Transiting the Isthmus



  From Porvenir in the San Blas Islands we sailed to Porto Bello, a day sail west towards the canal. This bay was named by Colombus and used for the shipment of gold and silver to Spain by the Conquistadores. Today there was not much left to remind us of it's former glory apart from a few old ruins and an American couple with a dinghy dock and a passion for history. Camilla and Colin where shown real gold Doubloons and Pieces of eight. Apparently at times the where so much looted gold and silver in Porto Bello that some had to be stored i the streets! The Fort was partly used for constructing a break water protecting the entrance to the Panama Canal.

Arriving in Colon Panama was a bit of a shock after our time in the San Blas. Colon is a large and rather unappealing harbor, like most commercial ports, bustling with activity. The largest ships where moving about picking up containers, or lying at anchor awaiting their shipment or a chance to go through the Panama Canal. This is where the global economy can be seen in its physical manifestation. All sorts of cargo from all over the world is funneled through on it way to a market somewhere. The plastic toys you bought last week probably came through here from China, maybe your car did the same journey before ending up on your porch. It is all rather impressive and scary at the same time. Think about how vulnerable it all is, and how much pollution it creates. In fact the state of global trade is such that the Panamanians have decided to expand the canal. The future Panama Canal will take larger ships, and more ships. Today the maximum size, Panamax,  is 1000 feet long and103 feet wide. Believe me that is very large when you see it from the deck of a 40 footer! The new Panamax will be significantly larger than this!

The Panama Canal cuts down travel time and distance dramatically crossing from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Imagine the alternative that is a trip around Cape Horn! The economical value is therefore massive and the fees the ships pay correspondingly high. The average is 150 000,- US Dollars for a transit. Apparently 40 ships go through every day. So if you do the math you will see that this is a moneymaker for a small nation, especially when the bulk investment was done 100 years ago. Where the money goes is a bit of a puzzle though as the standard of living did not seem to be very high. Colon is especially poor, and very unsafe to move around in. A taxi is required for any trip outside the Panama Yacht Club gates.

In this picture yachts wanting to sail the Pacific is a drop in the ocean, maybe even a nuisance for the Canal company. We do not fit into the picture,  but we do provide training for new pilots. Apparently they start of being advisors for yachts before moving up.

Before you can do a transit there are is a bit of paperwork to be done and some measurements to be taken. It all works rather smoothly. You call the Admeasure office, he comes and measures the boat and provides you with a time for your transit after you have paid in the bank. All part of a well oiled operation.

The Admeasurer arriving and finding how large Coconut is

Then there is filling out forms

Then there is preparing the boat for the transit. The rules are strict about what lines you must have and 4 line handlers must be onboard in addition to the captain and the Pilot. Everyone also covers the boats topsides with old tiers covered in plastic bags. This to provide extra protection just in case the worst should happen and your boat touch the rough concrete walls in the lock. These where available on the dock. The locals took 2 -3 USD pr tier and USD1 on the other side to help you get rid of them. The car tiers where of cause shipped right back to Colon and sold over again. Coconut felt like a tank all covered with all the tiers.

Coconut had a very quick turn around in Colon. We went directly  to the fuel dock and stayed there for the weekend as we sorted out everything including doing major provisioning. That done we had about a week to spare before our transit day was up. The Panama Canal Yacht Club is not at all as grand as it sounds, and always full of boats. I imagined distinguished looking men with Panama Hats and white suits with a few famous salts thrown in to add to the atmosphere. In reality it was a small concrete building with a bar and some facilities for yacht (WC, shower, laundry) but without much sophistication or charm. On the other side of the large harbor in Colon (3 nm side to side) there is however a wonderful place called Shelter Bay Marina. Luckily they had space and we headed over there for a few days. Shelter bay is inside what used to be a military zone running all the length of the canal when the US had it. This means that it is all more or less untouched jungle complete with animals and birds. We got to see Howler Monkeys (the second loudest animal in the world after the blue Whale) , Ant Eaters, a Sloth and many other exotic animals. It was a great stop. Camilla and Colin made good friends onboard Chewbacca,  Kendal and Quincy. They got to play a lot of the card game Kims which was introduced onboard Coconut and played ever since. They also got to play volleyball every day with the fire-men from the local fire station.

