September 30, 2012
Saying Good Bye


September 15, 2012
Reflections on Our 27 Year Circumnavigation


September 01, 2012
Sea of Cortez Sailing


August 15, 2012
Back to the Sea of Cortez


August 01, 2012
After Circumnavigation: What to Take, What to Leave Behind


July 15, 2012
Mexican Booby Trap


July 01, 2012
Tackling the Tehuantepec


June 14, 2012
Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico


June 01, 2012
Sailing northern Costa Rica and Nicargua


May 15, 2012
Costa Rican Cruising


May 01, 2012
New Found Friends in Golfito, Costa Rica


April 15, 2012
It’s a Jungle Out There


April 01, 2012
Hunting and Gathering in Panama


March 15, 2012
Money.... Money.... Money


March 01, 2012
Feel Free Transits the Panama Canal


February 15, 2012
Transiting the Panama Canal


February 01, 2012
Feel Free is Back in the Pacific


January 15, 2012
Charter Skipper for a Week


January 01, 2012
Confessions of a Charter Cat Chef


December 15, 2011
Away to the Andamans Part 2


December 01, 2011
AWAY to the ANDAMANs


November 15, 2011
Sailing in a Freshwater Paradise


November 01, 2011
To Barf or not to Barf, that is the question


October 14, 2011
Remarkable Cruisers


October 03, 2011
The Sea of Cortez, Another World


September 15, 2011
Panama Canal Here We Come


September 01, 2011
Sailing for Humanity


August 15, 2011
A Hard Lesson on the Hard and Reflections on Boat Work


August 01, 2011
Here Come the Lion Fish


July 15, 2011
The Joy of Books


July 01, 2011
The Sailors of San Blas


June 15, 2011
The Good Life in Kuna Yala


June 01, 2011
The Dirt Dweller in Paradise


May 15, 2011
People of the San Blas, Then and Now


May 01, 2011
Cruising in Kuna Yala


April 15, 2011
Near Disaster in the San Blas


April 01, 2011
At Last in the San Blas


March 15, 2011
Chilling Out in Cholon


March 01, 2011
Ah, Cartagena!


February 15, 2011
Cruising the Cape Horn of the Caribbean Part 2


February 01, 2011
Cruising the Cape Horn of the Caribbean Part 1


January 14, 2011
Aruban Interlude


December 30, 2010
Hunkering Down for a Hurricane


December 15, 2010
A Day in the Life - Our Passage to Aruba


December 01, 2010
Stuck in Curacao


November 15, 2010
Stormy Night Sailing


November 01, 2010
Sailing In The Sticks


October 15, 2010
Safety, Security and Circumnavigating with some tips on how to stay safe


October 04, 2010
Feel Free Transits The Suez Canal


September 15, 2010
Red Sea Sailing


September 01, 2010
FEEL FREEs Voyage Into the Red Sea


August 15, 2010
And just a little further, to Curacao


August 01, 2010
Bonaire Diving


July 15, 2010
Then To Bonaire


July 01, 2010
Cruising Remote Venezuelan Isles


June 15, 2010
Cruising St. Vincent


June 01, 2010
Right Place, Right Time


May 15, 2010
The Spice Isle


May 01, 2010
To the Grenadines


April 15, 2010
We Be In Barbados Mon


April 01, 2010
Atlantic Passage Part II


March 15, 2010
Atlantic Passage Part 1


March 01, 2010
Provisioning for the Atlantic Crossing


February 15, 2010
Atlantic Crossing Preparations


February 01, 2010
Cruising the Canary Islands


January 15, 2010
Out Of Africa


January 01, 2010
Come With Me To The High Atlas Mountains.............


