So, what does it take to cross the Panama Canal?
First, start with planning – interview and hire an agent, fill out a bunch of paperwork, request a Panama Canal Ship ID #, head to Shelter Bay, inspect and admeasure the boat, and get your transit date – 6 March.
Then figure out which friends can come help with the line handling. You need 4 line handlers on every boat. There are a lot of people in Shelter Bay marina who offer to be your line handlers, but this is a once in a lifetime opportunity so we opened it up to our friends. Obviously, it’s just more fun to experience this adventure with people you love.
Our agent, Eric Galvez met us on the dock within an hour of our arrival at Shelter Bay and gave us the run down before the Panama Canal inspector came on board. The next day we were measured and inspected and received our Ship ID# and transit date.
Successful inspection and ad measure.
Fast forward three weeks later…
After we arrived at Shelter Bay for the second time, we received our four “rented” one inch in diameter, stretchy, non high-tech 125′ lines and 8 fenders from our agent. You are required to “rent” these lines and fenders despite what you already have on the boat.
We received our transit time of 0500 which was a bit of a surprise as we had hoped to get the 1600 time slot. Oh well, we’re flexible. Since our transit time was a lot earlier than planned, we had to leave the marina a day early. We pulled away from the slip around 1630 on 5 March and headed over to the Flats Anchorage. Not sure why they call it the “flats” as the anchorage is not flat, it is very, very rolly.
Matt, Wayne, Heather, Michael and I enjoyed a nice dinner, a little rum and went to bed around 2000 so we would be well rested. Our 0430 wake-up call came fast, but we were excited to get our day started. The pilot boat showed up and Francisco our advisor jumped aboard.
IMAGE: Top shows pilot boat rafting up to us to drop off pilot; Middle shows Michael greeting Francisco; Bottom shows Heather offering a breakfast snack to our pilot.
Our pilot, Francisco arrives on board.
Anticipating the adventure.
Heather, Michael and I enjoying the early morning.
Sugar Shack passed under the new bridge being built. The sunrise coupled with the lights make this a stunning photo.
New bridge under construction at channel entrance.
“Uno Mas” caught up to us so we could raft up to them for the first three locks.
IMAGE” Top is “Uno Mas” approaching Sugar Shack w/ Skip, Tracy and Stacy at the bow, Angie at adjusting the fender, Mark at the helm and on our boat Francisco assisting Matt with raft up; Middle: “Uno Mas” crew, Right shows how the blue lines are tied through two cleats, and bottom shows the 2-3′ loop that we had to make.
Rafting to Uno Mas
As we approached the first chamber, we steered toward starboard (the right side of the chamber) so that “Una Mas” could pick up their first lines. Panama line handlers toss two monkey fists (balls loaded with a lead shot) toward the boat. Then the line handlers on “Una Mas” take that monkey fist, put it through the loop in the rented blue line (2-3’ loops were pre-made when the rented blue lines were attached to the boat). Once, the monkey fist goes through the loop, it is then tied back to itself with another bowline knot.
Once the bow and stern lines are attached to the starboard side, our two boats moved toward the port side (mainland) where Sugar Shack catches its monkey fists and repeats the process for our bow and stern lines. So, now Sugar Shack has a blue line (up to 2 Panama line handlers) on the port bow and stern and “Una Mas” has a blue line (up to 2 Panama line handlers) on the starboard bow and stern.
From here, the Panama line handlers slowly walk our two nested boats into the first lock where we will be center chambered. Once in place, the Panama line handlers pull the monkey fist lines, which are attached to our blue lines. The blue lines are then secured to giant cleats at the top of the canal.
Our two boats were behind a power boat called “Mi Panga” which was behind a large tanker. It looks like these are our transit partners through all 6 locks.
IMAGE: Top entering 1st lock with “Mi Panga” in place behind the orange tanker. Next image are our two Panama Line handlers waiting to toss the monkey fists to us. 3rd and 4th images are us being walked into place inside the lock.
Line handlers at work in first three locks.
IMAGE: Top: “Sugar Shack” and “Uno Mas” are center chambered behind “Mi Panga” and a giant cargo ship “SC Taurus” from Hong Kong. The line in Wayne’s hand leads to the Panama line handler at the top of the wall. Bottom shows Michael holding the blue line being walked by another Panama line handler at the top of the same wall.
