<%@ Language=JavaScript %> Panama Canal I
Public Speaking



The Balboa Yacht Club (N08.57, W079.34) is located at the South entrance of the Panama Canal. It was another one and a half days sail up the Golf of Panama until we reached the club in the early morning of January, 2 1999. Ship traffic had increased steadily already during the last night and extra attention was required.


Cruising Central America

The story on how I sailed on a small vessel around Central America.
Go to the start.
The rule for big ships in the canal approach seems to be "Might is Right", which we encountered live when a freighter next to us suddenly changed course and required us to speed up in order to get away from its closing in bow. Much to the surprise of Steve and David, we tied up right next to them around 8 o'clock in the morning. We had traveled more than 3800 nautical miles since San Diego.

Approaching the Panama Canal entrance - in front of us our chamber partner

The procedure for crossing the canal first of all requires the measurement of the ship. This determines the fees to be paid for transit. Two officials came aboard, measured the ship and gave a lot of helpful advice for the transit.

Panama CanalWe had to pay the minimum fee of $500. After that, an appointment for the transit can be made with the canal scheduler. It took us around 5 days to be measured and get the appointment. Enough, to check out Panama city and the local environment.

The Panama Canal:
From the Pacific to the Atlantic ocean in 8 hours

Each yacht requires 4 people to handle lines in the locks and a helmsman to steer. Line handlers can be hired. We therefore teemed up with 'Solitaire' and decided to take both ships through the canal - one after the other. Bo, a sailor from Denmark, and Mr. Harper, a local veteran ('70 transits per year') were hired for both transits.

Our appointment was scheduled for 6:30 in the morning. At 6 o'clock (it was still pitch black outside), the pilot boat approached us and dropped off the pilot ('The Pastor') and a trainee. We immediately dropped the mooring buoy, picked up Steve and some fenders ("You can't have enough fenders in the locks") from his boat and went into the main channel to approach the first lock.

The Panama Canal is 45 miles (84 km) long, cut through one of the narrowest places in Central America. Three locks at the canal entrance lift a ship 85 feet (26 meters) from sea level. At the end of its journey to the other ocean, the vessel will be dropped again in another set of three locks.

Miraflores Locks 1:
Tied up "Center Chamber" behind "Fanoula"
which is being secured by locomotives

The locks are being flushed out of the huge man-made sweat water Gatun Lake inside of the canal. They are made for mega ships: Each chamber is 1000 feet (300 m) long and 110 feet (33 m) wide. Until a few years ago, ships were build to these specs to allow them to just about fit into the locks. These ocean liners are called Panamax. Nowadays, though, it is more economical to build even larger ships which then have to go around the cape. Sooner or later this will lead for the Canal to either loss of business or the necessity to expand the locks.

In front of the locks, the freighter are tied to locomotives on both sides of the chamber which hold the ship in place and pull it over to the next lock. It is far too risky to let them enter the locks on their own since there's only a meter or so on both sides to the walls allowing only minimum room to navigate.

The doors have barely shut when pedestrian traffic across the canal already sets back in

In our case, light lines with monkey fists at their ends are being thrown from the sides. We attach our heavy mooring lines to be pulled up and fixed to pollards. While water is lead out or pumped into the lock, the line handlers on the vessel have to adjust the length of the lines to keep the ship in the center of the chamber. Hence, this tie up is called 'Center Chamber'. Another option is 'Along a tug'. In this case, the boat is tied solid to a canal tug and taken through in a pack. This is easier for the crew since line adjustments are made by the tug.

A new ship

Back ] Next ]


(c) 1999 -
2014 by Joh. Hennekeuser - Last update: 09-Nov-2014