We arrived in Panama City on Feb. 3, 2006. Our focus for the next
few days was connecting with our transit agent, Peter Stevens, and
getting a date to transit the canal. Part of this process involves
getting Lionheart officially measured which was accomplished on
Feb. 6. On the 7th we got the news that the first available date for
our boat to transit was March 5! That was really bad news because
we figured that waiting a month in Panama City would essentially
preclude us from getting to Florida before hurricane season,
thereby putting us a year behind in our plans.
The transit fee we had expected to pay was approximately $1600,
including a $750 fee paid to the canal authority, which supplies an
"Advisor" to go through the canal on your vessel. This person is not
a pilot and merely advises the captain in the process of entering
and leaving the locks. We found there was an alternative solution
which was to pay a pilot fee of $2250, in addition to all the other
fees. This alternative allowed us to transit immediately for a total
cost of about $3500, we would have a pilot on board who could
advise the captain and take over the operation if the captain
thought it necessary. Yachts over 65 feet are required to hire a
pilot, and the big ships have at least 3 pilots on board in the canal.
After considering how much it would cost us to stay in Panama City
at the Balboa Yacht Club (a very loose use of the term Yacht Club)
and the cost of staying in the area of the Caribbean south of the
hurricane belt for the next 10 months (!), we decided to bite the
bullet and get on with it. Our date was set for Friday, February 10.
Our friends, Sue and Will Fesler, helped us with errands by taxi to
buy groceries, and many visits to various marine supply outlets to
buy parts and supplies. The captain changed the oil in the engines
and generators, did some fiberglass repairs, and we rented 8 tires
to add to our own boat fender supply for use in rafting during the
We also spent an afternoon at the Miraflores Locks. There is a
restaurant overlooking the 2 locks, as well as a museum and movie
that describes the building of the locks, the operation of the canal,
and the ecology of Panama. We watched as 2 "Panamax" container
ships transited the locks going south. This operation took about 2
hours. We learned that every transit on the canal uses 52 million
gallons of water, which is the same amount of water used by
Panama City in one month.
The French started construction on the Panama Canal in 1880.
The undertaking proved too much for them to complete. In 1904 the
USA took over the job. The canal was completed in 1914.
Ownership and operation of the canal was transferred from the US
to Panama in 2000 under the terms of a treaty made by President
Jimmy Carter. The canal is 50 miles long. There are a series of
locks which we transited from the Pacific on the south to the Atlantic
on the north. The locks, in order from the Pacific side, are the
Miraflores (2 locks), and the Pedro Miguel (1), 3 locks which raised
us 100 feet to the level of Gatun Lake. This is a man made lake
made by damming the Chargres River. The 3 descending Locks
are the Gatun locks which lower you back down to the Atlantic side.
The locks are 110 feet wide, 1000 feet long, and 40 feet deep. The
maximum size ship that can transit is 106 feet wide, 965 feet long
and a draft of less than 40 feet (Lionheart is 54 feet long, 15 feet
wide and draws 4.5 feet). Ships that meet this specification are
called Panamax. There are many of these ships in the world,
designed specifically to carry the maximum cargo through the
A Panamax appears to completely fill the lock space. It is guided
into the lock by 2 or more tug boats, then lines are attached to
several 40 ton "mules" that are on tracks parallel to the canal. The
mules hold the ship in the middle of the canal and keep it from
destroying the canal walls. When yachts transit the canal they are
simply rafted together with one boat, usually a tug or fishing boat,
tied to the wall. For this reason, Lionheart needed extra fenders, 4
lines that are 100 feet long, and 4 line handlers to secure the 4
corners of the boat. The line handlers for the boat against the wall
have to take the lines in as the boat ascends in the lock and let
them out as it descends, and these are big ropes!
On Feb. 9 all was in order. The Feslers moved onto the boat from
their hotel nearby and we awaited dawn of the big day. Our 4 line
handlers arrived at 7:00 AM just as the sun was coming up. The
pilot arrived about 8:00 and we were ready to get in line with the 2
boats we were assigned to raft with in the locks. We left our
mooring around 8:30 AM and headed for the Miraflores locks. A
106 foot fishing boat named Benthick Mariner was assigned to the
wall position, then Captain Jack, an 80 foot yacht, with Lioneart in
third position in just about the center of the lock. The currents
caused by propeller wash and the rushing water filling or emptying
the lock is significant but the captain was more than up to the task of
keeping Lionheart off the walls and away from the other boats when
not rafted. The pilot talked him through some phases of the
process but never took control.
When you leave one lock to enter the next one, all boats untie, pass
into the next chamber and retie. When we moved into the Pedro
Miguel Lock, we side tied to a tug boat. Since Captain Jack was a
bigger and faster yacht than Lionheart, we fell behind him while in
the Gaillard Cut which connects the south locks to Gatun Lake.
Passing through the Gaillard Cut you see how the project cut
through solid rocks for miles to make this connection.
As we crossed Gatun Lake it became very windy. Benthick Mariner
was waiting to go with us but our assignment changed at the last
minute and we went through side tied to another tug with a hulking
big oil tanker right behind us. While this looked ominous from the
back deck looking at that big tanker behind us, we really lucked out
because Benthick Mariner, which was in the other lock with another
freighter, lost an engine (their only engine!), did a 180 degree turn,
and had to be towed out of the lock! If we had been tied to that
boat, we would have had Mr. Toad's wild ride for sure!
We finished the day at about 4:00 PM. Our pilot was picked up in
San Christobal harbor and we headed for the Panama Canal Yacht
Club (another loose use of the term yacht club) where our line
handlers left us and we side tied to Captain Jack. The wind kept us
at the PCYC until Sunday, Feb. 13. We left that day at 4:00 PM to
make the first leg of our trip up the east coast of Panama.
An oil tanker entering the lock behind us.
We are through the Panama Canal and
heading for a side tie with the large fishing boat
ahead,- Captain Jack - at the Panama Canal Yacht Club
ending another memorable day in our lives.
Our linehandlers were nice guys and good at
their jobs. Here they are as we set off under The Bridge
of The Americas headed for The Miraflores Locks.
The Captain and The Admiral underway
on February 10.
Rafting with Benthick Mariner
and Captain Jack in Miraflores Lock.
Pilot Franklin and The Captain
Will on the bow as we leave
Pedro Miguel Lock heading for
Centennial Bridge and The
Close quarters in the
approach to the
Close up and personal with the lock doors as they open in front of us.
Leaving the last of the Gatun Locks.