Tips for Transiting the Panama Canal

Recruited at the last minute for a trip through the Canal, a sailor learns the ropes of how to pass through the locks.

Panama Canal
A Pacific-bound catamaran’s Panama Canal voyage nears its end as it motors through the Miraflores Locks.hanohikirf / Alamy Stock Photo

I scrambled out of the ­dinghy onto Minh’s transom steps as a last-minute addition to the crew, the required fourth line handler needed for a transit of the Panama Canal. The French-flagged 41-foot Fountaine Pajot catamaran was weighing anchor in the Flats anchorage near the Port of Colon, a staging area for vessels preparing to enter the waterway, bound for the Pacific.

Amid a flurry of activity, Bruno, the only English speaker, offered me a kindly welcome aboard as we felt a bump on the port side: Mr. Tito, the rental agent, was delivering four tires wrapped in plastic bags to use as fenders, and four stout 125-foot polypropylene hawsers, which were also necessary for the passage through the canal. In another moment, on the starboard side, a 40-foot steel pilot boat nosed within inches of our hull, and the Canal Authority adviser stepped aboard Minh. Right away, he instructed the captain to get underway and proceed along the 2-mile channel toward the Gatun Locks.

Gatun Locks
With fenders ready, a transiting sailboat approaches the entrance to the Gatun Locks.Diane gorch

For many cruisers, a transit of the Panama Canal is a milestone accomplishment. The canal itself is an engineering wonder of the world. Completed in 1914, it consists of six locks and 45 miles of waterway, a shortcut between continents connecting the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. It is immense in scale. Each lock is 85 feet deep, 1,000 feet long and 110 feet wide. For the original canal, the maximum dimensions for a Panamax vessel—the term used to describe the midsize cargo ships that will fit the locks—are 965 feet long and 106 feet wide. With only 2 feet to spare on each side, there is little room for pilot error. The design of this canal has dictated the parameters for shipbuilding worldwide for nearly a century.

There are three ways a yacht can proceed through the canal. Perhaps the most common is center-chamber lockage, where boats are rafted up two or three abreast. Yachts can also moor alongside a tugboat or small tourist cruise ship. Or they could be tied against the rough cement walls of the canal, less common and also less desirable because water turbulence can crash your rigging into the side wall. Our adviser told us we would raft up for a center-chamber configuration—one less thing to worry about.

lock steel doors
Each lock’s steel doors weigh 800 tons apiece; their height hints at the lift at each step.Diane Gorch

As we motored ahead, we prepared the boat by covering the hatches and solar panels with seat cushions and other thick padding to protect them from the monkey’s fists, which are used by canal workers to heave messenger lines to the boats. We were gradually approached by another yacht, the 42-foot Froot Salid from Australia, to which we rafted up, as instructed by the advisers on each boat. Spring and breast lines held us firmly together. We entered the first Gatun lock after the ship ahead of us was secured. Canyonlike walls rose up on both sides. The captains kept the boats centered under the watchful eyes of the advisers, and soon the canal workers atop the high walls threw down the monkey’s fists with messenger lines to be tied to our hawsers. The workers hauled up our lines, and together the men and boats moved slowly forward to the proper position, where the workers secured our lines to bollards.

The advisers and canal workers communicate effectively with each other using walkie-talkies, but also by sharp whistling, reminding me of Scottish shepherds directing their dogs. I jokingly asked our adviser whether a man who couldn’t whistle could get a job here. He thought for a minute, laughed and said, “Probably not.”

In his book The Panama Cruising Guide (fifth edition), Eric Bauhaus gives comprehensive information pertaining to transiting the canal. As a line handler, there were two things I needed to keep in mind. First, having a hawser or any other line go afoul of the prop during the transit is bad—really bad. The water churning around the vessel while the lock is filling is turbulent, made even more dangerous by undercurrents and the mixing of fresh and salt water of different densities. Do not fall in; even if your dog falls overboard or your prop gets fouled, do not enter the water for any reason.

The line handlers had to keep a steady tension on the hawsers, holding the boats in position against the turbulent waters.

The second hazard is when the monkey’s fist is thrown to your boat. The fist consists of a ball of lead, covered with woven rope, and it’s enough to crack the cranium of the unlucky swabby who wanders into its path. I was vigilant when the lines were thrown to Minh but was startled when the monkey’s fist intended for Froot Salid landed just ahead of me on Minh’s deck!

When all was ready with the ship ahead and our rafted yachts, the massive lock gates behind us slowly closed. These impressive doors weigh 800 tons apiece, and are made from massive steel plates joined by hand-forged and hammer-driven rivets from the Steam Age. They are so precisely balanced on their hinges that only a 40 hp engine is required to open and close them.

When they were closed at last, the water began to swirl up in massive, powerful eddies, and the boats slowly rose. As this happened, the line handlers had to keep a steady tension on the hawsers, holding the boats in position against the turbulent waters. Pressures on the mooring cleats can be tremendous and in an upward direction, which the cleat installations must be able to withstand.

