We arrived in Shelter Bay Marina, Colon, Panama, on March 31, 2015. We were eager to get to the Pacific, so we stopped in Panama only long enough to provision and transit the canal. We had decided to use an agent, Roy Bravo from Emmanuel Agencies, to make the transit as smooth and quick as possible. It worked well for us. We arrived on a Tuesday afternoon and transited Saturday evening into Sunday afternoon. Roy provided us with all necessary equipment for the transit, namely four 120 ft, 8 tires wrapped in plastic to use as fenders, and a line handler. For the canal transit, a sailing boat our size needs the skipper (Mark) and four line handlers (Alec, Roan, Marta and our hired handler, Eric). Each sailboat must have an advisor on board during the transit. The advisor handles all radio communication with the lock staff and the other boats/ships transiting at the same time. He also manages the line handlers and any other issues.
We transited from the Caribbean to the Pacific in two days: the first one from the Caribbean Sea to Gatun Lake (going up the three Gatun locks), and the second one from Gatun Lake to the Pacific Ocean (going down the Pedro Miguel lock and the two Miraflores locks). Often, sailboats get rafted together 2 or 3 at a time with the biggest boat driving the “raft” from the middle. Of course, in the case of three boats every body wants to be the middle boat, the more protected position. Occasionally, sailboats can transit tied to a tug, in that case the tug (which will have the biggest engines hands-down) does all the maneuvering and the sail boat has only to tie and untie from the tug as it transits every lock.
We were scheduled to transit on Saturday evening, entering the locks by 19:00 (7:00 PM) and exiting into Gatun Lake by 20:30 (8:30 PM). We left the marina dock by 5 PM and motored to the anchorage a mile or so before the first Gatun lock. At this point we did not know our transiting companions or our position. It soon became clear that we were the biggest boat, the other two boats that looked ready to transit were smaller monohulls, both sporting French flags. We would have two French fenders to protect us from the rough walls of the locks if something were to go wrong :-) On the other hand, Mark would have to drive the three-boat raft through the locks. He, of course, was totally unfazed.
The three advisors for the three boats boarded each one of us, and we were off. We had the senior advisor onboard who quickly organized the raft. First, the smaller of the monohulls tied to our starboard side, and then the other one to our port side. Our advisor, Moi (short for Moises, Spanish for Moses - I thought it was a good omen to have an advisor which such a name for transiting the canal) (he would split the water for us: Roan) warned Mark about the strong currents around the entrance of the lock. Mark did a fantastic job, quickly gaining the respect of Moi, who could not stop complimenting him on his skills, his attitude and his “sang-froid” (I thought I should slip some French in honor of our raft companions :-). The handlers on our French “fenders” passed the lines to the canal staff and in a blink of an eye (well about 1 hour later in real time but I was too busy to notice) we were on Gatun Lake. Our raft separated and we all motored towards the anchorage area, where all the sailboats waiting to complete the canal transit tied up onto the two existing mega mooring platforms. We tied sideways to the floating circular platform (I hesitate to call it a mooring ball, because of its size and shape. Three or four people could easily stand on it) and one of the French boats tied to our side. On the other side of the mooring platform, two biggish mono-hull sailboats were rafted together. Another three or four boats were tied to the other mooring platform. Moi left us there for the night. Next day, we would have a different advisor, Astro, for the transit to the Pacific. The line handlers stay with the boat from start to finish. Eric settled in our cockpit for the night. He preferred to sleep in the open cool breeze than in our guest berth, which was rather hot.
Time Lapse of Gatun Locks Transit
By 6 AM on the next day, Astro, our new advisor, got on board and we motored close to 30 miles to the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks. Our raft had worked so well the day before that we quickly got into the same arrangement for this set of locks. We had a couple of exciting moments when wind and current worked against us, but nothing that our intrepid captain could not handle. By 1:30 PM we were out of the locks, and in the Pacific Ocean! Hurrah! We grabbed a mooring at Balboa Yacht Club not far from the canal exit and had a relaxing beer and pizza dinner.
Next day, we rented a car to finish our provisioning, fill our propane bottle and diesel drums, and do some other errands. Alec did the laundry and Roan helped get the boat ready for the 900 mile passage to the Galapagos Islands.