The Panama Canal – the point of no return


The idea of a canal across Panama dates back as far as 1517 when the isthmus was first discovered.  Thereafter a land route crossed the continental divide here, giving access from the Pacific to the Atlantic and vice versa. The road was poor however and traversing it difficult. Spain transported untold amounts of gold, silver and jewels across the Isthmus here for further transport to Spain.

The dawning of the California gold rush in the late 1840 brought enormous amounts of traffic here as many preferred to cross the isthmus instead of sailing around the Horn. This traffic spawned the construction of the trans Panama railroad. Construction took 5 years, cost $8 million and over 10,000 lives lost.

In 1879 Count Lesseps created the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique de Panama and negotiated an agreement with Colombia (Panama was a part of Colombia at that time) for a 99 year window to build and run a canal across Panama.

Lesseps was the man who had built the Suez Canal and quickly raised over $400 million for the construction. He drastically underestimated the difficulties involved with building in Panama. Suez was a sea level canal built across a desert that was virtually at sea level. Building the Suez involved digging a canal in sand – a relatively simple task.

Panama, however, was across a continental divide and required removing hard rock. The continental divide here is 110 meters above sea level. Lesseps envisioned a sea level canal here, just like the Suez. Lesseps and the French kept at for almost 10 years but by 1889, the company was bankrupt and over 20,000 lives had been lost and the canal was nowhere near finished. In 1894 a second French company was started, this one with the aim of building a staged lock type canal. The company was unable to raise enough funds to truly get started and finally filed for bankruptcy, forcing them to sell all the rights, equipment etc. to the United States.

In the meantime, the United States had been looking at building a canal across Nicaragua. President Theodore Roosevelt did not have a positive opinion of the Colombian government and secretly negotiated with Panamanian revolutionaries, promising them that if they rebelled and formed their own country, the US would recognize them and lend a hand to keep the Colombians from trying to quell the rebellion. In return, the Panamanians would give the US rights to the canal in perpetuity. The Panamanians rebelled and the USS Nashville was sent to keep the Colombians from interfering.

In 1903 the US formally took over the canal project. Ten years later it was finished. Slightly over 5,000 workers died during the American construction era. The relatively small loss of life was due to the recognition that yellow fever and malaria (which killed most of the French workers) were spread by mosquitos. The US launched a major mosquito eradication effort which brought these diseases under control.

The canal opened August 15, 1914.

The eternal ownership of the canal by the United States was contentious, the Panamanians feeling that the canal rightfully belonged to them.  In 1977 President Carter negotiated an agreement giving the canal back to Panama on December 31, 1999

Carsten and I are really in doubt as to whether we can keep our transit date for the canal. We’ve ordered a new power cable from Furuno in the US for our chartplotter, because the damned thing has broken and first Mario and then Carsten have soldered it back together a total of 4 times now. On top of that the gas accumulator in our rod-kicker decided to leak and die on our way across the Caribbean and we’ve ordered a new one from Denmark. So far none of these packages have arrived in Shelter Bay, even though they were ordered and paid for a month ago. Both are vital – without them we can’t sail into the Pacific.

Today, Thursday, 2 days before our transit date, we finally receive both packages. As we waited, we gotten Capri ready for the transit. Most of the boats here in the marina have hired an agent to take care of all the administrative hassle involved with a canal transit. There is a lot of hassle. An agent costs extra but the money is well spent – frequently you can get an earlier passage by going through an agent, than if you try to do everything yourself. Roy is our agent and after a short ½ hour meeting, he has all the information he needs from us. He takes care of the following:

  1. The transit time
  2. Measuring the boat – the canal authorities show up and measure Capri and check that she is seaworthy for the transit.
  3. Getting an advisor/pilot assigned (you’re not allowed to sail through yourself)
  4. Lineholders (3 persons, I’m the 4th – 2 on each side of the boat)
  5. Extra long and thick lines
  6. Extra large fenders(ballons that will protect Capri from abrasion against the concrete walls of the canal locks)


