Canal in transition

For voyaging sailors, the Panama Canal continues to be a destination of equal parts marvel and anxiety. Recently, there have been multiple accidents involving yachts, some resulting in significant damage. Pre-transit knowledge and preparation by voyagers are more important than ever.

Some of the recent incidents may be connected to the Canal’s transition from not- for-profit status to a Panamanian profit-oriented enterprise. Canal pilots and advisors admit to a work slowdown in their effort to secure, among other things, overtime wages for a portion of the Canal’s grueling round-the-clock schedule. The overall Canal work force and wage scale have been reduced recently due to the Commission’s failing to replace retirees and requiring remaining workers to work longer hours for the same pay.

Employee discontent or overwork may have contributed to an accident that I witnessed on a fellow voyager’s boat. In the final moments before lockdown in the Miraflores Locks, a visibly indifferent Canal line-handler failed to secure a crucial stern line ashore. As a result, wind and lock turbulence forced the stern of the 43-foot sailing vessel to pivot rapidly to port. In a sickening crash, the boat collided stern-to with the rough lock wall. Line tension then forced the Canal worker to release his line into the water. Almost instantly, it fouled the boat’s propeller and rendered the engine useless to move the boat clear.

Grabbing snorkel gear, the captain went over the side. The water began to churn as a large commercial vessel entered the lock chamber astern. Quickly the crew rigged a safety line to protect the captain against the hazardous current. At substantial risk to himself, the captain was able to cut the line, free the propeller, and return safely aboard before lockdown was complete. The boat was maneuvered out of danger. Only by luck and decisive action did the incident end without injury and with only moderate damage to the boat.

The new quest for profitability may have spawned the inappropriate hurrying of small boats through the locks. One captain complained to his advisor that he was being asked to leave the locks too early, before the doors were safely open. The advisor responded that the Canal loses money on every small sailing yacht that makes the transit. Small boats are on a tight schedule, he explained, to make time for more profitable vessels.

Perhaps the statement reflects only the pilot’s personal desire for a speedy transit. If true, however, voyagers might well prepare for diminishing assistance in their passages or for an increase in the transit fee.

It would certainly be convenient to blame all of the recent accidents on the Canal Commission. The truth is, however, that most problems are being caused not by Canal policies or staff but by yacht equipment failure and voyagers’ lack of experience. With foreknowledge and planning, many of these problems can be avoided or minimized.

How the Canal works

The Panama Canal is approximately 45 miles long. To transit from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean, each boat is raised 85 feet in the three Gatun Locks. The boat then crosses Gatun Lake for 21 miles to enter the Pedro Miguel Lock. At Pedro Miguel, the yacht descends 31 feet to traverse the mile-wide Miraflores Lake. Beyond the lake at the Miraflores Locks, the boat is lowered in two stages to the Pacific. All told there are six locks, three up and three down.

Most oceangoing sailing vessels have been making the trip in one 10- to 13-hour day. In our case, the advisor boarded our boat in the Cristobal anchorage just before 0500 hours. By 1600, we were moored at the Balboa Yacht Club on the other side. Because of late departure or slow speed in Gatun Lake, some boats must stop for the night in Gamboa anchorage and resume transit the next day.

There are three methods of transiting the Panama Canal: 1) center chamber; 2) alongside a tug; and 3) alongside the lock wall. The voyager is asked to designate methods, in order of preference, when he or she initially applies for transit.

Method number three is for large vessels only. Serious damage to hull or rigging is virtually certain for small yachts tied alongside the rough, uneven concrete walls. As a result, only the first two methods are viable.

Lying alongside a tug, which is itself secured to the lock wall, is arguably the easiest method of all. That method, however, is “subject to availability” and only rarely available to sailing vessels less than 65 feet. It cannot be chosen to the exclusion of other methods. Therefore, as emphasized in the rules, each small boat must be prepared to transit via center chamber.

In the center-chamber method, the crew passes four long lines forward port and starboard and aft port and starboard to workers on either side of the lock chamber. The workers secure the lines on bollards at the top of the lock walls. The yacht’s crew is then responsible for maintaining the vessel in the center of the chamber by keeping equal tension on all four lines. The lines are sometimes parallel to the water and sometimes almost perpendicular to it, depending on the lock and the circumstances.

As the chamber fills or empties, the forces on those lines are intense and capricious. If anything goes wrong, only the skilled use of cleats and winches, sometimes in combination with engine maneuvering, can counteract the pressure. Moreover, those measures succeed only if there is enough time to react.

