The Panama Canal.

Correction: My previous post stated that Karen and Evan hiked in NZ over Christmas. Not correct – they hiked in Tasmania – sorry guys!

Panama Canal map and section.

Limon Bay is a large anchorage for ships, protected by a long breakwater on the Atlantic or Caribbean side of the Panama canal. The City of Colon is on the eastern side of this anchorage and the Shelter Bay Marina is tucked in behind the breakwater on the western side – we tied up at the marina on Monday the 8th February 2021. First we had to have a Covid PCR test at the arrivals dock and after a negative result only an hour later, we were in our berth.

Canal info.

Shelter Bay Marina is quite busy with yachts coming and going on their canal transits. It has everything you need, including a gym, swimming pool, bar and restaurant. They offer a free bus service to Colon twice a day for shopping, which we used the day after we arrived. The restaurant serves good pizzas and salads, but the wines are expensive.

Our marina dock.

Restaurant next to the pool.

Sunset from our berth.

Good company, good wine and good food.

Friday the 12th February was Chinese New Year, which was a good enough reason for the yachties in the marina to have a Chinese potluck dinner at the BBQ area. We had a good turnout with some tasty Chinese dishes, followed by a big screen live broadcast of the Prada Cup races in NZ, between Italy (Aussie skipper) and the UK. The foiling monohulls are spectacular to watch, reaching up to 45 knots on the water!

Chinese New Year = Ah soh!

On the Saturday, “Energy Observer” a fascinating catamaran covered in solar panels, tied up at the marina. A floating laboratory for hydrogen, solar and wind energy propulsion and zero emissions. Visit: https://www.energy-observer.org/

The “Energy Observer”

A week after our arrival, on Monday morning the 15th February, the Canal Admeasurer came to measure Esprit for her canal transit. An efficient young lady, who got the job done in 45 minutes and then issued us with a transit number and the necessary documentation. A world of difference to our Suez Canal experience, where two Egyptian officials took a day for the same work.

The next day Roger our agent (Rogelio, pronounced Rohelio), delivered the big fenders and long mule lines required in the canal locks. He also collected payment for the transit which amounted to USD 2,354.00 (compared to the Suez canal charge of USD 600.00, three years ago). In addition, we had to pay 3 line handlers USD 120.00 each for their services. Our transit was scheduled for Friday the 19th February.

Equipment for the canal.

While waiting, we managed to have our life raft serviced – we got that back the day before our transit.

On Friday the 19th February, the Panama Canal transit advisor (pilot) and the three line handlers boarded Esprit in the Shelter Bay anchorage at 17:00. The advisor directed us under the new Colon bridge, to the holding area before the Gatun locks. Here we rafted up with our friends SV Nauplios, an aluminium yacht from the UK of roughly the same length as Esprit.

Our line handlers Ricardo, John and Ray.

Passing under the new Colon bridge.

SV Ghost passing us.

Nauplios approaching us to raft up.

Raft up done.

Elaine and Crawford Snedden on Nauplios.

We entered the first of three lock chambers, to rise a total of 26.5 m above the Caribbean sea level. Ahead of us in the 110 x 1000 ft (33.5 x 304.8 m) lock chamber was a reefer coastal cargo vessel and SV Ghost, a luxury yacht. Two shore men on each side of the chamber, threw thin heaving lines attached to “Monkey fists” down to our line handlers, which they in turn attached to thick mule lines on our decks. These lines were pulled up and attached to bollards on shore to keep the vessels centred in position.

Approaching the first Gatun lock.

Shore men walking our mule lines forward.

It was now getting dark and as soon as the huge lock doors closed behind us, the lock master opened the valves and water from the Gatun Lake above, gravity filled the lock chamber. The lock chamber has a capacity of 26 million gallons of water (50 Olympic size swimming pools) and was filled in eight minutes, through 70 openings in the floor of the chamber. The water was literally boiling around us, confirming the necessity of the mule lines.

Chamber doors starting to close.

Doors closed.

Line handlers pulling in the mule lines as the water rises.

Water flowing in through 70 openings in the chamber floor.

Lock full – Esprit and Nauplios as seen from Ghost.

