When we landed at Vista Mar Marina after Our TERRORIZING Cruise to Panama, we had a few days to settle in and enjoy Panama before heading to Flamenco Marina, which is near the Panama Canal.
We spent time in Vista Mar Marina because it was a bit cheaper choice for a Marina than the Flamenco Marina which is about double the price at $2.50 a foot, a night. Ouch! We needed to be in Flamenco Marina to be close to the Panama Canal and do all the prep for our trip.
Our cruise to Flamenco was uneventful, yay! We were happy after our previous journey into Panama. As we approached the Flamenco marina, which was very close to the canal, we saw a crazy sight. Many large freighters, tankers, etc anchored just outside of the entrance, all waiting their turn to get in. I’m guessing close to a 100 ships. This picture only shows those ships that have AIS (Automatic Identification System) and have it on at the time. The green boat symbol on the chart is us. This scale shows both sides of the canal and those who are already transiting. It was an amazing sight.
The magnitude of all the ships is not viewable by any photos. It was just impossible to get pictures of all these ships to show you how massively big they were. The scope and range was just so overwhelming, there are no words to describe it. Plus all the personal pleasure crafts that were anchored around the corner were also waiting their turn.
Our Friends Ken and Cheryl joined us a couple days after we arrived. We did a trip to the grocery store after they arrived and we met Maria our Uber driver. We were chatting about the store she was taking us to and she warned us about the area, she said it is not a good area (we certainly didn’t know). She suggested we go to a different one, “Riba Smith Supermercado” near a very nice mall. We were so glad we did. It was the first foreign store that I had been to, in over a year, that actually looked like a US grocery store. We went crazy. She waited for us and hauled us back to the marina. Maria also took us to a good dinner place that night, “Diablicos” with authentic Panamanian food. We also went to the Panama Canal Museum and walked around town. We were so very lucky to have her, we would recommend her to anyone… (let us know if you need her contact info) We were also able to watch the Super Bowl in a restaurant near the marina too! We had a good stay in our expensive marina.
Our trip through the Panama Canal started months before, with the preparation we needed to do. We contacted an agent through a referral of another boater. We hired “Rogelio De Hoyos from Panama Cruiser Connection” as an agent. (let us know if you want his number too) We had decided that we wanted to pay the extra for his knowledge & experience. He scheduled our transit, did all the paperwork & permits, answered all our questions and helped us understand how and what to do. We also got 4 lines and 8 fenders to use on our yacht for the transit through the canal, included in the cost. Having these saves our lines and fenders from getting filthy dirty and ruined. 1 day after we arrived at Flamenco Marina we had an official from the Canal come to check our boat and measure it. You are charged to go through the canal based on the length of your vessel. We knew it would be expensive because Panama raised the cost of the transit effective January 1st, 2020. You are also required to have 4 people on board to handle lines and fenders. We had Ken, Cheryl and myself. Dan was the Captain and not counted as a line handler. We had planned to have one of Dan’s friends from the Naval Academy aboard, Scott and his wife Lauri. We were really sad that Lauri got sick and they were not able to make the trip. We send both of them our prayers, hoping she gets well soon. Rogelio, our agent, found 1 line handler for us. John was an experienced line-handler with the canal transit and helped greatly with what we should expect.
Two days before our departure the agent brought the pile of lines and fenders and told us our pilot was to arrive at 3:30 am on our boat. We had planned to pull out of the marina the night before, as we needed to be near the mouth of the canal when the pilot arrived.
“Pilots are required for all boats bigger than 65 feet long”
The day before our trip…….. our line handler arrived around 6:30 pm and we took off from Flamenco Marina to an anchorage outside the canal. He recommended that we have someone stay awake because if the Panama officials call us on VHF to tell us the pilot would arrive earlier or later, we would need to reply. So Ken took on the hard duty of staying awake until 2 am & then I took over to let him get some sleep. We were notified around 3 am that our pilot would arrive now at 5:45. The Pilot arrived on time by pilot boat and we quickly pulled anchor. We learned we have a numbered slot, where odd numbers are southbound and even number are northbound. We were number 27E, my favorite number… Ask me why.
The Pilot informed us that we were scheduled to go through with 3 other boats, a 100 foot charter boat, a tug and a huge freighter. The tug boat ended up going in an earlier group so now we just had the 2 other boats. Our request was to not be on the wall, to be tied to another boat that was tied to the wall. Which is what we got and we were really happy.
“When you are tied to the wall in a lock, the wall stands still and you move up or down (depending on which way you are going) This requires you to release the lines or pull in the lines as you move. It is a bit harder and more risk of getting damaged on the wall if a fender isn’t appropriate placed or you mess up the lines”
The 100 foot boat and our boat were waiting for the massive freighter to arrive. They were about 45 mins late. We could see him on our AIS and just had to wait. The freighter was going in the lock first and the two of us were going in second with our boat tied to the 100 footer.
“There are 6 locks, 3 up and 3 down with a artificial lake (Gautun) in the middle”
Our first lock was a nice and clean move into the lock. We were able to tie easily to the 100 foot boat after the large freighter was inside. The water went up and we moved safely. When the lock opened up the big freighter in front of us went out first. We untied from the 100 footer and hovered in the middle so that 100′ boat could untie and move forward first. In the next lock they had to tie up first so we could tie to them.
