Travel notebook

The passage of the Panama Canal by sailboat

Passing the Panama Canal by sailboat

Crossing the Panama Canal is not an easy task and a lot of work is necessary beforehand. Traditionally, the sailors go through agents to facilitate the task but it is necessary to count on at least $400 more; so we decided to do it on our own.

First of all, after having made the administrative steps, an admeasurer comes on the boat. This canal employee checks the dimensions of the boat, if our papers are in order and then he gives us the next steps.

For us, no measurement of the boat (it must be said that with its 11m70 length and 3m50 width, Noddi is a flyweight). On the other hand, he reminds us that we will have to find four 40m mooring lines and two additional crew members. These are called line handlers and their purpose is to participate in the maneuvers. When passing through the locks, the helmsman maneuvers the boat and the four line handlers each manage a mooring line.

The admeasurer also tells us that our fenders will not be enough and we will need six more tires. It will also be necessary to dismount our splendid solar panels assembled on hinge because they could disturb the manoeuvres. At this moment, we say to ourselves that the boat must really be able to be shaken during the passage of the locks.

Then the admeasurer checks the black water tank (made the day before by Emilien with a jerry can) because it is compulsory. He asks us to confirm that the engine is working and that he will be able to make the boat go faster than 5 knots to be on time. He insists on this point and we understand that we will have to check the engine before leaving.

Finally, he reminds us that the officer who will be with us on the boat on the day : the advisor, he will have to eat hot, rather chicken and starchy food. He will have to drink from sealed water bottles and he will appreciate a fresh cola. We had already read that it was very important to feed the advisor well because otherwise the deposit would not be returned to us in its entirety. We therefore take note of all the advice given to us.

Following its passage, the first step is to pay the canal. In all, cruising, deposit and security fees included, we have for 2 900 dollars (1,600 for crusing, 1,100 for deposit and 300 for security and other fees). Once again, it is not easy. The bank where we have to pay only allows the deposit and asks for a cash payment. So we have to go to another bank to withdraw at the ATM because the counter is only reserved for customers with an account in that bank.

Finally, the ATM doesn't allow to withdraw more than 250 dollars, so I make 12 withdrawals in a row. The bag is filled with 20 dollars bills and we hurry to cover the 500m that separate the two banks.

Once the payment is made, we call a number the next day which informs us that we will pass on Friday February 4th; we only have three days left to finish our preparations.

These three days were very intense. The first thing we did was to put a post on a Facebook group to find our line handlers. The next day, we exchanged with Andrew and Miketwo Englishmen available to help us. We meet them the same evening around a barbecue and, in the space of half an hour, everything was arranged with them.

Then, we went to look for our tires. Emilien and I inspected along the roads to see if there were any: in vain. Nevertheless, we will see our first monkeys in freedom as well as some kind of big rats. The port is surrounded by forest and la nature y est très luxuriante, as a result, it doesn't take long for abandoned houses and camps to be eaten by the forest.

We end up finding our tires in an industrial area: we ask the guys there if we can pick up their old tires and they accept. Even better, they load us on the back of a flatbed truck with our tires and drop us off at the port: what luck!

Lucas brings them back to the boat in a dinghy after long adventures and we install them the same evening with Emilien. 

The following days, we find our moorings at a rental company for 80 dollars and the preparation of the boat goes well. Nevertheless, we take a good pressure the day before because Emilien has to go back to Colón to get the pleasure boat license (also paying) necessary to clear the customs. He will take the opportunity to finish the shopping before the departure.

On D-Day, everything that was supposed to go wrong did go wrong. Already, the engine of the dinghy has fallen into disarray. So we had to go with Noddi to the quay to look for the two Englishmen. But if that's all it was, it would be simple! A bracket on the throttle cable of Noddi's engine broke and we can't accelerate anymore with three hours to go. But the cancellation means that we have to pay for everything again!

We fix it by trickery with Emilien in two hours. During this time, Lucas, who was dropped off on land, doesn't have time to finish the customs, has to bring back the dinghy that was broken down for us and loses his phone. At noon, we were already high on the scale of things that go wrong.

We go to the quay at 1pm and the English are waiting for us, with an employee of the port. He wants us to pay 25 dollars to load people on board. Fortunately, as true gentlemen, Andrew and Mike pay for us and we stay at the port until we finish the customs. We left 30 minutes later and called the canal authorities to know our precise time of passage; it will be 6pm.

So we have some time to decompress and it feels good.

At 5:45 p.m., the advisor came aboard. He gives us a short briefing and then we hoist the anchor. The serious stuff starts and we enter the access channel to the canal. We sail between the huge cargo ships, and it's quite funny. Especially since they are going faster than us and so they overtake us. Just imagine, a ship of 200 meters long, 30 wide and 30 high passes you; we are really small.