The churning water quieted, the lock was filled, and with a metallic rumble, the lock gate ahead opened. Four chunky electric locomotives, weighing 20 tons each, towed the ship forward into position inside the second lock. Once it was in position, our advisers directed us to move our rafted boats forward. Both vessels motored at dead slow into position, and the canal workers manning the bollards walked the hawsers along the wall and up the steps to the top of the next lock. Sharp whistles reminded us line handlers to raise our lines overhead as workers climbed the steps. When we moved into the canyon of the second lock, our lines were secured and the whole process slowly repeated, and again for the third Gatun Lock. After transiting these three locks, the boat lay 84 feet above the level of the Caribbean Sea from which we had started.

Halfway There

As the evening sky ripened to tangerine and scarlet, we left the third Gatun Lock and headed into Lake Gatun. This meandering lake was formed when the Rio Chagres was dammed to create a navigable waterway leading farther on toward the Pacific. The advisers guided us to a giant mooring float, where both boats moored securely with bow, stern and spring lines for the night. This is more convenient for prompt departures because anchors dropped in Lake Gatun might foul on 100-year-old logs or stumps still rooted beneath the dammed waters. As a chorus of howler monkeys heralded the approach of twilight, I dived overboard for a delicious swim in the sweet fresh water, and was soon joined by everyone on both boats, in spite of rumors about lurking crocodiles. Refreshed and relaxed, the wine was poured, the stars came out, and we slept.

After a French breakfast of coffee with fresh crepes and jam prepared by Annick and Charles-Henri, our advisers rejoined us around 0715 and we resumed our passage. We had to maintain a speed of at least 6 knots to stay on schedule. The well-marked shipping channel meanders just over 20 nautical miles through the lake. We kept to the side, as container ships and roll-on/roll-off ferries—or roros—passed us from both directions. It was a quiet passage, revealing glimpses of jungle vegetation, bird life and the geology of the isthmus as we went. Using a mixture of French, Spanish, Portuguese and English, we crewmembers and our cheerful adviser got to know each other a little better throughout the day.

Panama canal
A canal transit provides a chance to get up close to ships you’d otherwise avoid.Diane Gorch

Eventually, we approached the village of Gamboa, where Rio Chagres flows into Lake Gatun near the head of the Gaillard Cut. It is the only settlement along the canal because the waterway lies within a secured area of a large national park. Here the current running toward the Pacific becomes noticeable. Also, there is massive construction on the north side to widen the canal, so the water became muddy, and dreams of splashing in fresh water again slowly expired, if only for a minute. A drenching rain began, which continued for most of the afternoon.

Along the Gaillard Cut—also known as the Culebra Cut, which spans about 7.5 miles—the scenery changes. Here the canal was blasted and carved through rock and shale, right through the Continental Divide, making it the only continental divide on Earth you can sail across. It is still susceptible to landslides. There are sections where the steep, terraced cuts across mountainsides resemble Mayan step pyramids standing silent watch along the passage. Flanked on both sides by those pyramidlike mountains, we passed under the elegant Centennial Bridge, gracefully soaring above the canal.

I asked our Canal Authority adviser about the breakdown of yachts transiting the waterway. He estimated that of recreational boats moving into the Pacific, about 40 percent are French, 20 percent British, followed by German and Australian vessels. Relatively few American yachts pass through. Perhaps they are lured to stay in the Caribbean by the beautiful San Blas Islands, or the ease of obtaining permanent visa or residency offered by the Panamanian government. Fewer yachts pass from the Pacific to the Caribbean because the winds and currents to reach Panama’s Pacific coast are often contrary.

Going Down

We approached the Pedro Miguel Locks, the first descent toward the Pacific. We rafted this time to a brand-new Amel 64, crewed by at least 16 cheerful 20-somethings. Now the raft of yachts entered first, with a ship looming behind us. We stared at its bulbous bow, thinking that this is as close as we ever want to come to a yacht crusher like this. Over came the monkey’s fists and messenger lines; we secured the hawsers and prepared this time to slowly ease them out as the water fell. In the outgoing locks, the turbulence is much less.

Line handlers
Line handlers wait for the ­action to begin and the water to rise in the Gatun Locks.Diane Gorch

Exiting the Pedro Miguel Locks, the system of buoyage changes. We were now outward-bound, so green markers were kept to starboard; it was “port wine” from here on out.

We proceeded on through the man-made Lake Miraflores to the final two Miraflores Locks. In these chambers, we were lowered another 54 feet. As we approached the first lock, the sky opened up and rain poured down again, continuing for the entire transit of both locks.

The young people on the Amel were singing, dancing and playing guitar in the downpour. On Minh, Andre gallantly stood with a little umbrella over Annick, who was handling the port bowline on the final lock; both of them were soaked to the skin. Bruno mimed a shower scene using his line like a scrubber to wash his back. Laconic Charles-Henri would’ve been chewing a cigar if he’d had one, hunkered down at the wheel. All of this was observed by hundreds of tourists in the cozy, dry observation tower overlooking the second lock. As we exited into the Pacific, there, floating like a log in the water, lurked a fair-size crocodile.