All told an expense of $2530 USD. The canal sets the prices at about what they calculate to be the cost of sailing around the Horn. The average price for a freighter is a round $1 million. The canal is a major revenue generator for Panama, accounting for 20% of the country’s GNP. The revenue is, however, threatened the increase in air transportation, but more by the building of a new canal in Nicaragua. A Chinese investor has started and it is only a matter of time until that canal is finished. That canal will be very attractive to shipping because:

  1. It will be a sealevel canal, meaning there will only be 1 lock at each end and the transit times will be much faster – time is money
  2. It will be much wider and the locks longer so the ships transiting can be much, much larger than the Panamax ships being built today.
  3. Price – a sea level canal means lots fewer personnel and much fewer running charges. Will the prices fall? Probably, but it will be the Panama Canal that will be forced to lower prices to keep their volume.


Looking at the above, it is understandable that we leisure craft sailors are not very popular. Actually we are more trouble than we are worth. There is a lot more money to be made transiting  a freighter, which means leisure craft are only allowed to transit when the big ships don’t fill the entire lock. Leisure craft can then use the extra space, usually tied 3 abreast in order to utilize the width of the locks. An alternative is to be tied up to one of the canal’s tugboats – which is not a favorable alternative. Unfortunately it first when the pilot steps on board that you find out how you are going to transit. And it is first the day before the transit that you find out if you are making a 1 day transit or a 2 day transit, with an overnight on a buoy on Lake Gatun.

The canal personnel come and measure Capri from the pulpit to our stern, including our davits for our dinghy to determine our length. Our clamps are checked to see if they are strong enough o manage the strain they will be under. Do we have a well-functioning holding tank – no black water is allowed to be pumped into the canal and the linesmen and the pilot can’t use a bucket or the like. It is also important that we tell them Capri’s speed on her engine. She must be able to make at least 5 knots(Capri does that easily), or she will not be able to fight the currents generated in the locks, nor will she be able to stay on the timetable. After the checking, Capri is approved for transit.

Friday morning before the transit we are told that it will be a 2 day transit – crap. 2 days means we have to feed both lineholders and the pilot for an extra day and we’ll have the 3 lineholders sleeping aboard (the pilot goes home). The rules require the following for provisions for the pilot and lineholders:

  1. 3 cold mineral waters per person per day(unbroken seals, meaning we can’t fill them from our tanks)
  2. A hot meal on Saturday evening
  3. Breakfast when the pilot comes on board Sunday morning
  4. Hot lunch Sunday afternoon for everybody
  5. Cokes, candy, chips, snacks etc.

Saturday, 2 p.m. Capri slips her lines and we leave Shelter Bay.


Capri decked out with her extra fenders and ready to transit

Our lineholders have just gotten on board. 3 nice young guys, all university students, Oscar, Omar and Christian do this to earn money while studying. The job is popular with the students since they earn well and the job itself is not too taxing. Omar has been doing this for 6 years, averaging 3 trips per week.

Many boats save money on lineholders by using sailors from other boats waiting to transit. Everyone wants to try the canal first before transiting themselves. Carsten caught a lineholder job with a Danish boa just after we arrived in Shelter Bay. There wasn’t enough room for me which I’m not unhappy about. Somehow, when the big moment comes and lock gates open out to the Pacific, I want to be on our own Capri for that experience. There’s no way we could have gotten volunteers for linehandling since we didn’t know until the last minute whether or not we would be able to keep our transit date until just at the end. So we paid for the pros and in the end, we were glad that we did.

