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Panama Canal: Pacific passage

Transiting the Panama Canal was a happy event, probably because we had been led to believe it would be an ordeal and it wasn't. We were delivering a 37-foot trawler from Florida to Baja, Mexico, and the authors of our passage guide had described "locking through" as downright dangerous.

Ho'Okele enters the Gatun Locks, as seen from the deck of Continental Drifter II.

Small boats are required to have four line handlers with "stamina, a strong back, tall stature for leverage and callused hands," according to the canal regulations. "During up-locking, the turbulence can be so great and the sudden shocks so strong that few women or small men possess the strength and stamina required to keep the lines under control while they are being hauled in. If one line slips, the hull can be thrown against the concrete walls or steel gates."

I was captain of record for the delivery, but having read that description I called upon my inner Tom Sawyer. I convinced the Ho'Okele's Hawaiian owner that he needed to fly to Panama make the transit with us, using phrases such as "opportunity of a lifetime," "glory run" and "bragging rights." That way, when our bright green hull was thrown against the concrete and steel, the owner likely would be at the helm, not me.

My guile was wasted. As it happened, my biggest concern was spending too much money on line handlers, not the actual locking through, which was a fascinating and pleasurable experience. I'm not saying our guidebook was wrong, just that our one and only transit did not live up to the authors' worst-case scenario.

For us, the first step to transiting the Panama Canal was to hire a shipping agent to handle the details. You don't have to do this, but we believed hiring the Delfin Agency would be well worth its $500 fee. A shipping agent earns his money by taking care of paperwork and other details of a canal transit; he becomes your advocate before the powers that be and serves as a clearinghouse of local knowledge in all matters. We were at anchor near the city of Colon when a Panama Canal Authority "admeasurer" arrived and recorded some perfunctory dimensions. Then we were told to wait until our name was called, which would take several days.

We moved to the Panama Canal Yacht Club for a berth dockside. In 2002, Colon was a shabby, dangerous place and the yacht club was a secure, if somewhat shopworn, refuge from the mean streets beyond its gates. Lying alongside the fuel dock was Continental Drifter II, a blue-hulled, red-flagged, 110-foot Cheoy Lee belonging to none other than Jimmy Buffett, who uses the yacht as a writing retreat. Buffett did not come aboard until Panama City - the other side of the canal - but we enjoyed touring his happy ship and meeting her captain and crew.

Our three hired line handlers - Alfonse, Angie and Don - arrived at 7 a.m. on transit day. I would make the fourth, freeing owner Mark Heilbron to steer and freeing my Caribbean-leg delivery partner, a vacationing Associated Press photographer, to take pictures.

Canal regulations also require four sturdy 120-foot lines and, like the line handlers, these were provided by Peter Stevens of the Delfin Agency. He also brought us two great lozenge-shaped fenders to stand between us and the lock walls, which were textured like giant 40-grit sandpaper.

Around 9 o'clock, word came by phone to the line handlers that we should proceed to the anchorage where Ho'Okele was to pick up our pilot. As we rounded the bend, there waited Continental Drifter II, our transit partner for the Gatun Locks. For another hour, we ghosted around the anchorage, waiting for a pilot boat to approach. Finally, it arrived. A former naval officer and tug skipper, our pilot, whose name I don't recall, climbed up to the flybridge and commanded us to proceed at full speed to the first lock, about a mile away. Four of us would transit the 1,000-foot Gatun locks together: Ho'Okele, Continental Drifter II, an enormous Singapore-flagged car carrier called Maersk Wind, and a Canal Authority tugboat.

The ship went in first and we other three rafted together in a Buffett sandwich, with the tug against the wall and Ho'Okele on the outside. The gates closed behind us and water flowed in - 52 million gallons. We rose until we could see over the gate to the harbor below. This happened three times until we were about 60 feet above sea level. A team of locomotives towed the car carrier forward using cables. At the other end, we entered Gatun Lake. Nothing bad happened. The fourth line handler - me, that is - never touched a line and there was precious little for the hired hands to do.

Panama City shows its modernity on the Pacific side of the canal.

At 2 o'clock, the pilot informed us that we would be anchoring overnight at Gamboa, about three-fifths of the way to the Pacific. Gamboa is the facility for maintaining the canal's hundreds of marker buoys and lights - no shore leave. Worse, a new crewmember was waiting to come aboard at Panama City on the other side. Boston chef Charles deVarennes - hereafter Chef Charles - was waiting in his hotel room for my call. I had him take a cab and we collected him by dinghy.

Our line handlers were back by 8:30 the next morning and were soon napping in shady corners. We waited for the pilot ... and waited and waited and waited. At noon, I used the satellite phone to call the control office. I read the man the canal ID number assigned to Ho'Okele and he kindly explained that because of the number of ships carrying dangerous cargo that day, we would have to wait a second night in Gamboa.

Geez, I said, I'm paying these line handlers $65 a day to sleep on my decks, plus I've got to feed them. He said he was sorry and that my arrangements with the line handlers had nothing to do with the Panama Canal Authority. Unsaid was the fact that Ho'Okele's transit fees totaled a tiny fraction of the $47,000-per-ship average. I phoned Stevens at Delfin, who promised to get us under way. About 2:30 that afternoon, we saw a pilot boat move off the dock and head toward us. Alex Caballero stepped onto the deck and soon we were making our way toward the Pacific.

We passed through the Miraflores locks at dusk, all by ourselves. Once again we went against the canal bulkhead, referred to as being sidewall, but it was going to be a modified sidewall, Caballero said, having noted our twin screws. Addressing Heilbron at the helm, he said: "Feel comfortable. We just do not want to touch the wall. We are going to be sidewall, but I do not like to be sidewall. Since we are the only boat through, we will give two lines to the wall, but we will be in center with our engines. We don't need to be tight to the wall."

Our fenders never touched the wall. Heilbron managed to keep the boat about 12 feet away using small touches of forward and reverse on the engines, which Caballero designated as either "inboard" or "outboard." Like our first pilot, he had broad maritime experience, having served as first mate on Greek freighters.

Throughout our passage from Gamboa through the Gaillard Cut, we conversed with Caballero on a range of topics, including politics, women, dogs and some canal lore. By the time we had reached the Pacific side, our pilot had offered to show us Panama City by night. We tied up at Flamenco Marina, buttoned up the boat and took a cab to town, a shining modern place, unlike Colon in every way. A few days later, Chef Charles and I would be under way once again, bound for Mexico.

See related story:

- Taming the Tehuano

This article originally appeared in the December issue.