First night lock

We reach the first locks two hours after our departure and the feeling of being tiny intensifies. Everything is oversized. The locks are about 20 meters high and 1000 feet long. All this multiplied by three to raise the boats 195 feet higher on the lake Gatún.

The advisor gives us a briefing before proceeding with the maneuvers and informs us thatwe will pass at the same time as an oil tanker. There we do not laugh because we find ourselves now 100 feet behind a boat which is 18 times our size, surrounded by walls of 65 feet high.

The Dubai Sun - boat behind which we were in the rising locks

We watch the locomotives on the docks pulling and centering the behemoth ahead of us in the middle of the lock. On our side, I am on the bow with Mike and Lucas on the stern with Andrew. We send our moorings to canal employees who follow the boat's progress on foot. Once in the lock, they put each mooring line on a dick and we take on board the slack.

Electric locomotives called mulas in Spanish

This is where the success of the maneuver lies : To take up the slack of the four mooring lines equally to keep the boat in the center of the lock. If this is not done properly, we risk damaging Noddi or injuring ourselves.

After a few minutes, the huge metal doors behind us close and the water starts to rise. It swirls around us and the eddies make the boat move. You have to be very quick to take up the slack in the mooring lines and to tie the cleat knots. The force of the eddies is incredible, so much so that it is impossible for us to hold the lines live.

Canal Locks: Each lock is 108 feet wide and 1049 feet long

The water level rises quickly and in 10 minutes we find ourselves on top of the wall. The first lock is passed but the maneuver is not finished. We secure the moorings before the tanker starts and moves towards the next lock. The current produced by the propellers is extraordinary! The boat moves backwards under its effect and the mooring lines are tightened. Noddi moves a lot and the whirlpools in the water do not reassure us.

Once the eddies are over, the canal employees remove the mooring lines from the docks and we can start the whole maneuver again twice more.

Around 11 pm we leave the last lock. We are finally on the Gatún lake! Noddi sails for the first time on fresh water and so it is a little lower on the water than usual. We move forward a few miles until we reach a huge mooring buoy. This is where we will spend the night.

We drink a beer all together and the advisor ends up leaving. We don't hang around to go to bed because the next day the departure is planned at 7 am.

We discover the landscape in the early morning. The water is green, cloudy and the forest surrounds us, two reasons that do not make us want to swim. Indeed, the lake is also known for its 20 feet crocodiles! So we abstain from a swim in fresh water.

Lake Gatún in the morning

At 7:30 am, a new advisor arrives on board and we leave. 6 hours of navigation await us and we mustn't delay. As yesterday, the traffic is dense and Émilien remains concentrated on the navigation. The surroundings of the lake are very wild and Émilien will have the chance to see a crocodile. 

We meet again at the beginning of the afternoon in front of the locks to go back down. There, a catamaran and a sailboat are waiting for us because we have to pass the lock with them. Being a couple means that we will be moored to each other. On top of that, a tanker will be this time last us in the locks: really not reassuring.

With the current and the wind, the maneuver to get into a couple is not really easy, it took us almost an hour to tie up. Then, we maneuver with three boats to enter the lock. Emilien is very concentrated at the helm and listens to the advisor who manages the convoy like a conductor.

We are the rightmost boat so we have to manage these two moorings. The maneuver is the same as the day before but in reverse: we send our moorings to the employees at the quay and they put them on the mooring rods. Once the boats are well centered and moored, the tanker enters and the locomotives secure it. The doors close and the water level begins to drop. The maneuver is much smoother than the day before and everything goes well. Once at the bottom, the door in front of us opens and again.

After the third door, we see for the first time the Pacific; the emotion is intense. We separate from the other boats and move forward a few more miles to pass the commercial port and arrive at the Balboa Yacht Club, the marina where the canal arrives. We say goodbye to our English friends and to the advisor to finally settle down between us. We are full of emotion because the Pacific opens a new part of the trip.

Histoire à suivre dans : Explorations between Panamanian cities and paradise islands

  • Pierron D. et JM.
    February 21, 2022Reply

    Congratulations to all three! Leo's story gave us goosebumps, and your emotion is shared.... Good luck and see you soon in Costa Rica, for other less stressful adventures we hope. We are thinking of you, kisses to you three.

  • Carpentier Claude/Nicole
    February 21, 2022Reply

    Yes, not so simple this Panama Canal. This will remain in your memory. Bravo boys for your resourcefulness. Other more joyful challenges await you in Costa Rica. Kisses to you three and thanks again to you Leo for sharing.

  • Catherine M.
    February 21, 2022Reply

    Infinitely large, infinitely small even on the Panama Canal. Gold job ! New challenge taken up, you did it right! Bravo 🙂

  • Monique et Christian
    February 20, 2022Reply

    Very impressive, this passage of the Panama Canal! Thank you for sharing your emotions with us. Kisses to you three and see you soon in Costa Rica...

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