The Canal Transit

As we arrived in Colón after our Caribbean Sea crossing, we docked in Shelter Bay Marina. This was the first time in a marina since before the Atlantic crossing and we can honestly say that this felt like a huge luxury. We had shore power (even though we were paying per usage), could fill up on fresh water (even though we were restricted to a certain amount of gallons per day) and really benefited from the easy on- and offboarding when being tied up to a dock. 

The canal transit entails a lot of paperwork, inspections, rules and protocols. It is known to be a bit complicated and hold long waiting times, so therefore we had decided to take help from an agent. While taking help from an agent would increase the costs a bit, we had decided before leaving Sweden that we would take this service to try to make the transit as soon as possible. We did a bit of research in advance, asked around in different forums, checked up on reviews and found an agent that had received good feedback all-around. We contacted him when we were in the Caribbean and initiated the process of all the paperwork and information required for the transit. During the crossing of the Caribbean Sea, we kept in contact via the satellite phone to confirm our arrival time, and upon our arrival we could be inspected and measured the day after our arrival. 

We received our clearance and were placed on the waiting list. Many of the boats in the marina at the time were going through the same process and it came to be no surprise when our waiting time for the transit would be 9 days, just as all the other boats. We had anticipated the wait and had a long to do list of tasks to carry out while being tied up to a dock and in preparation for our Pacific Crossing. We also had a bit of tasks to do for the actual canal transit as well. 

Preparations for the canal transit were: 

  • Removing all excess lines and equipment on deck, we wanted the area around all cleats to be cleared out and facilitate for easy line handling in the locks. 
  • Rent fenders for transit, the lock walls are made of concrete and all boats are advised to have over dimensioned fenders for the transit. 
  • Rent lines for the transit, extra long and durable lines are recommended for the transit. 
  • Cover up our solar panels. In the locks the lines are thrown down with so called monkey fists and these are known to be very hard. To ensure they wouldn’t damage our solar panels, we tied up our cockpit cushions under blankets on the panels. 
  • Prepare transit water, the mandatory ride-along advisor is required to have sealed bottled water. If there is not enough water, they are entitled to call in an order of water to be delivered with a boat taxi. All to the expense of 500 dollars, to be paid by the yacht in transit. 
  • Prepare transit meals, it is mandatory to serve warm meals of breakfast, lunch and  dinner throughout the transit. If the food is not to the advisor’s satisfaction, they are entitled to call in an order of food to be delivered with a boat taxi. All to the expense of 500 dollars, to be paid by the yacht in transit. As there is very limited time to cook and serve food during the transit, all food is to be prepared beforehand. 
  • Engine service. You transit the entire canal by engine and you are required to keep a speed of at least 5 knots. If you are too slow or you can’t keep up for any other reasons (such as engine failure) you will be towed away and you are to pay a fine. Therefore we decided that a full engine service was due. 
  • Arrange insurance updates as we are required to show proof of full insurance coverage for the transit. 
  • Arrange line handlers. The crew must consist of one person at helm along with four line handlers. The advisor is not included in this crew list. Two of Charlotte’s uncles (one who had been with us onboard since Martinique, and one who lives in Panama City) joined us for the transit. In addition to this crew, we also hired one professional line handler via our agent. In hindsight we are very glad that we did hire the professional line handler, even though it is common for boats to lend each other crew to cover the handler numbers. Gabriel, our professional line handler, had been doing transits for eight years and knew all about how to prepare the lines, where we wanted them, how we needed them to be coiled, where to hang the fenders and how to moore to the huge mooring in Gatun Lake overnight. 
  • Conserve the water maker, neither the water before, during or straight after the canal are clean enough for the water maker. Since the water maker needs to run every three days to avoid growth, a conservation was due. 

To be honest, almost everyone spoke about the transit while in the marina. The greeting line almost included the intended transit date, or the experiences from the recent transit, and most people were discussing information and advice for the transit. Naturally, we also noticed that the rumours about the transits also increased as people were nervous for their upcoming transits. 

The night before the actual transit, we felt so ready to start the transit and get Puffin out into the Pacific. 

On the first day of the transit, we started in the afternoon (as is customary when transiting north to south). We were instructed to be available to pick up our advisor inside the wave breaker at 17:15. Upon our arrival we were to call the canal office via the VHF to inform that we were ready for pickup, and then wait. We were happily surprised when our advisor showed up more or less on time, and as soon as he was dropped off he asked if we were ready for a quick start as there was an earlier opening for us to transit if we were ready. We happily nodded our heads, gunned it towards the locks and, in accordance to the instructions from our advisor, asked if he wanted dinner. For the first meal we had prepared pasta bolognese and he keenly ate a big portion as we were approaching the locks. 

We were instructed that we would go alongside a tugboat through the first three locks, but upon our arrival this quickly changed and we took the locks as “centre chamber”. This meant that we had all four lines to the walls and no-one next to us, all four line handlers were busy with the lines. 

After the first three locks, we were in the Gatun Lake. We were instructed to proceed to the mooring for the night, where the advisor was picked up by pilot boat and the rest of the crew ate dinner before we fell sound asleep. 

Next day we got up early as we had been told that the advisor would show up at 7:30 and wanted a warm breakfast upon arrival. It was to be a warm and generous breakfast, with options of both coffee, tea, juice and fresh fruits. We got up at 6, started cooking and preparing and at 7:20 we were keenly waiting. The advisor showed up just before 9:00 and as we left the mooring, we served coffee and breakfast. 

The second day of the transit was a warm day of motoring through the canal, there was barely any wind and everyone tried to take shelter in the little shade that our bimini could offer. The advisor shared information and history about the canal and also pointed out his crocodile spottings along the way. 

Just after lunch we arrived at the last set of locks, three locks again and this time we were rafted up with three other cruisers. The heaviest boat with the most powerful engine in the center, and we were placed to the side. Once again we caught the lines and were now transported down into the Pacific. As the final locks opened the doors, and we could see Panama City, we were received to conclude that Puffin had made it through the canal without a single scratch or bump. We were very happy and grateful to the crew who had helped us all the way through. The canal transit proved to be a beautiful cruise and was actually a pretty cool experience, it was definitely a bucket list item for the both of us.