Pathway to the Pacific

It was finally here, the moment we’d been anticipating and planning for since we started - time to cross into the peaceful waters of the vast Pacific Ocean via the Panama Canal.  There was another long list of preparations to be made and logistics to consider before the actual day arrived.  Mark researched the rules and regulations, charges and surcharges, dos and don’ts.  The family watched documentaries about the history of the canal, all the lives that were lost during its construction, the controversy of ownership, and the plans for its future.  One afternoon was spent visiting one of the canal locks to get a birds-eye view of this man-made marvel.  I grabbed a great little information booklet from the gift shop that would guide our travel learning for the next week or so… yet another way to grasp the significance of this part of our journey.  

The kid crew, hiking along the canal
Bird's eye view of the first set of locks that we'd transit in the dark

A view of our chart plotter as we entered the canal area-
the busiest port we've ever entered!

Prior to the trip, we docked in Shelter Bay Marina for some heavy duty Pacific provisioning and to meet with the agent who was organizing our canal details.  The marina was bustling with activity and excitement.  You could feel the buzz of everyone’s anticipation.  Some people were doing last minute boat projects, some were taking the shuttle to clear the shelves at the local grocery store of all the basic items they would need for the long trip to French Polynesia, and others were filling jerry jugs with diesel and water.  Many of the cruising families were there, so the kids spent their afternoons swimming in the pool and playing with friends.  The parents were all thankful for the distraction during the chaos of preparation.  Each night, we’d meet up at the marina restaurant for a sundowner and to discuss all that we’d heard about the canal from friends who’d gone through already.   It was a flurry of rumor and fact peppered with stories of grumpy line handlers, throttle-heavy captains, picky advisors, or out of control currents.  No one really tells of the easy passages, though, so we tried to convince ourselves that things would run smoothly.  

Here’s how it worked for us…


Dock lines delivered!
First, we contacted a canal agent via email to set up paperwork and a rough date. Two weeks prior to transit, we arrived in the nearby marina to get the boat measured and inspected.  When you get measured, you can request a future date to go through the canal, otherwise you will be put on the transit list and go through in the next few days, depending on traffic.

Once we had our date set, we left the marina and anchored in the nearby Chagres River.  It is a very wide, deep river (the one that was dammed to create the lake that provides the canal locks with water).  The entrance is tricky, but worth navigating.  Inside, there is glassy water with rainforest on either side.  We spotted toucans, monkeys, and even a sloth! (we opted to take anti-malarial meds just to be safe)

Day before transit, returned to marina to receive regulation dock lines and fenders (provided by the agent).  You can supply your own, but there are strict dimensions.  Line handlers also get on board at this time - four are required, but do not have to be professionals, fellow cruisers are always willing to help for the experience and knowledge it gives them.  We hired one professional and wrangled up a few extra hands.

Our trusty line handlers - Rich, a fellow Coloradan on s/v Kellie Rae
and Carlos, our Argentine friend who has helped us in the commissioning, delivery,
and maintenance of Field Trip since our Argentina days!  Thanks guys!


Afternoon of transit - port control called us on our VHF radio to ask us to proceed to the staging area so that the advisor could board.  Canal advisors (we got two, one was training, I think) were delivered to our boat by a pilot boat, and gave us a briefing about the procedure.  The sun had set.  It would be a night transit.  We lifted anchor and motored toward the canal entrance, following a cargo ship.

Advisors on board, waiting for permission to approach the locks
Near the entrance, we rafted up to our friends on Moana Roa.  We’d met them in Grenada, and they have 3 kids on board.  We could not have been luckier in our rafting buddies!
Together, Mark and Lori used the engines as one and maneuvered carefully into the locks behind the cargo ship.  Men along the wall threw two, huge, knotted lead lines (monkey fists) onto the boat deck, barely missing one of the solar panels.   Our line handlers tied a line from both bow and stern to the lines that were thrown, and the men pulled them up to tie to the top of the wall.  Meanwhile, they did the same on Moana Roa’s port side.  
The gates closed behind us.  As the waters rose rapidly, the lines had to be constantly readjusted in order to maintain tension and secure our position in the middle of the lock walls.  Water bubbled up from gravity-fed pipes beneath us.  It was amazing to see the churning water, like a jacuzzi tub!

View astern as locks fill with water
Once the water was at the right level, the huge gates opened, and we motored forward.  The men along the wall walked with the lines along to the next set of gates.  This meant hiking up steep inclines to the level of the next wall and standing very near the edge of the concrete walls.  They must have nerves of steel and leg muscles of iron! 

This first night, we repeated the process through three locks.  When we got to the level of Gatun Lake, we unrafted and tied to a huge mooring buoy.  The advisors were picked up, and we all hit the sack.  It had been a long, exciting day.

Rich and the kids (way past their bedtime!)


Sunrise over Gatun Lake
Michael saying 'good morning' to Moana Roa's crew
Everyone awoke early to the beautiful sunrise over the calm lake.  It was a quick breakfast, and we were soon met by the pilot boat bringing the advisor for the day.
We had a long motor through the lake and then through the Culebra Cut, the narrowest portion of the canal that has to be constantly dredged to maintain it’s depth.  During it’s construction, thousands of workers were killed in mudslides.  We passed many cranes and dredging barges along the way, working tirelessly.  One, called Goliath, had even been in one of the documentaries we’d watched!  The kids had read all about this process in the guide I’d bought, too, so it was great to see it first hand. Near the middle lock, the advisor pointed out the prison where Noriega is still serving time - a fact that wasn’t in any of our guidebooks!  We rafted up with Moana Roa again, and began our descent.  

Goliath dredging the Culebra Cut

Feeling teeny as we pass a huge cargo ship in the narrow cut

Things got pretty interesting when the advisors were informed that we would be in the locks alongside a tugboat.  That meant three boats tied abreast with only about 5 feet between us and the lock walls.  Mark and Lori argued the decision, but in the end, had to proceed under protest with the dock authorities.  Our two-boat raft tied up to the wall in front of the lock, the tug squeezed past us and tied within the locks, then we motored our raft up to tie to the tug.  Moana Roa had a tough job to maneuver and tie to the tugboat amidst the current and water being pushed from behind us by the cargo ship that was in the locks with us.  Once tied, though, the tugboat handled all the lines, and we did not have to tie any lines to our side.

Tying up to the tugboat

View astern in Mira Flores Locks
At the last set of locks, we waved to the web cameras at the visitor center.  Elizabeth and her friend, Cara, from Moana Roa tied blankets around their necks as capes and danced for everyone watching!  The whole crew was excited to be entering the Pacific waters.
As the gates opened, we hooted and hollered in celebration of two things:  a safe canal passage and our arrival into the ocean that would carry us thousands more miles to new places and faces.    

Michael watching the lock gates open to the Pacific
(On a Mommy note, I promise I do brush my children’s hair!  But I must admit, it was a very busy couple of days, and the kids were practicing self-sufficiency!!)  

View of the Panama City skyline on the other side of the canal
Our first sundowner in Pacific waters!  Cheers to a job well done and continued adventures!!


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