A canal transit


Sailing the Caribbean coast of Panama from Bocas del Toro to Colon was routine for John and Lucy Knape. They’d already circumnavigated the planet once on their ketch, Maraki, and spent most of the past four years gunkholing in the Caribbean. Bocas-to-Colon was a matter of raising anchor and steering the 125-mile course. But their next leg — Colon to Balboa — was much more involved: Transiting the Panama Canal and its bureaucratic demands, if not that complicated, can be time consuming. I was lucky enough to join them for the transit and help out as a line handler.

The Knapes began the process in early February from Bocas by contacting and engaging a bonded canal agent named Rogelio de Hoyos, referred to them by a fellow cruiser. Agents can be located via online blogs and forums, and cruisers are constantly exchanging valuable news and information via radio, radio nets and in-person meetings.

A crewmember on the bow as Maraki crosses to the Flats.

Once inside the breakwater at Colon, Maraki anchored in the Flats near the Cristobal Signal Tower for the appointment with the admeasuring crew. The process involves a tape measure and two measurers; length is used to determine exact fees assessed for transit. Once a vessel is measured, a permanent ship information number (SIN) is assigned. Maraki had received a SIN 25 years earlier from her first Panama Canal transit, although the Knapes had misplaced the document with that number. When Rogelio submitted Maraki’s application to the Panama Canal Authority (ACP), the SIN was still on record, and the measurers only needed to determine that the overall length was still the same 44 feet.

Cash for transit fees
From the Flats, the Knapes crossed the shipping lanes over to Shelter Bay Marina, where Rogelio helped fill out forms, made copies and collected the cash he would deposit in the bank in Colon for canal transit fees. Rogelio also rented them the required fenders and lines of at least 125 feet long with 3-foot eyes and adequate strength to maintain stability in the lock chambers.

The path between the seas.

You can transit the canal without an agent, but using one exempted the Knapes from paying the $891 buffer — i.e., a refundable “security deposit.” Maraki is less than 50 feet long, so the transit fees totaled $984. Additional requirements for the pilot (actually a “transit adviser” on vessels less than 65 feet) include a proper “head” with a holding tank, a warm meal and individual cold drinks. Any yacht under 125 feet is classified as a “handline,” meaning no locomotive is involved to keep the vessel centered in the locks. A handline needs a crew of four line handlers in addition to the skipper. If you don’t find line handlers among other cruisers, you can hire them at set rates. Maraki’s line handlers included Lucy and two cruisers that had never transited the canal but planned to in the next months with their catamaran and, therefore, wanted to experience the transit in a less stressful role first. Doing a transit first as a line handler is highly recommended for skippers.

Maraki’s fourth line handler was me, of course. I’d flown in overnight from snowy New York City to Tocumen International, where Rogelio picked me up soon after dawn, and the local temperature was already a muggy 84. Luckily, his car was air conditioned. Since he had arranged interviews for me with the ACP, the 90-minute ride provided me a valuable opportunity to get oriented. He spoke perfect English and was very knowledgeable.

Rafting together in Gatun locks.

Location and services
Shelter Bay Marina is a protected cove in what used to be Fort Sherman, former location of the U.S. Army Jungle Operations Training Center. The Knapes chose dockage at Shelter Bay because of its location and services: a daily shuttle bus to downtown Colon, paved road through the jungle to bicycle to the 1680s Fort San Lorenzo, and a community that offered networking, open-mic entertainment, birding and even morning yoga and an afternoon swim in a pool — all while Rogelio managed the bureaucratic requirements.

On Sunday afternoon, March 4, Rogelio texted to say we were confirmed for transit on March 5 as requested and should be ready to receive the adviser at 0430 on the Flats, now less than three miles away. With all provisions and Britt and Sandy — our other two line handlers — on board, we skipped the Shelter Bay evening potluck and motored out of the marina in daylight, giving wide berth to shoals along the way, then cut across the shipping lanes and anchored at the Flats, less than a half-mile from the pilot station. The Flats is close enough to the Cristobal container port that we could hear the occasional crash of the gantries shifting containers.