We sail out into the bay to an area now as anchor flats where we will wait for the pilot. The “advisors” are not licensed pilots like the ones used on the big ships. The licensed pilots won’t lower their dignity to work on small leisure craft. These advisors work for a different company and are educated on how to advise the leisurecraft skippers of how to raft up the boats for a passage and how to sail in and out of the locks. He stands right alongside the skipper, just as on the big ships. But since he doesn’t have a pilot’s license – he’s called an advisor. We’re supposed to meet our advisor at 4:30 p.m. but doesn’t show up until 5:30 p.m. after we’ve been lying hove-to for several hours. Our advisor’s name is Rick and he’s an engineer and land surveyor who has been an Advisor for the past 10 years. He considers it a very relaxing job, he only works 5 days a week and is not on call 24/7 like the big ship pilots are. A charming and likeable fellow – he reminds me of Denzel Washington, the actor.


Rick and Carsten

Rick tells us that we will be further delayed since there are 2 freighters going through before we do and that we will only be 2 sailboats tied to each other. We’re hoping that means things will be less complicated.

It’s now gotten to be 7 p.m. and we’re in front of the first lock preparing to raft up (tie up with the other boat). Carsten carefully maneuvers Capri up alongside the other boat, easing her up. Our lineholders toss our two lines to the other boat, so they can tie Capri up to their fore and aft clamps. Now it is their turn to toss their lines over to us – but there are problems right away. Their lines are too short and soon there is complete chaos on the other boat – the crew (volunteer lineholders) are running around like cockroaches, their dog Quincy, a really wonderful and sweet dog, is trying to help by barking up a storm. Their advisor is completely invisible and passive. That is surprising since it is him that is supposed to be in command. Rick finally tires of the circus and orders them to release our lines and we’ll come back when they have found and deployed the proper lines. They release and Carsten backs Capri away.

Finally they are ready again and this time Rick has decided that he needs to be in charge – he lost confidence in his colleague. This second time we finally manage to tie up without major problems, although Rick still isn’t satisfied. He orders the boats back and forth until he’s satisfied that our spreaders will not get entangled. Finally, satisfied, he happily announces that today we are a catamaran. I surely hope that catamarans are easier to steer than these two rafted up boats.

It’s time and we sail into the lock – rafted up of course. Rick calls commands to the other boat, which is the lead boat, left rudder, more forward, more to port, neutral, back your engine, but the skipper of the other is losing control and finally Rick asks Carsten to straighten things out and use our engine and rudder. Thanks to Rick, a very competent advisor, we get the boats into the lock without mishap. I thankful that we spent the money for professional lineholders and have a competent advisor. We’ve heard horror stories of boats being slammed into the lock walls because of bad lineholders.

The challenge now is to keep the boats in the center of the lock, even when the waters roar in, filling the lock. Now the extra long lines we have rented come into their own. These lines will be tied to clamps on the top of the lock walls, 2 on each side of the boats. Nobody is capable of throwing these heavy lines 20 meters up to the guys on the top of the lock walls so instead they throw “Monkey-fists” down to us. A Monkey Fist is a very  heavy knot that is tied tightly at the end of thin line. The knot is as big as my fist and tied unbelievably tightly, meaning it is very, very hard. If you get hit in the head by one of these, it can knock you unconscious. Getting hit in the eye means blindness. So when they throw, everyone yells: “watch your head”, and the crew tries to catch them as they come down. Our pro linehandlers catch the fist the first time they are thrown but the neighbor boat needs several tries before they get hold of them. In all their stress they forget to put their dog below and he gets hit by a ricochet fist. He yelps, but fortunately nothing is really wrong.


This is a Monkey-Fist


Here they come!

The lock closes and the waters come roaring in and now we see what competent linehandlers can do. Our 3 guys sit very quietly and keep their lines taut as they are supposed to-no panic. Next door though is a different story. They are unable to keep their stern line taut, mainly because they wouldn’t listen to Rick who told them to put it around at winch. Oh no, they could easily just hold it tight with their hands. So now Capri’s aft end is working its way closer and closer to the lock wall. Rick yells at them to get the line on a winch and do it now while he tells Carsten to put Capri in reverse and get our stern away from the wall. The maneuver is successful and Capri avoids hitting the wall and we are back out in the middle of the lock.

