We left our Portland slip Tuesday, July 10, 2012.  We’ll be updating this journal with descriptions of our adventures aboard Cetacean, our Tayana 37 cutter, as we make our way south and then east.  The sailcetacean blogsite includes other pages (ships track page, writings and gallery) for you to explore. Hopefully you will find the writing and images amusing, informative, maybe thoughtful. Stay tuned.  We welcome your feedback and comments. 

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Cetacean’s Panama Canal Transit

Playita Anchorage before the Canal transit
Playita Anchorage before the Canal transit

Ron picked up Moise at our La Playita Anchorage  (just outside Panama City and about three miles from the Bridge of the Americas) dinghy dock to help us (along with two other soon-to-be-identified persons) transit The Panama Canal. Moise (“Moy”) is the grandson of a cruising couple we met in Marina Chiapas, Mexico, at the beginning of our 2014-15 sailing season. Moise told us about himself over dinner.

Moise has a busy life in Panama City, but made time to join us–complete strangers–on our boat, going through The Panama Canal.

It’s the next morning, 4 a.m. Time to get up. Start the coffee. Get things organized to feed the crew. There’s going to be five—yeah, count ‘em—five men (three linehandlers, the Canal Advisor, Captain Ron) aboard for one, possibly, two days.

Panama Canal Overview Chart

As usual when we make a trip like this–experiencing a place with a “reputation,”–I worry.

I worried about the Canal Advisor. Other cruisers and our guidebook warned the Canal Advisors could sometimes be fussy or temperamental about food, interfere with the crew, can be incompetent.

I worried about line handling. I am one of the four line handlers if we actually get our requested ‘Center Chamber Lockage’ configuration. I practiced the Clove Hitch until I could do it with my eyes closed. I fantasized about dodging monkey fist-headed messenger lines. I wondered if Cetacean would listen to me when I handled my line as the lock doors opened and the water rushed inside the lock.

Sailing under the Bridge of the Americas

But, I also looked forward to experiencing The Canal and its Locks. The Panama Canal Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks were going to lift Cetacean  85 feet(!) to the Culebra Cut and then on to Gatun Lake. We would transit the lake for 33 miles before we descended those 85 feet in the Gatun Locks to sea level on the Caribbean side of Panama. Cetacean weighs in at 12 tons. It’s amazing that these Locks lift far the more enormous freighters, tankers, and cruise ships that same 85 feet, every day. The Canal is really, truly, The Path Between the Seas.

The Panama Canal’s locks were the biggest worldwide concrete engineering project ever accomplished when the Canal opened in 1914. No other concrete project of this size was undertaken until the 1930s with construction of the Hoover Dam.

Ron went to the dinghy dock again and returned with Marcos and Joi—the rest of our crew.

Our crew: Moy (orange shorts), Joi and Marcos seated in foreground

Marcos and Joi are professional Canal line handlers and have been doing this job for many years (Joi 12 years; Marcos 8 years), even though they are quite young (I estimate Marcos to be 25; Joi in his 30’s).

We hired Marcos and Joi through Rogelio, part owner of Panama Cruiser Connection, a company that helps cruisers survive Panama City and The Canal. Rogelio also provided us with four one-inch diameter by 125 foot Canal-specified, nasty, twisted, blue nylon shorelines; and, eight car tires to protect Cetacean from whatever The Canal locks dealt us.

With everyone aboard, we pulled up anchor and motored to an assigned buoy just outside the entry to The Canal to pick up our Canal Advisor. While we were underway, Ron went forward, fastened his camera to the mast, and set it up to take stop-action photos of the entire transit.

Amado, Panama Canal Advisor

Canal Advisors are delivered to pleasure craft vessels transiting The Canal via small Canal Authority pilot boats.  That morning’s Advisor’s name was Amado. He bounded (yes, he did!) aboard Cetacean from his pilot boat and, flashing a brilliant smile, replied to my offer of coffee and question ‘are breakfast burritos okay?’…”Yes! I eat EVERYTHING! Don’t do anything special for me!”

Ah! Worry numero uno debunked!