Although it is possible to transit alone via center chamber, recent Canal economics dictate that a small sailing vessel be rafted with one or two others in each lock. In a three-vessel raft, the outermost boats are responsible for line-handling. The center boat, usually chosen as the one with the most powerful engine, is in charge of maneuvering under power.

In situations where only two yachts are rafted together, each will have line-handling responsibilities, and each will handle some of the power maneuvering. In both scenarios, the boats are inter-dependent for safe passage. In almost all cases, a yacht or raft will share the lock chamber with a large commercial vessel, such as a cruise liner, tanker, or containership. Whether transiting alone or rafted, several issues are crucial to success: proper lines, good line-handlers, a reliable engine, strong deck cleats, adequate fenders, good communication among captains before and during the transit, and an understanding of the role of the pilot on each boat.

The line is king

More than any other consideration, having proper lines can make or break a transit. Under Canal rules, each boat must have four nylon lines at least 125 feet long. Each line should be of one piece and not spliced or knotted together. The landward ends must have a very large loop, spliced or knotted, for the lock bollards.

As to line diameter there is no firm rule. The Canal Commission recommends 7/8-inch line for all small vessels. Recommendations by others range from 3/4-inch line for the smallest yachts to one-inch line for 65-footers. For our 55-foot 26-ton vessel, 7/8-inch line was just about right.

One need not be fully equipped before arrival in Panama. The Panama Canal Yacht Club (PCYC) rents proper line by the day. Spools with 600 feet of line are available wholesale in Panama City and Colon’s Free Zone. Alternatively, four lengths may usually be bought from previous passage-makers. The morning PCYC net on VHF channel 72 at 0730 local time is a valuable resource for locating line and other equipment. For ourselves, we went in on a spool with another voyager, and divided it into two lengths of 300-foot line. During the transit, we cleated the centers of each length, one forward and one aft, so that the required 125 feet of line was available port and starboard. At the end, each boat had 300 feet of good spare anchor rode. Unfortunately, lines become severely soiled with oily sludge during the transit.

What is amazing is how many voyagers try to fudge the line requirement. As of this writing, no Canal official checks length or quality prior to transit. In our first week in Colón, a yacht was damaged when a chafed, knotted line broke under the extreme pressure of the backwash from the propeller of the containership in the same lock. The boat had been slated for the center raft slot, and its owner had gambled that lock lines would not be needed. When re- scheduled at the last minute to transit alone, the boat was unprepared.

Canal line requirements are not overstated. Each vessel really needs the minimum length required. I witnessed an otherwise superbly equipped yacht suffer a near miss at a lock accident when one of its lines was about 15 feet short.

Line-handling 101

Captains and line-handlers enjoy a symbiotic relationship. Equally as important as finding good line-handlers for one’s own boat is serving as a line-handler for another. Each member of a voyaging crew should complete the transit at least once and preferably several times before attempting the transit on his or her own boat. This process not only supplies a steady stream of experienced crew for fellow voyagers, but it also schools one’s own crew for a safe transit.

Under the rules, each boat must have four line-handlers in addition to the boat’s captain and the Commission-supplied pilot. In other words, the minimum number of people on a boat in the Canal is six, including the pilot. If volunteer crew is not available, one may hire line- handlers at the yacht clubs on either side of the Canal. The going rate has risen to between $50 and $75 per day. On a two-day transit, voyagers must be prepared to put everyone up for the night except the pilot, who disembarks upon anchoring. In addition, all hands must be provided with food and drink at the appropriate times.

The evening before transit, line-handlers should be rounded up and schooled. Some voyagers ask that line-handlers spend the night before transit aboard, as passages often begin in the pre-dawn hours. In any event, first-timers should be instructed in what to expect. The basic tenets of line-handling bear mentioning. Always keep one’s line at least partially secured around a cleat, even if the line is slack. The goal is to keep the boat or raft in the very center of the lock chamber. If unable to cleat off a line because of line pressure, stand on the line outboard of the cleat and get help immediately. Wear gloves; bring rain gear and a good pocketknife. Strength is not as important in a line-handler as concentration and a willingness to work consistently throughout the long day of a typical Panama Canal transit.


The day before transit, the scheduling office is able to tell each voyager his or her schedule and mode of transit. Do not hesitate to make several calls to confirm and double-check. Important questions to ask at that time are 1) when one’s pilot will come aboard; 2) the time one is scheduled in the first lock; 3) whether transit will be alone or rafted; and 4) if rafted, the names of the other boats and one’s assigned position in the raft. This information will give the voyager an idea whether transit will likely take one day or two. More important, it will also allow him or her to contact the other boats in the raft.