We were now outward-bound, so green markers were kept to starboard; it was “port wine” from here on out.

Waving farewell, we separated from the Amel as the sun melted in the west, and proceeded to the Balboa anchorage where a Canal Authority vessel nosed alongside to pick up our adviser. We anchored at La Playita near the Flamenco Marina in Panama City. Already we were starting to feel the creeping nostalgia of a passage completed.

Our final dinner together was at a little cafe with great wood-oven pizza, wine and multilingual chat. In the morning we would go our separate ways. Annick and Andre would return to their boat in Portobelo, to bring it through the canal in a few weeks; Charles-Henri and Bruno would sail Minh on to the Marquesas and Tahiti. I would rejoin friends Claudia and Rolf aboard Tika and continue our cruise along the steamy Caribbean coast of Panama.

A lifelong sailor and licensed captain, Diane Gorch has been voyaging on yachts around the world for the past eight years.

Know before you go

When do boats go through: Most cruising boats transit from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean, and traffic peaks in February and March. This backs out to an optimal arrival time in French Polynesia’s Marquesas Islands (nearly 4,000 nautical miles away) as the Southern Hemisphere’s cyclone season wanes. To avoid the crush, plan to transit before the World Cruising Club rally passes through in late January. Earlier departures allow an interlude at the Galapagos; it’s easy to bide time in the beautiful Pearl Islands on Panama’s Pacific side too.

Plan ahead: Cruising boats can’t reserve a date in advance; it’s determined after official measurement and payment are completed with canal authorities. Even a quick transit will take a few days to complete these steps. During peak season, it might be several weeks from the time your boat is measured until your assigned transit date.

Cost to transit: Tolls for transiting the canal are set to hike on January 1, 2020, for the first time since 2012. Boats up to 65 feet will be charged a toll of $1,600; for most, that’s double the prior toll. Fees for measurement and security add nearly $200 in additional fixed costs. Other expenses include a Panama cruising permit; the cost to rent lines and fenders (standard boat gear is not sufficient); line handlers, if you need them; and, if you choose, an agent to handle arrangements. It’s easy to add another $1,000 in expenses to the transit.

Equipment required: Four robust lines of 1 to 1.5 inches diameter and at least 125 feet long are obligatory. Fenders too are necessary, and the standard kit on most cruising boats won’t cut it. Many boats use car tires wrapped in plastic to prevent scuffing, but large, sturdy fenders can be rented. Hiring an agent can be a shortcut to quality gear at reasonable rental rates, but it’s also entirely achievable to do this on your own. One requirement we didn’t anticipate was sufficient cockpit shade for the adviser; Totem was required to add canvas to our Bimini frame before transiting. It’s your responsibility to provide meals, snacks and beverages (Coca-Cola preferred) for your ACP (Panama Canal Authority) adviser.

Crew aboard: In addition to the ship’s captain, four line handlers are required. It’s common to pick up crew from other cruising boats, since transiting as a line handler is a time-tested way to gain valuable experience before taking your own vessel through. Experienced handlers can be hired if necessary for about $100 per person. In addition, you’ll also have an adviser assigned by the ACP on board for the duration of the active transit (advisers don’t spend the night aboard in Gatun, but line handlers will).

Greatest risks: Situations such as a line handler thinking about capturing the scene on a GoPro or cellphone instead of listening for directions; cleat access that’s encumbered by deck clutter; or a language barrier between adviser, captain and line handlers all present risks to crew and vessel safety, and are all too common in creating stressful situations during a transit.

Greatest assets: The assigned adviser is key to a safe transit: They have years of canal experience to understand the nuances of current flow in particular locks. A strong adviser, as well as a crew who listens and responds to that adviser, are the greatest assets for an uneventful transit.

Transit duration: Most cruising boats transit in two days, anchoring overnight in Lake Gatun. For boats that can motor at least 7.5 knots, a single-day transit might be assigned; this pre-dawn start winds down by late afternoon and is assigned at the ACP’s discretion.

Canal resources: The official Panama Canal site (pan canal.com/eng) is packed with information, but it’s not terribly user-friendly. By contrast, Mad About Panama’s website has a downloadable eBook with a clear orientation to all aspects of a canal transit. Outside the canal, Eric Bauhaus’ book, The Panama Cruising Guide, is a recognized authority.

Canal transit isn’t just about execution; it’s about the experience. Thanks to the historical nature of the canal, a wealth of books exists to increase your appreciation: The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough is one of the more exceptional reads. A visit to the museum at the Miraflores Locks for a real-time view and interpretive exhibits enriches a later transit. Don’t forget to have friends grab screenshots of your boat in one of the many webcams when your canal day arrives!

For Totem’s posts on costs, process and experience, visit sailingtotem.com.

—Behan Gifford