Sailing and Cruising: A Canal Transit


Opening to the Pacific, Gene at the bow.

Minerva at the marina.
January 23, 2010
We went through the Panama Canal today as line-handlers for Don and Bonnie aboard Minerva. They were great hosts and Minerva, a Maramu, was comfortable for all aboard. We were rafted to two other sailboats and we were on the port side. Gene handled lines forward and Tito, of Tito Yacht Services, handled aft. I had nothing to do and felt a bit like a bump on a log, but the Canal Authority requires four line-handlers.

Anchored at sunset on the Caribbean side in the 'flats' waiting for our advisor.
I was reluctant to go again after our last transit. It was pretty stressful and I couldn’t see doing it again until we went on Peregrine, although this was Gene’s third transit. On the one I went on, the advisor for the port boat had placed the man who threw the lines from the walls, too far back and the line fell short. By the time it was ready to throw again, the aft of the whole flotilla had swung to the starboard and the sailboat on that side was being pushed up against the cement wall of the canal. Nail biting time in my book.
A brief description of the procedure in the rafting method: Two or three boats raft together and enter the canal. Men on the top of the canal walls throw long lines with heaving knots called ‘Monkey Fists’ on the ends, to the boats. There are four lines; forward and aft on both port and starboard. The line handlers thread the weighted lines through a looped line tied to the boat and the Canal workers pull them in. The idea is to keep the raft in the center as the lock fills up and when we move as one into the next lock. The line handlers take in and let out line appropriately as the men on the walls walk along with the boats. There are three locks going up on the Caribbean side and three locks going down on the Pacific side.

The lock gates close, Tito at the stern.

Waiting for the fill.
The passage is done in two days. Our first day, we went up the locks to Lake Gatun; the second day we crossed the lake and went down the locks into the Pacific. We had a nice spaghetti dinner in the lake and a huge breakfast in the morning before starting round two.
There was a slight mishap on day two of this crossing when Don’s advisor told him to reverse, but didn’t communicate that to the other advisors and with one boat in reverse and two going forward we had enough pressure to pull out a cleat on one of the boats. It sounded horrible, but was not a catastrophe. From then on Don and Tom (owner of middle boat confirmed power and steerage with each other).

Sunrise in Lake Gatun
The longest part of the transit is the roughly 28 mile crossing of Lake Gatun. That is easy going and very scenic. The boats are not rafted together for this. Since I had nothing to do, I tried to bird, but the islands were too far for good views. A few birds were unmistakable even at a distance, or some that flew close enough to see were: Osprey, Magnificent Frigate, Laughing Gull, Black Vulture, Mangrove Swallow, Gray Breasted Martin, Royal Terns, Sandwich Terns (new for my Panama list), Brown Pelicans, Great Blue Herons, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons and Keel-billed Toucans. I recognized a Kingfisher and a pair of Doves from a great distance, but couldn’t identify species.
Don and Bonnie are on their way to Equador, with plans to cross the Pacific in the future. Bon Voyage and Fair Winds, Minerva!

The Pacific.

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