Getting to know the other voyagers in your raft can make the difference between a successful trip and a day best forgotten. The evening before our transit, we headed to the PCYC bar with the other crews scheduled to transit with us.

The first order of business was agreeing on the proper way to raft. The outer boats would approach and offer bow and stern lines to the central boat. They would then accept spring lines from the central boat after bow and stern were secured. Great care would be exercised to stagger the masts so that, when the boats rolled in a swell, the spreaders and masts would not make contact. We confirmed that each boat had solid cleats and adequate lines and fenders. We agreed that the central boat’s captain would command the raft. Most importantly, we established a rapport that enabled excellent communication on the day.

As it happened, one of the boats in our raft was re-scheduled at the last minute for later in the day. The two remaining yachts rafted up before dawn on a moonless night in a narrow channel with a good chop and the occasional tugboat wake. Our preparation, combined with the flexibility of good communication, paid off in spades.

Before leaving the subject of communication, a word or two about language is in order. Voyaging is an international passtime. Most voyagers, including myself, value it in part for its diversity. Diversity of language can be a problem, however, when good verbal communication is critical to safety.

The Canal Commission states formally that the language of the Canal is English. In practice, however, the primary spoken language is Spanish. About half of the pilots we met understood very little English indeed, and most spoke to each other in Spanish solamente. One raft on which I served as line-handler comprised an American boat, a French boat, and a Venezuelan boat with two German line-handlers. Faced with multiple language barriers, the captains had so much difficulty rafting that the raft missed its lock time. During the process, as the boats rolled from a large wake, an outer boat sustained damage to its spreader and radar antenna from the central boat’s mast. International voyaging relations were set back a decade.

For these reasons, it behooves the English-speaking voyager to learn a few critical words and phrases in Spanish, and preferably in another of the primary voyaging languages, before transit. Suggestions include the following: line, slacken, tighten, forward, aft, port, starboard, bow, stern, amidship, spring, raft, cleat, secure, release, engine, reverse, neutral, slower, faster, right rudder, left rudder, please, thank you, and “heads up.”

Know your engine

In the Canal, a boat’s engine gets a hearty workout. Under the rules, each boat must be able to sustain a speed of five knots under all conditions or else must contract with a tug to be towed. Before transit, a voyager should check out the engine carefully and should be certain that the boat has enough fuel for a full day’s motoring.

Some of the most harrowing experiences in the Canal come from engine failure at a pivotal moment. For example, the center boat of a raft on which my husband was line-handling lost its engine in the final lock of its transit from Caribbean to Pacific. That chamber, the second of the Miraflores Locks, is extremely turbulent because of the co-mingling of the Pacific and fresh water. The turbulence in this case was exacerbated by the wash of a freighter briskly entering the same chamber astern. As the raft’s line were being secured to the wall, the center boat was forced to shift rapidly between forward and reverse to avoid being pushed into the forward lock doors or sucked back into the freighter. Unbeknownst to anyone, the propeller shaft coupling came apart. When locking was complete and the forward doors opened, the captain of the center boat powered up. He immediately knew something was amiss with the engine, but was puzzled because the raft appeared to be making way at a good clip. In the nick of time, he realized that what was propelling the raft forward was not his engine but the bow wash from the freighter astern. The freighter was approaching fast, and he had no power to maneuver.

Good communication brought the outer boats’ engines to the rescue. Only after separating from the raft at the end of the day, however, did the center boat’s captain comprehend the full extent of his engine failure. Fortunately, he and his crew had the superb seamanship to set sail in a crowded shipping channel at dusk and to sail onto their anchor after dark in a 20-knot wind.

In another incident, a boat’s front crank shaft pulley came off completely as it left the Gatun Locks. The boat sailed across Gatun Lake, then rafted with another boat that towed it to Gamboa anchorage. The crew jury-rigged a garden hose from the deck wash-down pump to the engine, forcing cool water through the heat exchanger. The pulley was bolted on temporarily to run the fresh-water pump. Their only immediate consequence was an extra day of transit. Without knowledgeable crew, they might have had to pay a substantial tug fee.

Under the Canal rules, each boat that is underway must maintain its engine running while in the Canal, even if under sail between locks. No boat should attempt transit with an inoperable engine.

On deck

After proper lines and a healthy engine, the next most important equipment for transit is a sufficient number of strong deck cleats. The rules of the Canal nominally require ship-sized bollards and enclosed chocks for transit. Those rules are waived for smaller yachts, though a notation appears on one’s paper work that one’s cleats are “substandard.”

