Panama 2022: Panama Canal

Prelude – October 10, 2022

Two days before going thru the canal we played tourist and went to the Miraflores Visitor Center. It’s a great place to do reconnaissance and see what we were in for. I could have spent hours there watching the container ships going in and out.

Below are a couple videos of a containership being guided into the lower chamber and departing the locks.

Canal Transit Day – October 12, 2022

The day we’ve been planning for finally came! We had originally been scheduled to transit the Panama Canal on October 11 in the morning. However, the advisor had to reschedule, and the next slot was on the night of October 12. We would have preferred the day slot, but you get what they have available.

You are required to have four line handlers. Steve opted to hire two professional line handlers and have Tonia and I fill in the remaining positions. That allowed Barbara to be the chef for the evening and cook us up some tasty food.

Our first lock time was 6:30 PM, but things are in motion many hours before. Our two line handlers, Junior and Santiago, came on board around 3 PM bringing the required lock gear. The required gear consists of eight ball fenders and four 150-foot lines. The gear took up most the cockpit.

As the line handlers were coming on board, we got an afternoon thunderstorm. Luckily, we were told that we didn’t need to be out to pilot waiting area until 4:30 PM so we had just over an hour to wait out the rain.

Steve was antsy, so we got off the dock around 3:30 for our 20-minute ride to buoy 6 where we’d pick up the advisor from a pilot boat. On the trip over, our line handler Santiago tried his luck at fishing.

Once out at the buoy, we floated around waiting for the advisor. They originally told us 4:30 but it was 5:15 before the pilot boat stopped by to drop off. Once onboard, our advisor Freddy told us we were going to lock thru with the Baltic Heather and another nearby pleasure craft. I had expected that we’d be going thru with a lot of pleasure boats. The other good news was that the other (larger) pleasure boat was going to be on the wall, and we’d just raft off them. For everyone that has gone thru the Ballard Locks, you know that it’s great to be the rafted boat since the other boat does all the line work.

Once the Baltic Heather had passed us in the channel, we were instructed to follow them in. It was kind of a race as Baltic Heather was traveling at 12-15 knots on the way in and we were told to keep up (Coda’s typical speed is closer to 8 knots). As we crossed under the Bridge of the Americas, the sun disappeared and we were in full-on night mode.

The area prior to the locks is a bit chaotic as there are container ships coming and going from the canal and a port that has multiple container ships loading and unloading. At one point we thought we were going to be run over by a container ship turning around in the channel.

The boats we were following finally slowed down allowing us to catch up. Upon arriving, Baltic Heather was being hooked up to the mules and getting in position. The mules are electric trains that guide the container ships down the center of the locks to prevent them from hitting the walls. After Baltic Heather was loaded, we got the okay to proceed in and were rafted successfully.

The Miraflores Locks has two chambers. When transiting into the canal you go into the lower chamber, get lifted up, and then they open the next lock section. The container ships use their own propulsion to move them forward. They also have six mules attached to them: three on each side. The mules move with the container ship forward keeping it centered in the chamber. For us smaller boats, we broke up the raft and then we hung to the side as the other boat released, moved up, and reattached. Once set, we joined them again.

One thing I noticed in the locks is the water is very turbulent when the level is raising. At times the gauges were reading a 3-knot current.

Once the second chamber had raised us up, we departed the Miraflores Locks into Miraflores Lake, a small lake between the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel Locks. After a short transit across the lake, we waited for Baltic Heather to get all hooked and we proceeded into the Pedro Miguel Locks. The Pedro Miguel Locks are just one chamber and raise us up to the height of the Chagres River and Lake Gatun beyond it. The process for this lock is the same but we switched sides, relocating all fenders from port to starboard side. We were told by our advisor that you go on the wall that is exterior to that lock system. That way if there is an emergency you are evacuating away from the water and not towards the center or another lock chamber.

Another thing I found interesting is that the lock personal use rowboats to bring the steel cables out to the container ships. I would have thought that they would use small, motorized vessels but guess they opt to stick with the less technical approach.

We were raised up and departed into the Chagres River. We passed the container ship as it slowed to allow for the line handlers to depart. Our advisor told us that each container ship needs 15 to 25 additional line handlers depending on their original crew. The contract handlers are dropped off after the locks, so they don’t have to be paid for the three hours transiting the river and lake. A new set of line handlers will be picked up for the outbound locking.

After the gear was reset, our line handlers said it would be a little over three hours. Barbara had cooked us a wonderful dinner, so we settled in and relaxed. The trip consisted of red and green buoy lights and darkness so wasn’t quite as cool as it would have been in the daylight.

After a bit of a rest for all except Steve and Tonia keeping him company, we arrived at the Gatun Locks around 12:30 AM. The container ship and other pleasure craft had sped off in the night so we were told that we would be in the next locking, which thankfully would be only a short wait. Therefore, we tied up to the waiting wall to one huge knob. After maybe 10 minutes, the lock doors opened, and we made our way in. This time we were on the wall by ourselves at the front of the line with two tugs and then a container ship in the chamber behind us.

The Gatun Lock has three chambers that will lower us down from Lake Gatun to Limon Bay and the Caribbean Sea.

The three chambers were straightforward: give the lines to the lock personal, let them out as we drop, retrieve the lines, and move forward—pretty much the same as Ballard Locks’ big wall. It was even easier with the contract line handlers as they did all the work while we watched the fenders. We repeated the process three times, and then we motored out of the Panama Canal and into Limon Bay

The last item before reaching our destination dock for the rest of the night was to drop the advisor off to a pilot boat. After a few minutes wait, the pilot boat approached, picked up the advisor, and we were away. Entering Shelter Bay was an eye test finding the buoys. Steve navigated us in successfully and we were docked right at 3 AM.

The overall trip was just about 12 hours from dock to dock. Some of the time was waiting but really between 6 PM and 3 AM the boat was moving, or we were in a lock. About 9 full hours of activity.

We had a GoPro running the entire trip. Below are two segments of the trip. The first is going from the pilot waiting area into the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel Locks. The second is going thru the Gatun Locks and arriving at the Shelter Bay Marina. The in-between parts are dark and a bit hard to see. Coming up to the Miraflores Locks, it was a bit rainy so added a glow to the lights.

Panama Canal – Miraflores and Pedro Miguel Locks
Panama Canal – Gatun Locks

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s