We have found a spot for the boat in the Shelter Bay marina in Panama and I just returned from a two days line handling job on a canal transit of another boat. How it works is that the Panama Canal transit authorities require 4 "able bodied line handlers" on board each yacht that transits the canal, this is above the captain of the vessel. As there are always several boats waiting in the area to transit you typically ask around and find 4 crew from other boats who want to do the transit as line handler. Just for fun and many like it to gain the experience before they do the transit with their own boat. For me was as well it was both, just for fun, having a little mini cruise on someone's else boat across the panama canal with the big advantage that it is not your boat so you do not have to worry about anything. Just enjoy and relax and pull on a line once and a while. I loved it. The other reason was also to gain experience in the process. To learn what is expected etc by the Canal authorities. The boat handling part I had no concern about as coming from Holland you grow up with locks. (Every weekend we would go sailing we had to pass a lock in Holland to get offshore). Since it is a rather costly exercise to transit the canal and penalties can be stiff if you are not meeting their rules I wanted to know the practical requirements etc. Well it was very easy really and I see no problems for us doing the transit several weeks from now. Although there are several scenarios the Canal company can do for yachts, currently they run the following scenario with all yachts for transit. You are expected to be on the F anchorage stand by around 16:00 of your assigned day. So most boats get there between 13:00 and 14:00, you do not want to be late and miss your assigned transit. Between 16:00 and 17:00 the advisor comes on board. The big commercial ships have a pilot, the yachts get an advisor (any yacht below 65ft). These are typically pilot boat operators or security boat operators working for the canal company and having this as a second job, making some extra money. The advisor boards the vessel and tells you to get underway towards the first set of locks. With more yachts planned, they raft three yachts together just prior entry of the actual locks. The largest yacht in the middle. Once inside the lock there are 2 line handlers on the locks on each side throwing a messenger line towards you. Your line handlers on deck, which you should have positioned at a dedicated corner ties the messenger to your 40 meter lines which they will pull to the locks wall. In the requested position they throw them on a boulder and you tie them off on your cleats. The lock door close and you go up around 10 meters. Here the line handlers come into play by adjusting the lines, keeping them under tension as not to have the whole raft of boats floating around the locks. In several sets of locks you go up around 30 meters (85ft) from sea level. Exiting the locks, the advisor on each boat will direct all yachts to an anchorage on the portside of the locks in the Gatun lake, where you anchor or tie up to a mooring. By then it is around 20:00 in the evening.
The advisor departs from your boat and you will have to wait the night there with your line handlers on board. The next morning between 05:00 and 07:00 a new advisor will board you and directs you to head for the other locks 28Nm away via the shipping fairway in the Gatun lake and subsequent Gator Cut. Now it comes into play what you have put on your documents during the "transit request", weeks earlier what your boat speed is. There is a lot of talk amongst cruisers and on the web about what speed to put down. Well as we have seen many times before, cruisers talk too much, spin the story away from common sense and the reality turns out way different. In the Panama rules (small notes) there is a note demanding minimum boat speeds of 8 knots. That is just a contractual issue that someone put in there many years ago. A laywer might say; hence you need to put down 8 knots on your paper, or else you give the Panama Canal auhtorities an opening to clain a penalty or higher fees. In reality they are not interested in putting down penalties, they just want to ensure certain speeds can be maintained.
Many cruising vessel cannot achieve that but still these cruisers put 8 knots down on paper thinking they get a penalty from the canal commission if they put less than 8 knots down. The talk amongst some cruisers is that it is best to put down 8 knots because of what I mentioned above. Well I doubted that from the very first time I heard that story. Talking to the three advisors in our raft, they all said the same. Put down what your true boat speed is, what you really can do comfortably without having a risk for breaking down (engine).
The speed you put down, they simply use that speed to calculate your assigned lock time on the other side. If you put down 8 knots on paper they calculate your lock assigned time (for the locks on the other side after the 28 Nm cruise) based on 8 knots. If you then can only do 6 knots, you obviously not going to make that time and you might have to answer some tough questions. The Canal authorities are very well aware that most heavily loaded cruising boats cannot do 8 knots for 28 Nm and they are totally fine with that. Put down what you can really do comfortably, that is what they need to know. You should be able to do around 5 to 6 knots however minimally, as that fits well with the bigger ships heading you direction (south bound and north bound groups). They do sometimes 18 knots in the Canal, but you will see several "groups" big ships passing. They all fit in the tight schedule for lock assignments, just as your little sailboat fits in the lock assignment. You might be assigned for the next lock with a commerical vessel that does 18 knots in the Canal. He is simply scheduled to depart for that lock only 2 hours before lock time to cover the 28 NM, while you are instructed to depart 6 hours prior your lock time, so you arrive together at the next lock.
So it is very important you put down a boat speed what you can really do and not some number based on a contract. The lock assignment schedule is dynamic and based on the true speeds they can adjust lock times, move you up or down the lock schedule. They do the same for the big commercial ships. It is all pretty straight forward, however again it is important you put down what you really can do and not some made up number. Common sense.
We arrived the next day around 11:00 at the locks on the Pacific side. There you raft up with two other boats and you go down in a series of locks. Around 13:00 you are on the anchorage on the Pacific side and you can open a can of beer (or two). All just that easy and very enjoyable. The trip is great, provides some great views and provided you have some good line handlers it is very much a stress free operation.
We will head for the Chagres River tomorrow and anchor there for a few days, it is only 6Nm away. Then come back here to pick up the watermaker we have ordered and then head out to San Blas soon, till the 15th, which date we have to be back here to get "measured" for the canal transit. Getting measured is nothing more than someone from the Canal authorities coming over to have a chat and look at your boat and then tells you that your cost will be a 950 USD for the transit. After the measurement you get your transit date assigned. All easy. Prior our transit I will make a quick dash to Holland with Auke to see our parents, and upon my return Heloisa will make a quick dash to Brasil to see her mother and look after our little house we have there. Then it will be Pacific time to what we are looking forward to very much.