Amado knew Marcos and Joi from previous transits. He seemed pleased to be aboard. He kept calling Ron “Rum” (Ron is Spanish for Rum). I was never sure whether Amado was joking about this or not. But, he gave Ron solid advice (more worry items dropped off the list!) and was very helpful throughout the trip.

We headed under the breathtaking Bridge of the Americas to the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel Locks. We passed a large tanker. Amado was busy talking on his handheld radio and informed us that we had to ‘wait for this vessel,’ and that we would be ‘behind it through the Miraflores Locks.’

This vessel, a mysteriously slow tanker, changed the line-handling strategy and schedule for our Pacific-side Canal transit.

Canal Lock line handling lessons from Marcos.

I wanted to be prepared for whatever happened while I performed my line handler role, so I talked with Marcos about line handling and tying bowlines and the monkey fists.  Marcos said, “Do not worry, I will show you everything. I will be with you.”  After Marcos said those comforting words, I knew that all would be a piece of cake.

But, as we have learned these many years aboard Cetacean, expectations and plans can change.

When we arrived at the first of the two Miraflores locks and behind the tanker, our expectations for tying up in a “Center Chamber Lockage” scenario did not happen. In fact, that scenario never happened going through any of the three Pacific-side locks. We tied up port side to a tug that was already in a Side-Tie Lockage scenario.

Joi and Marcos took care of the lines, with Moy filling in as needed.

You know those nasty blue shorelines? Marcos tied bowline loops in each of them, recoiled the snaky mess they’d somehow gotten themselves into, taming them into elegant loops that laid obediently on the cabin top. Then he and Joi, and sometimes Moy, tossed the bowline loops to the tug operators in each of the three Pacific-side locks. When the lock was filled and the doors opened, Marcos and Joi would take back the lines from the tug operator, recoil them, and wait for our arrival to the next lock.

Water coming into first Miraflores Lock
Water coming into first Miraflores Lock

When you start the Canal transit from the Pacific side of Panama, you go through two sets of locks: the Miraflores locks and the Pedro Miguel locks. The two sets of locks are far deeper than their counterparts (the Gatun Locks)  on Panama’s Caribbean side. The depth difference was designed to accommodate the extreme tidal changes on the Pacific side of Panama.

The Pedro Miguel Locks are really just one lock and I don’t understand why the name is plural.

Being aboard a boat in The Panama Canal Locks is a very exciting experience, believe it or not. First, you watch the gigantic metal lock doors close behind you (you can never leave!). The water, fed by manmade Lake Gatun, flows slowly at first and then gains momentum as it fills the lock and climbs up the lock walls. You watch this tremendous churning and boiling around your boat.  It is quite something to see and feel and hear all this tremendous power.

Again, I have to say it is amazing to consider that we are being raised up this slope in the Isthmus of Panama, that we will cross at this level and then go back down again, with water leaving the locks on Panama’s Caribbean side.

Watching the watchers at Miraflores Lock
Watching the watchers at Miraflores Lock

Our little crew was all out on deck watching the water. Above us, the Canal Authority’s Miraflores Lock administrative building hosted a crowd on its balcony. They were watching us. We watched them back! Along the sides of the canal chamber and ahead, electric railroad engines waited to pull our big, slow companion vessel out of the lock and into the next.

When the chamber was filled, the doors began to open. The slow boat ahead of us was pulled into the next chamber; we had to wait until it was fully inside. Then, Marcos and Joi took back the lines from our hosting tug, which moved ahead of us. We followed the tug into the lock and pulled alongside the chubby vessel. Joi and Marcos threw the bowline looped lines to the tug operators again.

Slower boat with Lock electric engines

The whole business of the chamber door closing, the lock filling and the waiting to move on repeated; then, repeated a third time in the Pedro Miguel Locks.

We passed under the Centennial Bridge and entered the Culebra Cut, a manmade valley slicing through Panama’s continental divide. The Culebra Cut is a 7.5 mile waterway that serves as a connector between the Pacific-side locks and Lake Gatun’s Chagres River arm.