All this is stressful. I know most of you will have difficulty believing me, but I keep my “control gene” completely in check. I left it on “stand by” and sit quietly next to Carsten and let the pros run this show. The only reason Carsten and I are completely calm is we have full confidence in our advisor, Rick, and our 3 linehandlers. But most of the time we are shaking our heads at the circus on the other boat and we are really happy we spent the extra money for the 3 lineholders. Imagine the total confusion if we also had volunteer lineholders that were as clumsy as the next boat – the thought doesn’t bear thinking. Or been saddled with an incompetent advisor? I don’t even want to contemplate the potential for damage to Capri.

We are going up through 3 locks, and will rise 9 meters, 9 meters and 8 meters, total 26 meters. Between the locks the guys on top of the walls walk our lines  from one lock to the next, while we sail at 2 knots. Things are getting better with each lock as the neighboring boats begins to learn how to do things and what is expected of them. They’ve learned the hard way. The big ships are towed into the locks by special electric trains that run up on the walls. Unbelievably, it takes less than 10 minutes to move the ship into the lock. I don’t remember how many gallons of a it takes of fill a lock, but the number is huge. The water comes from Lake Gatun which drains the entire Panama highlands and is steered by a system that is over 100 years old – again unbelievable.

9:15 p.m. and after a 2 hour delay we sail out of the 3 lock and untie from our neighbor boat. It is a relief to be under our own power again and we motor the 1 nm down to the mooring buoys for the night. Here we’ll be tied up on a buoy that is designed for the big ships. They are mega-huge and to our surprise, we’ll be tied up to them two boats. Really tired and hungry, we’re tied on at 10 p.m.


Two on a buoy

Now it is finally time to enjoy Carsten’s Chili and tortillas. The young guys devour it like they haven’t eaten in days – poor guys they are used to eating at 6 p.m. and they’re young – young men are always hungry! U advisor got a bowl of chili between the 2nd and 3rd lock, because he got picked up as soon as we tied up to the mooring buoy to go home.

Now just where are these 3 guys going to sleep? Carsten hangs up two of our sunshades over the bimini in case it rains. 2 of the guys sleep one on each cockpit locker and the third on a mattress on deck. That works out fine and they drop off immediately (young men can always sleep). Carsten and I also don’t have problems going to sleep.

The alarm clock wakes us at 6 a.m. so we can be ready for our advisor at 7 a.m.. The is that we will eat when the advisor comes on board. We wait and we wait and finally our stomachs are screaming for something to eat – but no advisor. Yahooo! At 9:30 a pilot boat shows up but only has 1 advisor and he is for our neighbor boat. He’s surprised that our advisor hasn’t shown up and calls base. They haven’t got a clue as to Capri. He says he can’t help us and gives us a phone number we can call. The neighbor boats unties and  sails away. We are now very frustrated. We borrow a phone form one of the linehandlers and call our agent, Roy. He says he’ll get right on it and call us back. Admittedly, there’s some panic on board at the thought that we might end up having to spend another night moored here on Lake Gatun. Roy calls back and explains that there have been some delays but our advisor should show up by 11 a.m.

We’re damned well not going to wait for the advisor to have breakfast and start baking bread etc. We’ve just set the table and are getting ready to dive in, when a pilot boat shows up carrying Robin, our advisor. Robin’s full-time job is security at the canal and he does this as a part-time moonlighting job. We untie and crank up the engine and take off after our neighbor boat – who we need to catch before the first lock.

Lake Gatun is a manmade lake behind dams built here in the Panama highlands. The lake drains much of the Panamanian highlands and stores the water for the canal. There is a 22 nm long channel dredged across the lake and we need to stay inside the channel even though there prob ably is plenty of water outside. The reason? Lots of trees and stumps out there just under the surface and we’d surely hit something. We stay right at the edge though, and give the big ships all the room they need. The channel is wide enough that these monsters can easily pass each other – with one exception. That is Galliards Cut, the cut made in the continental divide. Here the channel is so narrow that the ships have to pass through one at a time. The one at a time also means leisure craft so we tie up on a mooring buoy and wait for about 1 ½ hours while two “Panamax” ships (A Panamax ship is a ship built so it exactly fits a lock in the canal with only 8 inches left over on either side) plough through. The ships are so big that even the 40 foot containers they are carrying look like tiny matchboxes.

