Panama Canal Profile

The Panama Canal Locks and How they Work

For simplicity, I will be talking about transiting the Panama Canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Boats start this adventure by staging at “the Flats” or “F” anchorage which is outside of Colon Town.  Once at the staging area, you wait to be boarded by a designated advisor or pilot who stays with the boat through the first set of locks.  Southbound transits usually have a start time of 1600.  (Of course, you’ll soon read, we transited at 0500 and did this passage in one day.)  Start times are an estimate of when an advisor will arrive and board your vessel.  The blue arrow on the image below points to the “Flats” anchorage.

The Flats Anchorage

The Flats Anchorage

The six set of locks, were the world’s largest concrete structures for a long time.  In addition, they have functioned flawlessly for over 100 years. The first set are called the Gatun Locks which are physically connected to each other.  Here, the vessel is raised a total of 26 meters in three different chambers.  Each chamber is 33.5 meters wide and 304 meters long.

Each chamber fills at a rate of 3 million gallons per minute and it takes 52 million gallons to move a vessel through all 6 chambers.

Approximately 35-40 vessels transit the old Panama Canal Locks and between 7-10 Neo Panamax vessels transit the new locks per week.  It costs between $600,000-$1,500,000 for the Neo Panamax to transit the new locks.  A cruise ship will pay between $600,000-$1,000,000 to transit through the old locks.  All depends on the amount of water they displace.  The Neo Panamax is 1200′ long with a 106′ beam, and carries over 40,000 containers.  It was built specifically for the new Panama locks.

This is an image of the Gatun locks.  The ship is in the 3rd lock after already being raised in the previous two locks.  Animated photo link.

Gatun Locks

Gatun Locks

The bulk of the excavation took place in the Gaillard Cut which remains, to this day, the area most susceptible to landslides. Gaillard Cut connects Gatun Lake to the last three chambers.

Once the vessel is through the Gatun Locks, they enter Lake Gatun a man-made lake that extends across the Isthmus.  The lake covers an area of 117 square nautical miles and was formed by building the Gatun Dam across the Chagres River.  The damn is nearly 800 meters wide at the base but it narrows to 30 meters at the crest.  The height of the damn is 32 meters above sea level.   Each vessel travels just over 20 miles across Gatun Lake to get to the next set of locks.

This is a view of the Gatun dam from the Panama Canal side.  As you might recall, we showed a photo of the same dam from the Rio Chagres side a few blogs ago.  Pretty cool.

Gatun damn view from the Panama Canal

Gatun damn view from the Panama Canal

On the other side of Gatun Lake are three more chambers.  Miguel Lock, is the first one which lowers the vessel 9 meters in one step from the level of Gatun Lake to that of Miraflores Lake.  Lake Miraflores is a small artificial body of water that separates the Pacific chambers. The ship is then lowered the remaining two steps to sea level within in the Miraflores locks.  This dissension varies greatly due to extreme tidal variations just outside the canal.  The Miraflores gates are the tallest in the Panama Canal due to the tides.  Photo source.

Side view of Panama Canal locks

Side view of Panama Canal locks.

The Process:

After the pilot boards the vessel in the Flats anchorage, it heads 4 miles south to the Gatun Locks.  Typically, cargo ships will proceed ahead of pleasure vessels.  (Again you will find our transit had cargo ships in front and behind us.)  At this time, private yachts will raft or nest together.  Most small yachts (under 25 meters) will raft or nest with one to two other vessels.  Typically, two monohulls will nest on either side of a catamaran.  The catamaran then becomes the main source of power and steerage.  It’s important to realize that all vessels have their engines on at all times to assist in steerage.

As the rafted boats enter the first chamber,  “monkey fists” are thrown to the boat from the center wall and then from the mainland.  These monkey fists are attached to 125′ lines with a bowline knot that are attached to the boats.  We thought the monkey fists would be much bigger, like the size of cantaloupes not the size of golf balls.

Monkey fist thrown to boat to retrieve blue lines

Monkey fist thrown to boat to retrieve blue lines

Upon exiting the Gatun Locks, the vessels are separated as they travel 20 miles to Gamboa where everyone will find a mooring for the night.  In addition, the pilot will leave the boat and the next morning a new pilot will board.  The yachts nest together again for the last three chambers.  The same process is repeated twice on the Pacific locks – as the first lock is not connected to the last two locks.

Each vessel will separate and head toward the Balboa Yacht Club where the pilot will disembark and agents will retrieve their fenders and lines.  And the celebration begins….

TRANSIT FLOW IN SHORT:

  • Flats Anchorage
  • Gatun Locks
  • Lake Gatun
  • Miguel Lock
  • MiraFlores Locks
  • Balboa Yacht Club

Here is a sneak peek at one of our transit photos.  Additionally, if you check back with us you will find several more posts on the Panama Canal.  Evidently, the typical process does not apply to our transit at all.  But, without a doubt the best experience we’ve had in a long time.

Sugar Shack being walked into the first lock.

Sugar Shack being walked into the first lock.

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