The transit through Culebra Cut was quite pleasant most of the way. We passed a group of three sailboats, tied together and headed for the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks going to the Pacific. They were waving excitedly at us.  Those boats were nearly finished with their Canal transit.


Three sailboats bound for Miraflores & Pedro Gonzales in Culebra Cut

We had only just begun.

By the time we entered Lake Gatun, the water had lost its green tinge. It became brown with silt from the surrounding banks. We saw dredging machines along this part of the trip. The skies were clouding. It felt like rain was coming. We had nearly 33 miles to go to get to the Gatun Locks.

All of us were watching Amado as he talked on his radio. We all had hoped to finish the transit in one day. Our guidebook had said that most often, Pacific-to-Atlantic passages were completed in one day. “Just another one of those stories,” I thought.

The sky was getting cloudy. Cetacean was fighting increasing headwind and foul current. We were doing bare four knots. Not good signs for completing the transit during daylight, a requirement for small craft.

Ron photographed using his camera in Gatun Lake.

Then, Amado finally let us know that we were too late to complete the transit in one day. We would have to spend the night moored in Lake Gatun. All of us were disappointed; Joi and Marcos, were especially so. They had had high hopes of getting home in time to watch the 2015 Floyd Mayweather vs Manny Pacquiao World Welterweight Boxing championship bout happening that night.

We had just entered Lake Gatun. There would be no technology to televise the bout for Joi and Marcos. I felt badly for them, but they both were philosophical about the whole thing.

Five hours later Marcos and Joi helped Ron tie up at a buoy in the Lake Gatun mooring field, Amado’s pilot boat approached us. I told Amado I wished he could be our advisor again in the morning. He just smiled.

Amado shook hands all around, leaped aboard the pilot boat, waved goodbye and wished us well.

Moored at Gatun Lake. Goodbye Amado.

The mooring buoy, which was almost as big as Cetacean, gave the guys an opportunity to take a bath. The buoy was a perfect platform.  They all jumped into the fresh lake water and relaxed after the long day. Normally, the humungous shipping vessels transiting The Canal used those buoys, but we had mostly small vessel company in the moorage that night.

Moy and I made spaghetti and garlic bread for dinner. While we were cooking, Ron, Joi and Marcos shared some Panama Lager in the cockpit.

My Canal Advisor worry checklist resurrected itself.

We got our first taste of Central America’s “Wet Season” that night. Joi and Marcos chose to sleep in the cockpit even though they knew it was going to rain. We made space for them below, but they insisted on staying outside. I couldn’t blame them. It was like a sauna below. I gave them a tarp to cover the bimini, but the wind and torrential rain were too much for that little cover. At some point during the night, they gave up and came below, joining Moy, and collapsing wherever they could find space to sleep.

Advisor Roy with our crew in first Gatun Lock
Advisor Roy with our crew in first Gatun Lock

We all enjoyed breakfast together in the morning though, and then we waited for our new Canal Advisor. When he arrived, Ron and I were happily surprised.

Roy, the new Advisor, was older than Amado, just as charming and even more talkative. He didn’t want anything to eat, saying he needed to be hungry for the dinner he was taking his girlfriend to that night.

Roy said he knew Joi and Marcos since they were little kids. He told us in perfect English that he spoke Spanish, Portuguese and French fluently, had worked as an Advisor his entire work life, and shared more than we ever wanted to know about being a long term employee with the Panama Canal Authority.

Arriving at the Gatun Locks, we were surprised to learn that a change had been made to our anticipated Center Chamber Lockage scenario. A Canal manager radioed Roy and told him we could not tie Cetacean in a Center Chamber position, that there were no dock employees on the starboard side of the lock to receive our lines (this excuse seemed incredible and contradictory, but there you go). The Canal manager said we must do a Side-Tie Chamber Lockage which is the worst Canal lock tie-up scenario for a small sailing craft. The lock walls are very rough and covered with all kinds of nasty substances. Sailing vessel solar panels, stantions and rigging are easily damaged by these walls. Ron told Roy the Side-Tie change was unacceptable, and that we had a Canal Authority document confirming that Side-Tie Lockage was inappropriate for our boat. But, Ron, always the diplomat,said we’d be happy to tie up with a tugboat that was already in the lock.