The sail across the lake is quite pretty, it is mostly rainforest on land and because of the artificial lake, there are many small green islands that the channel winds it’s way through. Despite the fact that the rainy season has started a month early this year (well – Vinni and Carsten are sailing here so what did you expect?), the remains sunny and nice. Late in the afternoon as we near Galliards Cut, the weather gods decide that Vinni and Carsten are enjoying themselves a bit too much and send a torrential rain over us. But it passes quickly and by the time we reach the pacific locks, the sun is shining again.

We raft up on our neighborboat again and this we tie up without incidence. The advisor they have today knows his business. In the lock, every catches their “Monkey-fist” on the first toss and we are tied up to the clamps on the walls and wait for the big ship that will make the decent with us to enter the lock. It takes most of an hour for the tugboats to line him up before he can get in (remember – only 8 inches clearance per side) and as he gets closer he grows and grows in size until we would be terrified if we didn’t know the small locomotives will stop him.


It is unnerving when he comes this close


Note how big the ship is that is in the lock alongside us – he is huge!

Today we are in front of the ship and will get the best view of the Pacific when the final gates open – the magical moment for all leisure sailors – Sailing out into the Pacific and here is the first sight…..

There actually are good reasons why we are behind the ships going up in the locks and in front of them when we descend. The pier at the lock has a inclined plane at the beginning of the lock when the ships are going up and at the end of the locks when the ships are going down. The locomotives that pull the ships can’t pull effectively if they first stop on the incline. And their brakes are not good enough to stay stopped on the decline and still hold the big ships. Of course, we don’t have that problem, so the leisurecraft are in back of the ships going up and in front of the ships going down – that, dear friends, means that we get to experience the magical moment of watching the gates open and seeing the Pacific.


This is an example of the incline

Before we sailed into the Canal, Carsten sent at link to all our readers telling them that they could follow us through the canal on the Canals website – they have video camera set up at every lock. We didn’t figure anyone would bother due to the time difference, but one of Carsten’s buddies from his student days followed us on Marine Traffic. He said that the cameras were out of order – but he followed us all the way through. Sorry Steve – we did look up at the cameras, but of course we didn’t know they weren’t working. You all will just have to be satisfied with this picture of the crew, taken in the last lock.


The team


Now it is time for the BIG MOMENT, the water is out of the last lock, it is 6:40 p.m. and we are only 2 hours delayed. I’m standing in the bows and have a huge lump in my throat. The gates begin their slow opening and I can feel the tears begin. I’m sure you can hear the emotion in my voice on the video. This is an emotional moment – it is still surrealistic for me that we have sailed Capri all the way here and we are now on the verge of sailing out into the world’s biggest ocean.


First view of the Pacific

I guess you can say that we have chosen the long way home and it IS a long way back to Denmark. We could have turned and sailed back across the Atlantic. Non-sailors are surprised when we tell them that the first islands we will reach after leaving Panama are over 4000nm away – twice the distance we sailed from Cape Verde to the Caribbean.

As soon as we clear the lock and untie from the neighbor boat, I serve up bowls of Carsten spaghetti with tomato sauce. Our three strapping young men inhale everything set in front them. Robin, our advisor is picked up by the pilot boat shortly thereafter and we continue on towards La Playita Marina. Suddenly Vessel Traffic Control calls us on the vhf asking what our intentions are?  Carsten replies that as soon as the big ship preparing to pass us is safely by we will cross the channel and enter the Marina. Now the Control starts in: “what are you going to do about the other two ships coming up behind you? Where is your advisor? Why don’t you have an advisor on board” Well, our advisor left us 10 minutes ago. “You must wait where you are until the ships have passed. Carsten acknowledges that we will wait, even though we don’t understand why – the nearest ship behind us is at least 2nm back and we could probably swim across the channel before he got here – certainly Capri could easily cross and be safely inside the Marina – probably tied up at a dock before the nearest ship arrived.