Turbulence in Gatun locks from Grand Mercury’s prop.

Center chamber
Two other sailboats anchored in the area later in the evening, which suggested we’d raft through the locks with them. “Center chamber rafted up” is one of four methods of locking through; the other three are center-chamber solo, sidewall and alongside an ACP vessel, usually a tugboat.

Just after 2100, Cristobal signal station called on VHF with an update: Expect the transit adviser at 0500, still dark but closer to morning.

By 0505, the crew had downed some coffee, the engine was running and a pilot boat had delivered our adviser, Guillermo. After quick introductions, he informed us we were doing a center-chamber raft with the two other boats; we’d be the starboard boat, which meant we’d be tending only two of the four lines. As we made our way toward the Gatun locks in darkness, Guillermo ran through questions like what speed are we making, are the lines set and are we unsure about anything.

A car carrier passes through Culebra Cut.

Don’t hit the solar panels
By 0600, the sun was rising over our port side; actually it was rising over the port-side boat of our raft, Kristina Regina from Tallinn, which like us was lashed to Kudo, the largest of the three — a 52-foot boat recently purchased in the U.K., bound for Australia. Both other boats had advisers on board with the lead adviser, Jose, on Kudo. Jose controlled all radio communications with the line handlers on the lock. While we waited outside the lock as the ship we would be following settled into place, John asked Guillermo that the monkey’s fists — line-covered steel balls used to send the messenger line — be directed toward the bow of Maraki, away from the solar panel shades that covered the cockpit.

By 0630, we were entering the lock; line handlers flung the monkeyfists accurately over, and we made our 125-foot lines fast. The canal line handlers pulled in the slack, keeping them out of the water, following us along the lock wall as we approached to within 60 feet of the ship, a ro-ro vessel called Grand Mercury. Guillermo observed attentively but mostly remained silent; when he did speak — “More throttle, John” — he was calm and professional. When the first lock chamber was filled and the upper gates opened, he forewarned us of the turbulence from the screw when Grand Mercury started into the second of the three in the Gatun flight. When that considerable turbulence came, we were tense but prepared. The cleat flexed, lines went bar-hard, tension among crew rose, but ultimately we held. By 0815, we were 85 feet above Atlantic level in Gatun Lake, in which we would motor for the next 20-plus miles. We “unrafted” and headed into the lake as three separate boats until we got to Pedro Miguel locks. The lake is a reservoir, the flooded Chagres River valley, created when the Chagres was dammed in 1913. Maraki’s first transit in 1993 took two days, with an unforgettable night at anchor after the adviser was taken off by a pilot boat, which returned him again in the morning. The Knapes recalled listening to howler monkeys and birds, and their swim cut short when a crocodile surfaced near the boat. It must have felt like being in the tropical lake that it is. A glance at a map shows how extensive the lake is — 164 square miles of area but with infinitely irregular edges, almost entirely covered with impenetrable tropical growth masking a rich collection of creatures unique to Panama: olingos, agouti, snail eaters, polkadot poison frog, brocket deer and more.

Unrafting in Gatun Lake.