Roy relayed Ron’s remarks to the Lock manager who said, “Okay,”  and we repeated our tie-up-to-a-tug exercise from the day before in the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks. There was, however, another problem that made the tug tie-up a bit more difficult than in Miraflores and Pedro Miguel. Our hosting tug was pushing a barge and it had to go ahead of us, making us wait in the lock’s fast moving water – Cetacean does not wait in moving water very well.

The Gatun locks proved to be tricky to get through. The water flows OUT of the lock rather than IN (because we are going down), so there is tremendous current inside the lock. Cetacean, a full-keel heavy cruising boat, is a bull in a china shop in these conditions. But Ron got us through the first lock with no issues.

Spanish schooner with cadets on spreaders
Spanish schooner pulls up behind us in one of the Gatun Locks.

A unique boat accompanied us in the Gatun Locks. It was a huge, four-masted schooner crewed by (European) Spanish Navy cadets. When this magnificent ship pulled up behind us, our eyes wandered up the masts.  We were surprised to see that a number of the young cadets had climbed to the top spreaders to get a bird’s eye view of all the action in the lock.

We ended up entertaining them for a few moments.

The Cadets are watching!
The Cadets are watching!

We were getting ready to leave the second-to-last Gatun lock when the current hit Cetacean’s keel and she started to head off on her own. The Canal Pilot for the Spanish vessel made some obnoxious comment (in English) over Roy’s radio. We could clearly hear her. I thought, “What a jerk!”

Moy, Marcos, Joi and I hustled forward and aft to put out fenders to protect Cetacean from the lock walls.

Then, this magical thing happened. Ron spun the helm, put Cetacean hard into reverse, put the engine in full throttle and, like a startled racehorse, our boat obeyed! She did this incredible tight spin in the middle of the lock, straightened out, zipped through the boiling water and out the lock doors. Ron’s Canal video  includes this scene but you need to watch closely – things happen really fast!.

The final lock passage went like clockwork. The doors opened and we sped away, heading first to “The Flats” (a Canal administrative and work yard facility with an anchorage in front of it), to wait for Roy’s pilot boat pick him up. We had to circle the anchorage for about an hour before the pilot boat came for Roy.

Roy, our Gatun Locks Advisor heads home.

Ron and I both liked Roy very much. We hope he decides to retire soon. He seemed really tired of struggling with his manager, who was making his assignments almost impossible to accomplish. Roy had had about three hours sleep before he came aboard Cetacean. We watched the pilot boat pull away and Roy nodded a goodbye from the door.

Joi and Marcos recovered from missing that boxing championship, I think. Roy told them the fight was anticlimactic, that they didn’t miss anything. Still, Joi and Marcos watched a replay of the fight on their cell phones while waiting to get to the Gatun locks and then afterward as we motored to drop Roy off in “The Flats.”

So, with our Panama Canal transit complete, we headed for Shelter Bay Marina, located across from Ciudad Colon and inside Fort Sherman. Joi, Marcos and Moy and the nasty shorelines were to be picked up by Rogelio. On our way to Shelter Bay, Marcos stayed on the bow to guide Ron around a poorly-marked shoal at the marina’s entrance.

Marcos keeps watch to get us safely to Shelter Bay
Marcos keeps watch to get us safely to Shelter Bay

We enjoyed spending time with our young Panamanian crew. Marcos has two young children; Joi has one. Both of those guys worked very hard for us and we enjoyed their quiet humor throughout the trip. Moy was entertaining, helped with the lines and helped me cook and serve meals to everyone.

After getting Cetacean tied to her Shelter Bay marina dock, we said goodbye to Moy, Joi and Marcos. I was really sad that those young guys were leaving us. Kind of reminded me of when I was a camp counselor so long ago and at the end of each session, my camper kids would go home.

We had arrived. We were exhausted but, dang it…we came away with our very own Panama Canal story to tell! Click here to view Ron’s video of Cetacean and her crew transiting the Panama Canal.

/// Judy



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