|Roundabout transiting the Panama Canal!|
As a small vessel, compared to the behemoths that transit the canal, you just can't rock up and radio for a transit time. We were able to do so transiting the Greek Corinth Canal, but that does not fly with the Panama Canal Authority. Nope, you have to fill out some paperwork, call for someone to come measure the boat and then wait for your assigned transit date. We decided to use an agent, due to the fact we needed to haul out and wanted to spend the time working on the boat and not running to various offices completing paperwork. Another tip is if you come in with a few other boats and use the same agent--you'll get a discount! Our total cost for the agent was $300 (we used Eric).
We met with Customs/Immigration and got scanned into the country. Their machine broke, so we had to complete this over the course of two days. Next was the Port Captain to complete the cruising permit forms. He is not there every day and not always at the same time. Be sure to ask when you arrive to get the current schedule. Both offices are located behind the Shelter Bay Marina office.
After meeting with the PC to fill out paperwork (all in Spanish, no English) for all of about 10 minutes, he delivered the permit back 2 days later. If you do it yourself in Colon, you can get the cruising permit the same day (that is the office where all the stamps are housed).
At the time we arrived, there was an 8 day waiting period. No problemo, we were hauling out anyway. We scheduled our transit date for April 17th, which would give us plenty of time for completing the haul out projects and re-splash.
We hauled out on Friday, April 5th and spent the next 10 days doing boat projects. We stripped all the layers of bottom paint off all the way down to the gelcoat (this is one heck of a messy project--blue dust EVERYWHERE!). We covered what we could and took all the cushions inside. We also kept all the hatches closed. It still involved a major clean up job. After making sure everything was smooth, we applied two coats of Sea Hawk Tuff Stuff epoxy barrier primer and then 2 coats of Sigma Eco Fleet 530 antifouling (we couldn't get Sea Jet here, as we had in Greece). They had some other options, but we wanted the color blue to match the stripe on the boat.
Ten days later we splashed and it felt SO good! Face it, leaving any boatyard feels good!
We did a huge provisioning shop in Panama City. One fellow sailing mama rented a car, so she, myself, and another sailing mama hit the town! We filled that car up so full, we could barely peek out over the top of all the stuff! Part of the shopping included things we had to have on board for the agents. You must have cold bottled water (sealed), snacks, and feed them breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If you don't provide hot meals, they can call and order food, which is billed to you at a minimum cost of $350!
|Yes, we were THAT close! Our group had stopped to watch her cross the road and stopped traffic for her to safely cross.|
We had some friends want to transit the canal with us, and since we needed a couple more line handlers anyway, we told them to come on down. Around 10pm on April 15th, they arrived. We spent the 16th prepping for the transit and exploring a little more of Panama. The jungle surrounds the marina and you wake up and go to sleep to the sound of howler monkeys, birds, and insects. We took walks through the old Fort Sherman, which is being slowly taken over by nature. Bats have taken up residence in the buildings. There is a leopard which hangs about. It would have been so cool to see it, but we never did. Another cruiser went for an early morning walk and came face to face with it! Another sailor warned us that the leopard will come into the marina and was caught on camera doing so. I couldn't help but think how cool it would be to see a leopard come onto our Leopard, but if it did, we never knew. We kept Sunny and her food bowl inside though, just to be safe.
|Night before we left to transit the canal!|
|Splashed again and removing the kid netting.|
|This stuff works WONDERS!|
|School in the cafe (and air conditioning!)|
|I taught a chemistry lab to the boat kids in the marina.|
Our agent emailed us updates and confirmed our transit date. We would not know the exact time until one day before. Sure enough, about 24 hours before transit, we heard that we'd be going through in one day, with a 4:30am start time. We stocked an ice chest full of cold drinks and had a huge container of snacks ready to go. Our menu for the transit was breakfast burritos, spaghetti bolognese, salad, and fresh-baked bread for lunch, and Panamanian style tamales for dinner. The snacks ranged from a huge variety of pre-packaged trail-mix, granola bars, protein bars, candy bars, sliced fruit and veggies, and such.
3:45am we were hailed on the VHF and so by 4am on April 17th, we left the marina and went out into the anchorage area to wait for the advisor to board. Eduardo and David arrived around 4:45am and with a smooth transition over to Roundabout, we were then on our way to the first set of locks. We ended up with two advisors, as Eduardo was training David. Eduardo is pretty high up in the chain of command, so we felt fortunate to have him on board. He is also a tugboat captain on other days, assisting larger vessels through the canal. He spent the day telling us all sorts of fun facts about the Canal and life in Panama. I had offered coffee or tea with breakfast once they were on board, but Eduardo said to not worry and that we would get through the first set of locks and then have breakfast. He was so nice and chill, that it made me instantly relax. I had read so many stories that I was a bit nervous.
We reached the first set of three locks, the Gatun Locks, around 6am. We rafted up with a small monohull on our starboard side and moved together into the first lock. I had a huge container of snacks and passed them all around, even to our very appreciative neighbors! By 6:45am, we had lines up to the guys on the wall and our line handlers ready to adjust once the water began to change. What a true marvel the canal is! Such engineering involved! To think that they have operated for over 100 years without fail is astounding! The locks were (for a long time) the world's largest concrete structures. Each lock is 110 feet wide and 1000 feet long. The entire Gatun Locks system, including the approach walls is just over 1.08 nautical miles in length.
Things started off slowly, with only a bit of water churning and then suddenly, we felt the water bubble and shift around us. The force was very strong! We slowly adjusted the lines and pulled in the extra slack as we rose up towards the top of the lock. Once the water level had reached the appropriate height, the doors opened and we moved forward into the next lock. The process was repeated again and we were raised up to about 80 feet above the Atlantic sea level! Before we knew it, we were un-rafting and motoring out into Gatun Lake! This man-made lake covers about 116.64 square nautical miles and was formed by erecting the Gatun Dam across the Chagres River. Towards the Pacific side, we passed through the Gaillard Cut. This cut is carved through rock and shale of the Continental Divide and the unusual history and geology has remained a point of interest from all around the world. It measures 7.4 nautical miles long and the colors are beautiful!
It took about 4 hours (a little over 20 nautical miles) to get across the lake to the next set of locks, the Pedro Miguel Locks and the Miraflores Locks. The first step is to go through the Pedro Miguel Locks. As we were lowered down about 30 feet, we slowly let out the lines. After crossing Miraflores Lake, we reached the final two steps down to the Pacific Ocean, the Miraflores Locks. Due to the Pacific's extreme tidal variations, the Miraflores lock gates are the tallest. The Miraflores Lock system is just about 1 nautical mile in length.
As the Pacific Ocean flowed past our bows, we celebrated all around! A pilot boat picked up our advisors and after a final wave they set off into the setting sun. Another crew came round to pick up the fenders and lines we had borrowed from our agent. We then set off to anchor near Playita and ended the evening with a nice meal and discussed the day. It was a magical experience to transit the canal in our own vessel!