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S/V Blue Dawn of Sark: Circumnavigation I & II
Sea's Reflections
Panama Canal Transit

The Panama canal System
The Panama Canal transfer ships from one ocean to another through a system of locks. A vessel entering at the Atlantic side has to be lifted 85 feet in three steps of the level of Gatun Lake. After crossing 31 miles of the lake, the vessel drops 31 feet in one step at Pedro Miguel and enters Miraflores Lake. A mile further south the vessel enters double lockage at Miraflores and drops a further 54 feet to the level of the Pacific Ocean.
The 1000 foot long lock chambers limit the maximum ship length to 950 feet and the chamber width of 110 feet allows ships with beams of up to 106 feet. Maximum allowed ship draft is 39 feet 6 inches in freshwater.
Gatun lake, created by damming river Chagres, holds the water necessary for the operation of the lock. Propelled by gravity the water reaches the locks via a system of main culverts located in the central and side walls and nearly as big as the tubes of the Penn Central Railroad crossing under the Hudson River. Next, the water enters several lateral culverts which run under the lock chamber. Each lateral culvert has 5 holes measuring 4 ½ feet in diameter. These culverts distribute the water through 100 holes in the chamber floor. The 52 million gallons of fresh water necessary to lock a ship from one ocean to another flows into the ocean after having done its work.

Preparing a yacht for transit.
Signing the indemnity form should alert all skippers to prepare their boats thoroughly against collisions with other vessels and lock walls. The regulation require four 125 foot long continuous locklines (no knotted pieces). Yachts up to 45ft. LOA will find ¾ inch line quite adequate, yachts up to 65ft. LOA should upgrade to 7/8 inch diameter and vessels up to 120ft. will do fine with 1 inch. The loop in the ends should be big enough to go over 18 inch bollard heads. Quite often the locklines will go almost vertically up from the boat. Make sure they do not jump out of chocks and catch under the bow and stern railings. Strong, through bolted closed chocks are ideal but few yachts have them.
The canal requires one handler for each line and they should have the experience and strength to deal with sudden extreme loads. The water in the lock boils when gravity pushes it through a hundred holes in the lock floor in under 5 minutes. Fender the boat generously on both sides, most of the time the transit takes 2 days and you have to provide meals and bunks to the crew.
In the 24 hours before the transit one should keep in touch with the scheduling office by phone.

The Panama Canal Transit
The majority of yachts entering the port of Cristobal intend to transit the canal to the other ocean. The vessel has to be measured first to assess the transit fee. After the measurement you will have to go to the canal operations office to pay the dues, cash only ($1911 for Blue Dawn)! The initial fee includes a refundable deposit for insurance purposes which the skipper will receive back, $891 for vessel of 50ft 100ft. A skipper must also sign a form releasing and indemnifying the Panama Canal commission against any liabilities. Next the vessel receives a Ship Identification Number and a tentative date and hour of the transit. A new addition to the transit is the AIS System required for all ship over 65ft, if you do not have it on your boat you will have to rent it for $161, we paid for that but never saw it on the two transits!
Length overall in Feet:
- Up to 50ft........$1500
- 50ft to 80ft.......$1750
- 80ft to 100ft......$2000
- Over 100ft.......$2500

There are three types of lockage available to yachts under 125ft: center chamber, sidewall or alongside an ACP Tug.

Now let's go back to our transit, our friends from Florida, Gwen & George flew in to be line-handlers; Terry on Teka Nova which wanted to get a feel of the Canal before doing the crossing on his boat came along. All went smooth; we had all the required crew, Blue Dawn was ready, date and time set: 1st part the 4th of January at 6:30pm - 2nd part the 5th of January at 6:00am
Another sailboat, "Out on the Blue" was doing the transit with us, the pilots showed at 7:50 and we headed excitingly towards the Gatun Lock. We were delayed quite a bit as a Colombian Warship was having trouble. We've got to go through alongside the tug "La Paz" once all was cleared, everything went very well and it took about 20-30 minutes to complete one lock, we had three to go on this side. These are really the only tricky locks as the current is fierce, we could see "Out on the Blue" dancing on the turbulences behind us. We arrived on Gatun Lake at 11:20pm and anchored only 2 miles from the lock. We only covered 6.4 miles in 3h30!!!!
The appointment for the next day was 6am but our new pilot only came to us at 9:20am, after enjoying a nice cruise on the Gatun Lake for about 30 miles. We had the Pedro Miguel lock in sight; it dropped us 31ft closer to the level of the Pacific Ocean and enables us to continue our journey towards the last set at Miraflores. The air was slowly getting salty and Blue Dawn was pushing ahead with excitement.
Here they were, Miraflores Locks, our ticket to the other side, another center chamber transit full of Pelicans and as I found out later a rather ugly looking Vulture enjoying himself on the Webcan!!!!! Quite an amazing two days...
We like to thank very much everyone of our friends and family who tried and/or send us some shots from the live webcam of the Panama Canal website, in particular: Iztok (SL), Dad (FR), Eugenie & Tim (NZ) and Bruce (AUST). Good to know you are keeping an eye on us and we were really happy to have share this incredible time with you.
We are now in Panama City, off the lovely Flamenco Marina.

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Panama Canal
Going through the Panama Canal
04/12/2000, Panama

That was a very interesting experience, not as difficult as people say, and quite beautiful once on the lake. We spent the night in the middle as it was too late for us to finish it in daylight. So we were told to anchor off Gamboa and watch the continous passage of container'ships. Next day we passed the last locks and stay overnight in Balboa and then sail to Las Perlas Islands.

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Check out the Panama Canal Live Webcam

Panama Canal


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