Panama line handlers walking our nested boats to center chamber.
As the water fills the chamber, Michael and Wayne on Sugar Shack and 2 teams on “Una Mas” Angie & Tracy and Stacy and Gene, constantly take up slack in the lines to ensure the boats are secured in the center of the chamber. The water started at 45 and rose to 72 in about 10 minutes.
With all parties secured, the water starts rushing in at 3 million gallons per minute. They use over 52 million gallons of water to bring boats through all six locks. The boats will rise 3 feet per minute in the first three locks. On the side of the lock, they have measuring indicators to watch as the water rises. The image shows two empty locks (1 and 2), bottom image shows partially filled lock and bottom right shows full lock.
Water level indicators on canal wall.
After we reached the top, the Panama line handlers toss the big blue lines down to the boats, while holding on to the thin monkey fist line. They then walk the boats down to the second lock where we repeat the process. Pull lines up, cleat, take up slack, close gates, fill chamber, move forward, lock 3.
Sugar Shack at the top of the first lock, waiting to be walked to 2nd lock.
Osvaldo Traversaro captured a great photo of Sugar Shack and “Uno Mas” going through the locks and posted it on Marine Traffic.
Sugar Shack and Uno Mas going through the locks. Photo courtesy of Osvaldo Traversaro
All the blue fenders are ours (we have 5 large A4 (round balls) and 6 F4 (long tubes). The white ones are rented from our agent and are a bit puny, but we’ll take what we can get. Wayne is on our port bow, Fernando (red shirt) is by the mast, Heather is just past the dagger board, Matt is by the solar panels, Michael is at the port stern, and I am not pictured (at the starboard helm)
These are views from the top of the 2nd and 3rd locks looking back down the canal (where we just came from).
View of the first three locks after being raised to Lake Gatun level.
When it was all said and done, we moved up 83’ in elevation before entering Lake Gatun. This was the second time Sugar Shack has been in fresh water. The first time was Rio Chagres and I’d call that brackish water to be honest.
We untied “Una Mas” and the two of us started our 20-mile motor to the other side of the lake. It was really calm with no wind, but there were twists and turns as you follow the red markers across the lake. We all took turns at the helm as we motored.
Motoring across Lake Gatun.
Matt finally rested for a few minutes after a stressful morning.
Matt resting a bit in between locks.
Six miles before the last locks, at Gamboa, we were instructed to pick up a HUGE mooring. A large cargo ship was due to pass us and they needed us out of the way. Before the 325’ cargo ship carrying thousands of containers passed us, “Una Mas” rafted up to Sugar Shack on our mooring.
Gamboa mooring for a lunch stop.
Osvaldo Traversaro captured us at the Gamboa mooring and posted it on Marine Traffic for us. Super cool of him, wish I could thank him.
Sugar Shack at Gamboa mooring.
To be continued – please stay tuned for Transiting the Panama Canal on Sugar Shack Part II. Coming Soon.
Check out the time lapse video Matt put together at youtube.com/svSugarShack.
Sugar Shack Panama Canal Transit Crew:
- Francisco (adviser/pilot)
Uno Mas Panama Canal Transit Crew
- Adviser and Trainee
Stacy captured these stunning shots of Sugar Shack as we were heading to the first lock just at sunrise. So pretty, thank you Stacy!
Sugar Shack on the move towards the first lock.
Our good friend Josh, captured these live web cam shots during our Panama Canal transit (thank you Josh!) First image is us entering the first locks (early), 2nd image is us leaving first locks (see far left side); third image we are entering into the 5th lock and the bottom image is Matt on our Bimini waiving.
Web cam shots of us transiting the Panama Canal
Most compelling evidence that we are all having a great time: Matt has his arms spread wide on the starboard bow (does anyone know that song?), and Heather and Michael enjoying some lovin. Wayne keeping a watchful eye out.
Sugar Shack crew enjoying the transit.
Surprisingly, the locks are pretty long and each boat has to be hand walked into place.
Sugar Shack entering lock 1