December 15, 2009
Two Years Of Mediterranean Sailing


December 01, 2009
Moving On To Morocco


November 18, 2009
Leaving The Med


November 13, 2009
Reaching The Rock Of Gibraltar Milestone


October 15, 2009
Sailing Spains Costa del Sol


October 01, 2009
Sailing Spains Costa del High-rise


September 15, 2009
Sailing The Spanish Isles


September 01, 2009
At Sea Or On The Hook, These Recipes Travel Well


August 15, 2009
An Interlude At Menorca


August 01, 2009
A Pleasant Passage To Menorca


July 15, 2009
The Agony And Ecstasy Of The Tunisian Coast


July 01, 2009
Tripping Around Tunisia


June 15, 2009
Tales From North Africa


June 01, 2009
Dont Freak If Your Fridge Fails


May 15, 2009
Into Africa


May 01, 2009
Meandering Around Malta, Then Off To Tunisia


April 15, 2009
Low-Tech DIY Ideas For The New Economy


April 01, 2009
The Med Set A Few Cruiser Profiles


March 15, 2009
That Sinking Feeling


March 01, 2009
Thailand to Oman: Three Passages, Three Ports


February 15, 2009
Doing Hard Time in Malta


February 01, 2009
Pirate Alley Part 2


January 15, 2009
Pirate Alley Part 1


January 02, 2009
So Many Islands, So Little Time


December 15, 2008
Cruising With The Bear


December 01, 2008
Versatile Vinegar, The Boaters Friend


November 15, 2008
What I Did In This Summer -- Dock Masters In paradise


November 01, 2008
Over The Top Of Oz


October 16, 2008
The Tumultuous Tasman


October 01, 2008
Sweet Memories Of The Splendid Surins


September 15, 2008
And Then We Were In Malta


September 01, 2008
Feel Frees Siracusan Story


August 15, 2008
The Best of Times, The Worst of Times


August 01, 2008
All Tied Up In The Ionians


July 15, 2008
A Greek Odyssey Our Journey to Ithaca


July 01, 2008
Anatomy of a Near Catastrophe


June 15, 2008
Good-bye Turkey, Hello Greece


June 01, 2008
More Winter Cruising in Turkey


May 15, 2008
Winter Cruising in Turkey


April 15, 2008
Talking Turkey: Marmaris Marina Living


April 15, 2008
The Joy Of The Side Trip


April 01, 2008
Return to Marmaris, And The Budget


March 15, 2008
Passing Time And Dodging The Meltemi


March 01, 2008
Home Sweet Home


February 15, 2008
A Little Working, A Little Cruising


February 01, 2008
Working Our Way Around The World


January 15, 2008
Welcome Aboard Feel Free


January 01, 2008
Liz Tosonis and Tom Morkins Feel Free


January 01, 2008
About Tom Morkin and Liz Tosoni


January 01, 2008
About Feel Free


January 01, 2008
Voyage Itinerary


February 15, 2012
Transiting the Panama Canal

By Tom Morkin

Don’t ever think a canal is a canal is a canal. It’s not so. Consider the two most important canals in the world. The Suez Canal is really not much more than a ditch in the desert. There are no locks or chambers. Boats never rise above sea level. The French under the leadership of Ferdinand de Lesseps who designed and built the Suez Canal, for the most part had to remove a whole lot of sand to make a ditch from the Gulf of Suez in the northern reaches of the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, a distance of 88 miles. A yacht crew wishing to transit is simply required to shell out about $400.USD, and motor for 2 days through a monotonous desert landscape under the watchful eye of a canal pilot.

In 1800 the French and de Lesseps turned their attention to Panama to make a route from the Atlantic to the Pacific. No doubt his confidence was fed by his success in Suez which made him a national hero in France. How hard could it be? The isthmus is only about 35 miles wide, compared to the 88 miles in Suez. Sure there are some hills in the way, but they shouldn’t be too big a deal. Right? Wrong!

After 20 years, some 80,000 deaths from disease and accidents and the loss of untold fortunes, it was abandoned. In 1904 the Teddy Roosevelt administration bought the assets of the failed venture for $40,000,000. Ten years later the first ship transited the canal. For the detailed canal story one can’t do better than David McCullough’s “The Path between the Seas”.

 

Some notable statistics about the Panama Canal:

  • Every year, the Canal handles more than 13,056 blue water ships from about 70 nations.
  • When travelling from the Atlantic to the Pacific vessels are lifted a total of 85 feet using three chambers to the man-made Gatun Lake, motor 29 miles across the lake and then are lowered a total of 85 feet in three more chambers to the Pacific. The 53,000,000 gallons of fresh water required to lift the boats 85 feet above sea level all come from Gatun Lake, which was created by damming the River Chagres.
  • Each chamber is 1,000 feet long, x 110 feet wide. Maximum allowed ship draft is 39 feet 6 inches in freshwater.
  • The average toll for ships is about $100,000. The Norwegian Pearl transited for $375,600 while a guy named Richard Halliburton swam the Canal in 1926 and got charged 36 cents based on his tonnage displacement!
  • Only crocodiles transit for free.
  • The locks have functioned (almost) flawlessly 24/7 for nearly 100 years. Here is one of many dredgers we saw, constantly maintaining and improving the Canal.