Shortly thereafter I think I hear our name, Capri, in the midst of some radio crackle, but also hear the word Flamingo. Carsten doesn’t think they were calling us, but someone else. A few minutes alter the Control calls us again and this time Carsten gets read the riot act. “I told you to stop 2 minutes ago and you’re still moving – what are you thinking?” and to a ship nearing us he says “Be careful of the sailboat, he has no advisor on board and he is right in front of you”. Carsten says he is sorry, but hadn’t heard the order. And actually it is Vessel Controls fault. Good radio procedure is to wait for an acknowledgement that your instructions have been heard. So Control should have expected Carsten to say, “Copy that – I will stop the boat” or something similar. Since Carsten didn’t say that, Control should have asked, “Capri did you copy my instructions?” All together an unpleasant experience.

“Stop the boat” he now yells. Carsten explains that the boat is in neutral but there is current moving down the channel. “You haven’t stopped the boat as instructed” Carsten answers that he doesn’t want to argue and is putting the boat in reverse. A half hour later the big ship has passed us and Carsten calls Vessel Control and informs him that he is now crossing the channel. The very ill-mannered Control doesn’t even bother to answer our call. If we hadn’t had AIS and weren’t broadcasting our position, Vessel Control wouldn’t even have known we were there and all this would have been avoided.

We dock in the marina and Roy is waiting there. He packs up the lines, fenders and our 3 linehandlers. WE now docked, tired and happy that the transit is behind us and we try to grasp that we are actually in the Pacific. From here on in it is a new chapter in our lives. We mix a G&T and eat the rest of the spaghetti and split a bottle of red wine.

We expect to remain here in the marina for a few days while we wait for our new dinghy with an aluminum bottom to arrive from the US. We thought we had done the right thing when we bought our dinghy back in Denmark – it was made of hypalon, which is the only kind of rubber that can withstand the hard sun out here – but it didn’t have a hard bottom. The advantage of our dinghy is that it can be folded up and strapped to our deck when we sail passages.

But we found out that everyone who sails in the Pacific has a dinghy with a hard bottom. Out there the only way to get to land is to land the dinghy on the beach. A rubber bottom soon is punctured by the sand or the coral. We can’t risk that – our dinghy is our only way to get into land. It will also be advantageous to sail a little faster when we have to cross large lagoons or sail through reef openings. We’re hoping to sell our old dinghy somewhere along the way.

The Panama Canal is a milestone amongst sailors. Partially because it the connection between the Atlantic and the Pacific – if you don’t transit the canal you have to sail clear around Cape Horn – and it is a looong and a bit dangerous way down around the Horn!

But also because once you transit, there is no way back. Up to now, we could decide to turn Capri’s nose and sail home. Up along the American coast again, across the Atlantic to the Azores and then northwards to Denmark.

That’s not possible anymore and it is a strange feeling to realize how far we still have to go. The way from here on goes across the Pacific – many thousands of nautical miles – actually ¾ of the way around the world. Denmark lies 12 degrees east of the Prime Meridian. The Canal lies 78 degrees west of the Prime Meridian, so 78 plus 12 = exactly 90 degrees. The earth is, as is well-known, round and a circle has 360 degrees. So 90 is 1/4th of 360 and that, dear friends, means we still have ¾ of the earth left to traverse.

Thought provoking

We also realize that from here on in, the winds are blowing us towards Denmark, not away from her. The winds from aft will blow us westwards and eventually take us to the Mediterranean Sea and then northwards towards Denmark. It may be 5-7 years before we get there, the winds will blow us there.

Homeward bound.

Very thought provoking.


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