Crossing through the Panama Canal from the Caribbean (North) Sea to the Pacific (South) Sea was a two day expedition. We did not go on our boat, Livin’ Life, but went as crew aboard Stella Polaris. Although out of order, I wanted to share this experience while it was still relatively fresh in my mind – especially for our cruising friends preparing to cross into the Pacific.
Day One: Jason and Brita from Blue Moon and Dave and I joined Andreas and Margrethe (Maggie) on their aluminum monohull, Stella Polaris. We all met up in Shelter Bay Marina, the best if not only stop to complete final preparations on your boat before entering the Panama Canal. As our assigned time neared, we moved to the “Flats” where we dropped anchor to wait for our pilot. Andreas was informed that we would enter the canal locks with three other vessels. Kulfi, pictured above was another aluminum sailboat.
This small German-owned sailboat was another.
The pilot boat arrived and we watched as they skillfully and gently approached the sailboats to deliver the pilots.
They came within a foot, easy stepping distance across, the pilot stepped aboard, and the boat backed away. No touching at all.
We lifted our anchor and proceeded across the flats toward the first lock on the Caribbean side, Gatun. The canal bisects the country, so road traffic must cross one way or another. When we traveled to Panama City, our taxi crossed on this ferry.
The ferry can cause long delays, so the Panamanians are looking forward to the completion of this new bridge across the canal. It will be quite tall to accommodate the cruise ships and other tall vessels that pass through the canal.
We were frequently passed by canal tug boats. They moved swiftly and pushed around a lot of water.
The blue hulled vessel in front of Kulfi, Avelona Star, was to be our other companion through the canal. Oh my! This bit of news made some of us a little nervous. We heard the turbulence in the canal can be bad, especially from the big ships. Captain Andreas took it with a smile, though, like he does everything.
The water leading to the canal was very calm and flat except for the tug boat wakes.
This huge container ship was just exiting the canal from the Pacific side into the Caribbean Sea in the new canal that was just opened in 2016. Scheduling for sailboats has gone quickly recently and this new lane is likely why. There used to be long delays of two weeks or more. Stella Polaris was scheduled for a day or two after being measured!
We felt like very small fish in a pond with large sharks swarming around us, adding to the general nervousness of trying something new with responsibilities. None of this slaked our excitement, however.
I mean, we shared the channel with some really big vessels!
After seeing Captain Phillips, I was fascinated by the escape pods. Do they really drop from a chute? Yes, they do! And look how high off the waterline it is! What must the impact be like?
Big traffic kept coming as we neared the canal entrance. The ships looked close to each other, but there was plenty of room. Our catamaran could have easily passed between them. Though, you’d have to have nerves of steel to do so.
Andreas actually crossed through the Panama Canal before, so he knew (for the most part) what to expect. If he was nervous, he didn’t show it.
Close to the lock now, it was time to raft up. Kulfi was the middle boat, having the most horsepower. We rafted first to their port side.
Then the Germans rafted to their starboard side. Neither of the other two boats had much in the way of fenders, which is nuts! Andreas rented fenders and lines and also added his own fenders. Thank goodness. The guys (including the pilot) fended off Kulfi until Jason could squeeze in more fenders at crucial spots.
My advice to others, the more fenders the better. It is not fair to risk damage to another vessel because you don’t want to pay $100 to rent fenders and lines. Good on Andreas for having plenty to cover Kulfi, too.
This video only shows a slight movement in calm water.
Rafting complete and the captain driving us in, our pilot gave the crew instructions on what to do and expect.
Captain Andreas was focused on the task at hand. The pilot on Kulfi was barking navigational orders to all the boats to keep them working together. Brita’s bright smile showed that it was thus far an enjoyable experience.
Even our pilot looked happy. Things went smoothly and timely so far.
It was important to stagger the spreaders, especially for the tug boat wake, when we all rolled separately side to side.
This 12 year old was raised on the boat and felt at home on every inch of it. He was the designated photographer for Kulfi. I wish I could see how his photo turned out from the spreaders.
Avelona Star connected up to the canal trains which guided the ship into the first lock. We were to pull in behind.
Meanwhile, I was bird watching as pelicans roosted in a tree and noticed the beautiful jungle greenery surrounding the canal.
The pilots were told to stop our progression, a bridge came out, and road traffic was allowed to cross.
Once the bridge opened, we proceeded into the lock and line handlers tossed us their lines with a monkey ball on the end as a weight. We tied their lines to the loop on the end of our lines and they walked with us into the lock. Most of them were taking pictures of us. We assumed they had seen it all, but the ships bored them whereas the sailboats intrigued them. Funny, right?