Jungle  and remains from the US forces

A Sloth on his way back to his tree after his weekly trip to the toilet

 The marina also made a great place from which to explore the Chagres river. Chagres provides water to the Canal and was a strategic route for the Spanish conquistadores to ship gold and silver to Europe. An old Spanish fort, San Lorenzo guard the entrance to the river. Apparently it did not do too good a job as pirates and the English did sack it a couple of times after which the Spanish lost hart tired of re-building and closed down the fort. Com the first world war and the US troops put a gun there just in case someone tried to take the canal. Today the canal seemed quite unprotected and vulnerable. Rather suprising really when you think what would happened to international trade if the canal was closed down for a while.

The Chagres River 

Finally it was time for us to transit the canal. We had arranged it so that we would go through with Tom's boat Magic Roundabout first and then come back and pick up Coconut for her transit the next day. That way we got experience before taking Coconut across and helped each other out as line handlers. For Colin this was an extra treat as he went with me on Tom's boat as a line handler while Lesley and Camilla stayed behind. It was Colin's Birthday, and he got to celebrate in two oceans; the Pacific and the Atlantic, which was a very special treat and he enjoyed it tremendously.

Colins birthday (8 years old) celebrated on route across the isthmus.

Tom making birthday supper.

The whole transit went very smoothly. All horror stories told by yachties in all harbors showed to be just that, stories. Our experience from locks in Holland and other places had prepared us well for what was to come. In fact the Panama Canal turned out to be a lot easier as we had such good help from the Pilots and the line handlers. We all have vivid memories of climbing up slippery lock walls in Holland trying to tie up Coconut before the water rushed into the chamber. The pilot, George, they where all called George for some odd reason, joined us in the afternoon at the anchorage called The Flats. As soon as he was onboard we raised anchor and where on our way. First a ship enters the lock and then the yachts go in behind it. As soon as the ship had secured it's lines the yachts moved into the basin which was then filled. Four to eight small locomotives handled the lines from the ship and kept it in the center of the chamber. Four line handlers secured our lines from top of the lock and walked our lines the entire length of the locks.

Entering the chamber The line handlers

  Gate closing and goodbyes to the Atlantic

When several boats go at the same time it is common to raft up. We had a couple of memorable events here. When transiting with Magic Roundabout the skipper on the boat we rafted up to, a South African delivery captain,  was too drunk to drive. The Pilot had to step in! Coconut rafted up with a 62 ft catamaran that was new from the factory on the up-lock to Gatun Lake. Unfortunately the crew did not know how to drive her so we had some rather scary moments. The large cat was powering hard forward trying to position itself in the lock. This instead of using the mooring lines that where secured. The high revving diesel put some serious load our lines to an extent where something had to give. Luckily the Captain was pushed aside by our pilot, George, and our line and cleat was saved.

The Catamaran that nearly broke our mooring lines and cleats

Lock chamber

After going up the locks to the large lake on top, Gatun Lake, it was late evening. The boats where moored to a buoy for the night. Next morning we continued through the 30 nm lake and down the Miraflores locks to the Pacific ocean. The lake is artificial made by damming up the Chagres river. It is quite beautiful as it is surrounded by virgin rain forest. In fact we had at one stage to sail between tree stumps that still protruded above the surface 100 years after it was all flooded with water. Tree stumps from the flooded rain forest  Culebra Cut

Going down the locks from the lake we where moored next to a 80 foot yacht. A real treat as he then had to maneuver and handle all the lines. We just enjoyed the ride tied securely to his side. There is always much talk about the speed a yacht must do to complete the transit. In all papers it says that 8 knots is minimum speed. If you do less you will be fined. Or rather you will not get your deposit back as you pay app 600 USD for the transit and 850 dollars as a deposit that is to be returned to you after a successful transit. This all seemed a big farce to me as most yachts can not do this kind of speed. The Pilots all knew this, and there was no need to motor that fast to keep our schedule. In fact doing 7.2 knots across the lake we ended up having to wait more than one hour for the others to catch up!

  Line Handlers waving goodbyes and the doors open into the Pacific!

Entering the Pacific we anchored outside Bilboa next to Panama City. A bay full of cruisers heading into the Caribbean or as us westward into Polynesia. It was not a very memorable bay, but we got to do some last minute shopping. Coconut got some new anchor chain and our stores replenished for the 1000 miles to Galapagos. We also got to meet up with Gordon, an old friend from our yachting days. He now skippers a huge Feadship, Twizzle, with 16 crew. Gordon took us out for dinner and gave the kids the guided tour of his boat. All very welcome in our busy days preparing for our trip. Twizzle is heading for Tahiti and we hope to meet up with him there in June.

This site was last updated 17-04-2007 07:55:48