    • Some container and Cruise ships squeeze through the locks with only inches to spare on either side.

     

While the aforementioned facts are interesting for boat crews like Liz and me preparing to transit, there are some other canal facts that are considerably more riveting for us:

  • Each year about 1,400 yachts use the canal. Yachts less than 50 feet in length pay $650, over 50 feet the price is $850. Let’s say the average revenue per boat is $750, so that times 1,400 boats means the canal authority grosses just over a million dollars for yachts. They, we learned, pay out more than that each year in damages to yachts!
  • Should your boat break down and require a tow through the canal, prepare to mortgage the boat to pay for it. Two weeks before our transit a catamaran broke down half way through the canal and was charged $5,000 to be towed the last half.
  • If you have to anchor during your crossing it will cost $100 a day.
  • You can`t use your own dinghy to go ashore. You must use a canal authority launch which charges $175 for a 200 yard ferry service.
  • If you cause a delay in the canal for any reason you forfeit your $890 damage bond (buffer).

 

The moral here is: make sure your boat and engine systems are up to snuff.

And then there are the horror stories people love to share when they find out you are soon going through the canal.

We heard a graphic description of a line handler who lost part of her finger when she mishandled a line that was heavily loaded. We heard about boats sinking in the canal, getting dismasted, mooring lines parting, deck cleats pulling out, hulls cracking and on and on it goes. You just have to look at a sailboat ready to go through the canal. It looks like it`s going to war.

In addition to having all the boat`s fenders tied on, most boats will also have 12 old car tires on the side. On deck will be four lines at least 125 feet long secured to four cleats. All solar panels will be covered by either plywood or boat cushions to protect them from the monkey fists (hard balls with lines attached to them that are thrown to the boat repeatedly throughout the passage).

Not surprisingly, all these facts were fodder for my well nurtured free floating anxiety, but all those possible pitfalls were not enough to dampen Liz`s and my enthusiasm for the crossing. Fact of the matter is, most transits are without incident and most boaters thoroughly enjoy doing it.

I was surprised by the number of cruisers who have done the trip several times, usually as line handlers on others boats. All boats less than 100 feet must have, in addition to the skipper, four competent adult line handlers whose role it is to control the boat`s lines as the boat rises or descends in the locks. Certainly there are many like Liz and me who choose to act as line handlers on other boats to see how it all works before taking their own boats through.

Many just enjoy the whole 2 day experience of boating through an incredibly interesting engineering marvel as well as a beautiful lake in the midst of a lush tropical rainforest.

Before any vessel can use the canal it must be measured (the correct term is admeasured) to establish the tariff. Remember the charge for a boat under 50 feet is US$650, and US$850 for those over 50 feet. Our hope that the officious young admeasurer that boarded Feel Free with his measuring tape in hand might somehow find that over the 41 years of her life Feel Free may have shrunk a few inches to be become a Spencer 49 rather than the Spencer 51 she is purported to be. No such luck, he even insisted on measuring our anchor so we ended up with a Spencer 52 after all. He then went through the boat, checking our cleats and lines, ensuring we had a VHF radio, enclosed toilet, air horn. He also reminded us that we were responsible for providing our pilots with hot meals. Then he presented us with endless forms to sign which basically resulted in us agreeing that no matter what happened in the canal the Canal Authority was not responsible or liable. Finally, we doled out $1,750, $859 plus a damage deposit of $891 (buffer). And were told we could book our passage at our convenience.

But first we wanted to line handle on another boat. That chance materialized in the form of a very spiffy 57 foot catamaran, Nogal, skippered by an Aussie delivery skipper John Golden who was delivering it from Bocas Del Toro, Panama to Puerto Vallerta, Mexico.

We had an enjoyable and uneventful transit despite the torrential rain which lowered visibility so much that the big ships remained in the chambers until the rains abated to the point that they could safely navigate across Gatun Lake. Our entire transit took 22 hours from 5:30pm to3: 30pm the next day. Next time it would be aboard Feel Free.