Not quite sure how things go with line handling yet. Dave over helped a little until he was given some cues from the lineman at the other end. They just wanted us to hold it and let them make the adjustments while walking.
Jason looked calm as always and found time to be silly with me.
Speaking of silliness, the crew on Kulfi were young, excited, and energetic. They were up to all kinds of antics throughout.
At last, the bridge opened and we proceeded into the lock. It looked like it was going to be a tight fit.
The video shows the motion of the boat and Dave working with the canal line handler.
The linemen didn’t pull us, they waited for the boats to make way under their own power, then the pilot instructed the captains to let the linemen set the pace: walking speed.
They walked up the stairs to the top of the lock, letting out more line as they went. They did not keep us centered in the canal at this point, the captains did with the engines. The pilot instructed two captains to use their engines like a catamaran would. The linemen looked for direction from the pilots for which cleats to attach us to.
Dave paid out the line to the canal lineman who put our loop around a cleat, then Dave took in the slack.
In place, lines fed up to the linemen, and cleated on, the gates closed behind us. There was no turning back. It felt very final to be shut in.
As we waited for the water to start to rise, we contemplated the warnings about turbulence and how the ship would affect it.
I noticed a huge ruler on the side of the chamber and could see how high the waterline was.
You can see that looks were deceiving and we had a lot of room in the lock behind Avelona Star. The water started to rise and we could feel it a little, but not much. The water looked turbulent and full of eddies and we could see why people are forbidden to jump into the water. However, the affect on the boat was nominal.
As we rose, our line handlers took up the slack to keep the boats centered in the chamber.
Above is a sped up video showing the turbulence in the water.
When the water was almost to the waterline, we were treated to a whole new view.
Avelona Star started up the engine(s) and we saw more turbulence radiating out from the ship than we saw from the water filling the chamber.
We braced ourselves as we watched it approach and waited for the worst, but it was truly a nonevent.
We could feel it, but as long as the lines were snug we didn’t move at all. Aided by trains, the ship moved into the next chamber. We waited until it was in place before proceeding.
The linemen returned and sent our lines back to our handlers and walked us forward again. They got their exercise going up all the steps!
Things moved much more quickly now. As soon as our lines were back out and secured in place, the chamber doors closed.
The chamber doors in Gatun Locks closed behind us with a certain finality. Interestingly, the doors do not close all the way until the water starts to rise and the pressure seals the doors.
As soon as the doors were nearly closed, the water started rising again.
They really have the system down and everything went very smoothly. Nerves calmed and we were like old pros in the second chamber.
As soon as the water was up, Avelona Star fired up again. We couldn’t see the chamber doors in front of the ship as it filled the entire lane.
Again, the trains guided the ship into the third and last chamber of the lock.
The train drivers have it easy compared to these guys.
Dave prepared to feed the line out again as we moved into place in the chamber.
We didn’t notice we had a runaway fender until it was passing by the stern. No one could reach out and grasp it.
Soon, the chamber doors began to close and we watched in helplessness as the fender floated away.
It looked like the fender was going outside the chamber…
But it stayed inside with us. Maybe it would float back this way with the turbulence?
There was turbulence aplenty on the German boat side.
Once again, we didn’t really feel it, but if anyone were to drop their line the boats could turn or shift to one side. This guy didn’t look too worried about that, though.
Another huge ship was in the adjacent canal. We didn’t see any other sailboats going through the locks.
The ships go through under their own power. The trains just minimize the side to side motion.
The fender did float back towards us, but not enough to do any good. The Kulfi captain cast out his fishing line to try to hook the cover.
He quickly tried again and again and did manage to land on it, but the hook did not bite into the cover and popped off.
Meanwhile, the lock had opened ahead and Avelona Star moved out. It was time to go and we sadly left the fender behind.
Outside the chamber, we entered a huge lake. We unrafted the boats and drove separately to the mooring ball.
It wasn’t the last we’d see of the other boats. We all rafted back up again at the mooring ball. By the time we reached the ball, it was already dark. Then, well after dark another small sailboat did come through the Gatun Locks and rafted up to the other side of Kulfi. We heard they were rafted up with a tug boat and it was horrible. The tugs move too fast for the sailboats and push around too much water. We were fortunate with our pairing. We expected an early morning with our pilot coming between 5:30 and 6:30, so most of us didn’t stay up too late. Okay, so the ladies didn’t stay up too late, but the guys stayed up and partied. Think they might pay for that decision? Next up, day two through the Panama Canal. By the way, I am trying to make this blog helpful with useful information. If anyone has any questions on something I failed to cover, please send us a message or comment.