canal passage to date was charged on April 14, 2010 to the cruise ship Norwegian Pearl, which paid US$375,600.
• In 1928 American adventurer Richard Halliburton swam the length of the Panama Canal. Halliburton had to pay a toll based on his weight and water displacement too. His rate? A whopping 36 cents.
• There was approximately about 60 million pounds of explosives used to help clear the way for the canal.
• The canal is 50 miles (80km) long. If a ship had to travel down and around the southern tip of South America they would have to travel 20,000km.
• The United States uses the canal the most, followed by China, Japan, Chile and North Korea.
• An expansion to double the waterway’s capacity is set to be completed in 2016 with bigger locks for bigger ships.
• It takes between 8 and 10 hours to transit the canal. The fastest transit was completed in 2 hours 41 minutes by the U.S. Navy’s Hydrofoil Pegasus in 1979.
• In 1963 florescent lighting was installed, allowing the canal to begin operating 24 hours a day. It never closes.
• Nearly 20,000 French and 6,000 American workers died during the completion of the Panama Canal.
• Between 12,000 and 15,000 ships cross the Panama Canal every year – about 40 a day. Each pays a toll of a few hundred thousand dollars to Panama.