Busy Gatun Lake
Following the channel through the lake for about three hours was like speeding down an interstate highway where you can’t stop to admire the scenery. I wondered about the shorelines, some close and others disappearing in the haze of a standard 90-degree March day in Panama. Without looking on the chart, it is impossible to know what is island and what is mainland. Guillermo explained that two-day transits are less common these days, especially in the first busy months of the year because of a shortage of advisers. ACP statistics show 158 yachts transiting in March 2016 — the greatest number in a single month — compared with 44 in July and September, the smallest number of monthly transits. We saw dredges and tugboats working along the channel. Canal security boats patrol the Lake; Guillermo at one point revealed that canal security was his full-time job. And in certain places, small tourist boats hinted at the presence of ecotours to see tropical birds and other creatures. Most remarkable of all, though, are oceangoing freighters of all types: ro-ros, tankers, containerships, bulk carriers, LNG and LPG carriers. Your mind tells you these vessels must be impossibly lost in this freshwater lake between the seas. Around 1100, we saw the first settlement — the town of Gamboa — and Guillermo told us to tie to a soft mooring there, a good time for lunch. Guillermo seemed satisfied with Lucy’s chili but he especially loved the cold cubes of papaya, a Panamanian favorite. He drank only water. Britt, one of our line handlers took a Balboa beer, a sign to me that he felt ready to transit with his own boat. As we enjoyed lunch, the neo-Panamax containership Valparaiso Express passed after it negotiated the Culebra Cut, escorted by two tractor tugs. It passed within 300 feet of us; its 1,200-foot-long and 165-foot-wide hull could not have been here before June 2016 when the new locks were finished. Valparaiso Express was the maximum length and beam allowed by the new locks.

Soon after we set out from Gamboa, Guillermo pointed out the prison where Noriega spent his last days. That led to a frank discussion about the 1989 U.S. invasion, which had netted him briefly until his command of English led to his release.

Maraki’s red hull anchored in the Pacific.

Through the continental divide
We immediately recognized the stepped slopes of the Culebra Cut, referred to as Gaillard Cut before 2000, when the Panamanians renamed it to reflect that the cut was made through the Culebra Ridge, the continental divide. We passed under the 2004-inaugurated Centennial Bridge around 1330, and the advisers had us raft back up. By 1345, we entered Pedro Miguel locks. This time we entered the lock first; a tanker, Nord Mykonos, came in behind us, taking about a half-hour each time before stopping 150 feet off our sterns. Controlling a ship of that mass, even with eight locomotives, necessitates a glacial pace. The 31-foot descent didn’t begin until 1430.

Less than a mile below Pedro Miguel, we entered the top of the Miraflores locks, a flight of two chambers. Guillermo pointed out that Miraflores would lower us to Pacific Ocean level, which meant that fresh and salt water would commingle, with the waters of differing densities causing considerable turbulence. Again, since we were forewarned and by now trusted our lines, the current we saw between Maraki and Kudo deserved respect but posed no threat.

While we waited for Nord Mykonos to settle in behind us, one of the Kudo crew brought out his guitar. The Miraflores observation deck was not 300 feet from us, and when he sang some call-and-response shanties, we all sang along loudly, including Guillermo. However much folks in the observation deck enjoyed our songs, we’ll never know; my only regret is that we forgot to ask friends back home to watch for us on the Miraflores webcam.

Some impromptu music in Miraflores locks by a crewmember from the sloop Kudo.

By 1630, we were at Pacific level and headed for Balboa container port. Looking back, I noticed the fork in the Canal as it would be seen by an Atlantic-bound vessel: The Cocoli locks for neo-Panamax vessels were toward the left, and the Miraflores locks we’d departed were toward the right. Just beyond the Bridge of the Americas, Guillermo stepped across onto a pilot boat that came to retrieve him. Before he left, he gave us clear directions for Brisas de Amador, our anchorage for the night. It was 1700; he’d been with us exactly 12 hours.

Once the anchor was secure, it was time to open some cold Balboas. And the next few days were for returning lines and fenders to Rogelio, who would then also run our passports into the bureaucracy for exit stamps. Britt and Sandy caught the Panama Railroad for a ride back to their catamaran in Portobelo on the Atlantic side. I’d come for a short time, an interlude away from snow and cold to handle lines and travel the canal. The week went by quickly with visits to the historic quarter, Casco Viejo, and trips to Miraflores and Cocoli. The most tantalizing moments, though, were spent at an info session near Balboa Yacht Club organized by agents from French Polynesia and Fiji, destinations for Kudo and Kristina Regina. I would be lying if I said I only once wondered why I didn’t look for an opening on a boat headed there. Maybe next year.

William Van Dorp is a writer and photographer based in New York City. His articles have appeared in various publications, including Professional Mariner magazine.

By Ocean Navigator