The Second lock went pretty nice too. No issues, we tied up nicely and again the water move up and we moved out after the freighter cleared. This time we had a little cruising time before the 3rd lock. So we were able to move forward as soon as the freighter moved. While we were cruising in part of the lower channel we let the 100′ boat pull past us so they could go in first.
The Third lock also went well with no issue or concerns. This time we were tied up on the right hand side (starboard) rather than the left hand side (Port) of the 100′ boat. The lock was just a different shape. We then had to navigate Gatun Lake towards the last 3 locks. We were pretty sure of ourselves on how it worked and getting tied against the other boat. We didn’t expect it to be much different, but some changes happened that impacted us greatly!
We were told that we would have a different group of boats with us on the way down. The 100′ boat was only scheduled to go half way and headed back the other way for a day trip after spending time in the lake. Their paid guests were only going for a Panama Canal day adventure and back again. The large freighter was asked to wait and go into a different lock, being that he cause us to be so late.
“Gatun was the largest man-made lake in the world, at the time it was created, 1914”
Gatun Lake was an interesting cruise and we went through it pretty fast, within a couple hours. There was wildlife and other boaters that are mostly locals and some other boats holding for one reason or another, to get through the canal at a later time. We were surprised that the water was so dirty. Not sure why it was so greenish-Brown.
The Canal and pilots really control what happens and you follow direction as told. We changed Pilots in the middle of the lake too. The pilot that joined us in the morning had some request come through that he needed to leave. A pilot boat picked him up and brought us another pilot.
The Fourth lock (first one going down) we saw a tug boat ahead of us and were told we would tie to him, a different freighter was going in behind us. As we headed into the lock Dan could see the turbulence from the Tugboats engines. Tugs have very, very powerful engines and inside the lock the water just gets pushed around and creates a huge motion in the water. We struggled a bit to get close enough to the tug to tie up. The wind was more of a factor, because these locks we were going down in height. We started off with the water high, almost level with the lock walls. Rather then starting at a low point and being protected by the lock walls. The wind did impact us as we were attempting to tie off on the Tugboat, but we got some lines over and for them to help us tie off to them. (you can see in the picture the Tug crew were not extremely helpful) Then the large freighter was tied behind us. When the water went down, the employees stopped it and took it back up. We weren’t sure what happened at first but the large freighter had big anchors hanging out on the sides of his bow. His tie off in the lock wasn’t perfectly even and he was going to hit the wall, so up we went. They pulled a bit with the mules which evened it out a bit, then back down we went.
“A mule is a Train like hauling machines for the freighters, one on each side, costing $2 million USD apiece”
The canal owns about a hundred of these. All large freighters are pulled through the canal, not using their engines. Smaller boats, like us, use their own engines.
The Fifth lock (second one going down) was tough and scary! It was the most challenging lock. The wind had picked up and we may have headed into the lock a bit too early and were impacted by the spinning water from the tugboat. As we headed in, the stern (back) of the boat started twisting towards the right (starboard) side of the lock. Dan couldn’t control the movement without hitting the tug. We backed out and attempted it again. The same thing happened but this time we were heading for the wall on the wrong side of the lock. All of us “line-handles” had to hustle over to the starboard side of the boat with fenders and boat hooks to push us off and protect the boat. Dan was attempting to move us forward without us rubbing the side our boat on the opposite side of the lock wall. He needed to twist which would have the stern touch the wall. We were all panicked and started screaming at Dan, not to go backwards anymore then what we were already doing. There was a uneven section on the wall that could have really taken a big chunk out of the boat. Well, we touched the wall with the corner of our boat as we slid back and twisted. Thank Goodness, we missed the uneven pointed section. We just got bruised with a few scrapes and a couple small spots that can easily be repaired.
Dan said, “It was one of the hardest maneuvers he has ever done, as there were large invisible and uncontrolled forces on the boat”
It could have been much worse, we only have a small amount of damage on the boat starboard stern corner. Not claim worthy, just some touch up needed. We were finally able to get close enough to get lines over to the Tugboat and get tied up. It was crazy scary. Not for our safety, but for the boats safety. We didn’t need big repair bills.
One of my FAVORITE pictures was taken in this lock #5 before we went down. You could see the last lock #6 in front of us and the Centennial bridge. Which I think looks like Sails of a sailboat at an angle. The water is also more clear and clean as we neared the Atlantic side.
The 6th and final lock was just as hard as #5 but we had a better outcome. We held back longer to let the water settle inside the lock before we headed in after the Tugboat. The Pilot told Dan to head directly at the stern of the tugboat and allow the water/wind to push us away. We were able to get our bowline over to the Tug which allowed us to pull along side of him and it worked much better.
We were happy to be through the canal and we were all exhausted and ready to be docked at Shelter Bay Marina. This marina is located inside the Panama Canal breakwater so it is much more protected than Flamenco Marina. We quickly tied up with the help of the marina guys and went to celebrate our victory at the local restaurant. We had a nice dinner and we all were in bed early that night!
The actual transit took approximately 12 hours, not counting the waiting and pilot boarding.
Here is our time Lapse Video of our trip… Please LIKE our video on YouTube!
Watch for our next blog on… Shelter Bay/Colon & San Blas Islands – Should be a good one..
It will be our first Blog on the Atlantic/Caribbean side