Through the Panama Canal – the Gripping Conclusion

Alarms went off early the morning of December 4th as we awoke to prepare for the arrival of a new canal adviser.  We’d spent a quiet night tied up to the mooring buoy provided for us and were expecting, or rather hoping for, the arrival of our adviser a 6:00 in the morning which was the time we were told to be ready.  We had heard many stories that led us to believe that the likelihood of an adviser showing up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at oh-dark-thirty was pretty slim.

We ate breakfast as 6:00 a.m. came and went.   Around 6:45 we saw a pilot boat approaching – earlier than expected (though not as promised).  The boat swung up and deposited an adviser with Testarossa then promptly sped away across Gatun Lake without depositing anyone with us.  What??

Our Lock-mate, Testarossa on the approach through the Culabra Cut

Our Lock-mate, Testarossa

Glumly we watched Testarossa head out for the next set of locks.  Where was our adviser?  With no radio or telephone contact from anyone we had no idea what to expect.  Eventually – almost an hour later – another pilot boat came out with our adviser.  Testarossa was a blip on our AIS and out of sight by then.

Crossing Gatun Lake is the longest part of the canal transit.  Some of the lake was there before the canal but all the dams that were built greatly increased the size of the lake to increase the water reserve for the canal.  It is about 30 miles of motoring, but not to worry we were assured, we wouldn’t be going into the Pedro Miguel locks until 2:00 or later anyway.  The channel across the lake is clearly marked with huge buoys and frequented by enormous ships and tugs.

For years small boats were able to take the “Banana Cut” – a short cut through a few islands that not only shaved some distance of the trip but added a large element of natural beauty.  The islands are overgrown and tropical and loaded with birds, monkeys and other wildlife.  Unfortunately the Banana Cut has been closed for a few years, apparently a number of trees were cut or fallen in the water and it is no longer considered safe for navigation by small vessels.

Wishing for a copy of John W. Trimmer’s legendary work How to Avoid Huge Ships  we headed out to hug the right side of the channel as tightly as we could.  Given the early hour we were able to avoid the Huge Ships for most of the morning since they were only getting started at the Pacific side locks.  We were to be the first boats through on locks going South and we steamed across the glassy water keeping an eye out for logs, crocodiles (yes, there are crocodiles in Gatun lake) and other hazards.

As the day wore on we could see that we were closing the hour plus head start we had on Testarossa which we expected as they were to pass through the locks with us again – beating us there was pointless.  As we motored along we started passing construction equipment, dredging equipment and eventually we passed the prison where General Manuel Noriega is still alive.  This is apparently an important spot for Panamanians, we passed it several times by water and land and no matter the English ability of the guide or taxi driver they were sure they explain with a grin that this is where General Noriega was in prison.

Casa Noreiga.

Casa Noreiga, the waterfront view.

Part of the Culebra Cut

Part of the Culebra Cut

Eventually we reached the Bridge of the Americas and caught up with our lock-mate.  This was near the Culebra Cut (formerly the Gaillard Cut).

The Culebra Cut was the toughest part of the canal to build, a massive stone mountain lay square over where the canal needed to go.  The effort to get through it was what eventually broke the back of the French canal effort.  Years later the cut was cleared and 96 Million cubic yards of rock and dirt was removed with 60 million pounds of dynamite, the labor of 6,000 men, heavy earth moving gear and specially constructed trains and railroads.  Mud and rock slides during the excavation where a constant danger and slowed down work but it was completed in 1913.

As we approached the Pedro Miguel lock we pulled aside to wait.  Our original instructions had us going through the locks first, by ourselves.  With a lock having almost 1,000 linear feet of working space sending a couple of boats less than 60′ long in one lock made no sense apparently and we waited for a ship to join us.  Before the ship came into sight we rafted up and were placed into the lock.

The Pacific side locks are slightly different than the Caribbean side, in that the three locks are not all in a row in one place.  There is one lock, the Pedro Miguel lock first which is separated from the Miraflores locks by about a mile of water.  The process for clearing these is essentially the same – the line handlers on shore throw the lines to the boats and walk you in to the locks.  The only difference is that the boat is now going down, instead of up so the line handlers on board need to slowly ease the lines out as the lock lowers it’s roughly 27 feet of water.

As we waited in the Pedro Miguel locks the ship we were passing through with came into view.  Looked big.

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It was big.

Web Cam shot of Evenstar entering Miraflores.  Thanks to Dan from Dan's Blog for capturing these.

Web Cam shot of Evenstar entering Miraflores. Thanks to Dan from Dan’s Blog for capturing these.

As we left the Pedro Miguel locks and raced across to Miraflores we could see gloom gathering on the horizon.  We were at the tail end of Panama’s rainy season and mother nature wasn’t going to let us forget it.   As we entered the Miraflores locks we spotted a crocodile maybe six or seven feet long (“Just a baby” our adviser told us) hanging around the lock entrance.  We were surprised to have seen fish in the locks as but I suppose when you move that much water you suck them in.  By now the rain was starting to come and to get serious which had as much of a dampening effect on our photo taking as the previous night’s lack of light.

Evenstar 3

Evenstar in the Miraflores Locks – thanks to Dan again.


Rain notwithstanding, the show must go on in the locks.  Of course I say this from the comfort of the cockpit, as the designated driver I didn’t have to do much but sit in front of the wheel, make the occasional error correction when the throttle action on the other boat got too heavy, and eat meat patties.  Everyone else had to go out in the rain and manage the lines.   But Panama is a warm country so it wasn’t too bad.  Or so I was told.

Everything went really smoothly.  We never had a close call, and rarely a raised voice once the line handlers on the other boat got sorted.  For all the scary stories one hears about boats getting damaged in the canal or having irascible or difficult Panama Canal Advisers we saw none of that.

Evenstar 1

Evenstar exiting the Miraflores Locks rafted to Testarossa. Thanks to Dan again.

Our next step was to catch up with a pilot boat and head for the Balboa Yacht Club, where Evenstar would spend the next month in a safe tie-up when we left her for a couple of weeks to visit the United States.  All in all, it was a tremendously cool experience that gave some real hands on insight into what an important feat of engineering the Panama Canal really is.



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