The process was repeated through the next two locks, after which we motored a mile to a big floating buoy on Lake Gatun and tied up on it with Nauplios at 9pm. We then fed the adviser and line handlers who were sculling Cokes from the 24 can case we supplied. The advisers left our boats and the young line handlers eventually went to sleep on mattresses in the cockpit.

Waking up on Saturday next to Nauplios.

The next morning at 7:30 we served breakfast to the line handlers and at 8:30 a new adviser boarded Esprit for the 44 nm passage across Lake Gatun to the locks on the Pacific side. Towards the end, we went through the Culebra Cut which is the deepest excavation for the canal though the mountain watershed  on the isthmus of Panama. Most impressive, considering the thousands of men who toiled (and died) here, without modern earth moving machinery in the late 1890’s. Just past the Culebra Cut is the new Centennial bridge.

Approaching the Culebra Cut with Nauplios ahead of us.

Ghost passing us in the cut.

Looking back – once this was a mountain ridge.

The canal was opened in 1914 and since then ships planning to transit the canal had to be designed to fit the dimensions of the locks (The Panamax ships). In 2016 new larger locks were completed in parallel to the existing locks to accommodate larger ships (The Neopanamax ships). A few of these behemoths passed us.

Passing a huge Neopanamax ship in the canal.

Panamax and Neopanamax sizes.

Huge tugs working in the canal.

This tug passing us while doing a fire drill.

We now reached the three lowering locks on the Pacific side, the first being the Pedro Miguel lock (9.5 m step down). Esprit and Nauplios had to raft up on either side of Ghost, entering the lock first. A huge motor vehicle carrier (5,500 vehicles) came in behind us. This vessel built to Panamax specs, fitted in width into the lock chamber, with a few centimetres to spare on either side. She was towed into position by four electric locomotives on each side, centring her with thick mule cables, without scraping the paint on her sides.

Rafted up next to Ghost looking forward.

Ghost looking aft.

Darby and Joan – look at us, rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous!

Shore men throwing their lines.

Caught by our line handlers.

The big ships get pulled by these electric locomotives.

A short distance away were the two Miraflores locks, stepping down 16.5 m at mid tide, on the Pacific Ocean side.

Entering the full Miraflores lock.

Here comes the vehicle carrier, pulled by locomotives.

Water level lowered, the doors open.

Out comes the vehicle carrier – a tight fit.

After these locks, we detached from Ghost and said our goodbyes – they were sailing up to the Gulf of Cortez in Mexico. Next up, was the big and filthy harbour of Balboa before passing under the Bridge of the Americas, a poor cousin of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. We dropped our line handlers and their ropes and fenders at the Balboa Yacht Club, where Nauplios tied up to a mooring.

Nauplios and the Bridge of the Americas.

Here comes our lock buddy!

We motored on for another 30 minutes to drop our anchor at La Brisas, behind the long causeway, south of Panama City at 18:15, just in time to enjoy the sunset, cold beer in hand. This was truly an exciting experience on our journey so far. We plan to spend another two weeks here while waiting for spare backup parts for our Pacific crossing and sight seeing in this huge city – we can’t wait to see Frank Gehry’s Bio-diversity museum.

The Bio-diversity museum at a distance, as we motor out of the canal.

Panama city across the causeway.

In conclusion, two bits of Panama Canal trivia: 1) French impressionist painter Paul Gauguin worked as a common labourer on the Canal in 1887.

2) The lowest toll paid was 36 cents by Richard Halliburton when he swam the entire length of the Canal in 1928. The new larger “Neopanamax” ships can now pay more than a million dollars in toll.

The high price we paid for the transit, pales when considering the cost and the danger of sailing the extra 7,872 nm around Cape Horn in South America.

So, having now arrived on the Pacific ocean side and measured by longitude, we have covered 65% of the equatorial distance around the world. Our course north and south of the equator during the past 4.5 years added to the distance, to bring it to 28,132 nm (52,100 km) passing under Esprit’s keel. The Pacific being the largest ocean, accounts for slightly more than a third of the total equatorial distance, which we should finish by the end of the year.

Our route so far – click to enlarge.

Our next post will be on Panama City and the Las Perlas Islands off the coast, where we will wait for a weather window to cross to the Marquesas Islands, 3,800 nm to our west. Until then, Adios!