Ideally, cleats should be through-bolted with backing plates. One voyager, in the usual transit post-mortem, told of his trials in the last lock. One minute he was looking down at his cleat; the next minute it was gone. It happened so quickly that nobody saw it rip out of the deck and catapult off the boat. The pressure on nearly vertical lines had taken its toll. Every voyager should have a back-up plan, such as employing the windlass and other winches, in the event one or more cleats prove ineffective on the day.

With fenders for all

Fenders to protect one’s hull during Canal transit are free and easy to obtain in Panama. A good supply of old tires is usually present at or near the yacht clubs on either side. Like most voyagers, we wrapped our tires in garbage bags and duct tape to protect the hull from oil and rubber marks. For further protection, we secured some old carpeting and lashed it to the lifelines beneath the tires.

Most voyagers do not think to protect the bow and stern. I did only because I had witnessed the stern-to accident discussed herein. A couple of tires hung over the stern and across the anchors are a prudent precaution.

The canal pilot

One of the questions a voyager is asked during the paperwork phase of transit is the value of his or her boat. Only boats valued at more than $1 million or longer than 65 feet overall will be assigned an experienced Canal pilot. All others receive a pilot in training, called an advisor.

Advisors vary in experience, dedication, seamanship, and communication skills. Technically, the advisor is in charge of the transit. He keeps the yacht on schedule and coordinates with all other boats and ships nearby. The captain who disobeys his or her advisor is subject to a fine or, in extreme cases, denial of transit. The advisor has the power to turn the boat around and return to the starting point at any time.

On the other hand, an advisor is not responsible to the boat owner for any damage or injury that may occur. Before transit each voyager is required to sign a very broad release absolving the Canal Commission and all of its employees from any liability whatsoever in the event of an accident that results in damage under $1 million. Virtually all small vessels, therefore, would have no recourse against a negligent advisor.

For that reason, the relationship between captain and advisor is a tricky one. The advisor has all the official authority and no responsibility. The captain has all the responsibility but no official authority. For our transit, we were fortunate enough to have an excellent advisor. Others with whom we transited as line-handlers weren’t so lucky.

For example, one boat suffered serious damage because of an advisor’s direct command. A three-boat raft on which my husband was line-handling left the Gatun locks, still making about four knots. The advisor on the starboard outside boat decided the time was right to separate the raft. With no warning and no coordination with the raft, the advisor ordered the crew at the bow of his boat to release the bow lines. They did. All other lines were still in place as the raft’s speed forced the starboard boat’s bow to turn outward. Unfortunately, the boat’s helm was over to starboard as well. Even more unfortunately, one of the raft’s spring lines had been secured inside the starboard boat’s stanchions and lifelines. The raft, in increasing chaos, continued to make substantial headway.

As the starboard boat began peeling off in earnest, the spring line began popping stanchions one by one out of the deck, right down the line. A fast-thinking line-handler on the center boat grabbed a knife and cut the spring. Then, as the starboard boat pivoted violently, in danger of ramming the central boat with its stern, the line-handler cut the stern line as well.

This accident, like most, was caused by a combination of mistakes and misfortunes. The precipitating factor was, however, an advisor’s ill-considered command.

Multiple transits have taught some hard lessons. In matters related directly to safe boat-handling, captain and crew must not abdicate their usual responsibilities in reliance solely on the Canal advisor. Crew should be instructed before transit to look to the captain for orders or confirmation before acting. The captain, in turn, must maintain excellent communication with the advisor. He or she must also carefully balance his or her own judgment with the advisor’s instructions.

The captain’s task is to follow an advisor’s directions while maintaining control over the details of execution. With the benefit of hindsight, we can analyze the scenario above. The advisor merely wanted the raft to separate as quickly as possible. The captain should have tactfully stepped in and coordinated slowing of the raft and the order in which lines would be released. The crews should have looked solely to their captains for a command to release the lines. Thus both the advisor’s wish and safe boat-handling could have been accommodated.

In all cases, establishing a good working relationship with and showing respect for one’s advisor is paramount. He has been through the Canal many times and is an invaluable resource. In matters related directly to locking and to traffic management in the channels, his expertise is indispensable, and his directions must be obeyed.

Transiting the Panama Canal in a small boat is a genuine adventure. We were fortunate enough to complete the transit with no damage to our boat or our spirits. Part we owe strictly to luck of the draw; the rest we owe to the lessons learned from voyagers who went before. May all bluewater voyagers experience the exhilaration of a successful transit of this undisputed wonder of the world.

Liza Farrow-Gillespie and her husband Alan are in the second year of a five-year circumnavigation aboard their Hylas 54 Heartsong III.

By Ocean Navigator