Feel Free Transits the Panama Canal


By Tom Morkin

"Looks like we have a date. We pick up our advisor at anchorage 'F', a.k.a. the 'Flats'. It will be an evening lock up through the Gatun locks and we'll spend the night tied to a mooring buoy in Gatun Lake." Those were the words I conveyed to my shipmates Liz, Terry, Gerry and Tom.

As it turned out it was to be an all Canadian crew for our impending Panama Canal adventure.

We were delighted to have Tom Arnould, a long term sailing buddy, who actually sailed with us numerous times aboard our first boat Hoki Mai, including our first offshore passage to San Francisco in 1985, take time off work in Vancouver to fly to Panama so he could check crossing the Panama Canal off his 'bucket list'. Here we are hoisting our brand new dinghy prior to departure day.

Terry and Gerry are veteran Pacific and Caribbean cruisers who have gone through the canal no fewer than four times. They've crossed once on their own boat Gymnopedies and three times as line handlers on others' boats. This knowledge was a comfort. If we were going to have a problem in the canal it wasn't going to be because of the crew.

I later learned that it looked like we would get my request to go through the locks 'center chamber' which I took as very good news. But first, let me explain how boats go through the canal.

#1 Center chamber

This is usually every skipper's first choice. The boat is positioned equidistant from the side walls and held there by four lines-two off the bow and two off the stern. There could possibly be one or as many as two boats rafted to your boat (not so good).

#2 Side tied to a tug

Tugboats frequently escort freighters into the canal's chambers. When they do they side tie to the wall of the chamber. A yacht side tied to a tug merely ensures their boat is well fendered and secured to the tug and leaves the line handling to the tug's crew.

#3 Side tied to the wall

This is the least popular option for sailboats because the mast of the boat can be damaged should it come in contact with the wall during periods of turbulence.

Skippers have strong feeling about these options and may wait days in order to get the option they request. Why the big deal? Well, imagine the forces within the chambers when the chamber door is closed and 26 million gallons of Lake Gatun water floods into a chamber. To give you a sense of scale consider that the tubes that carry the water from the lake are as large as the train tubes at the Penn Central Railway. Each chamber, 1,000 ft long, 46 feet wide and 50 feet deep, fills in about 5 minutes often with as many as 6 boats inside.

The even greater threat is posed by the prop wash from the freighters and tugboats. Often small boats will be tied only a couple of yards behind an 800 foot ship. When an overzealous ship applies excessive throttle, the resultant wash can send a three foot high wall of water over the deck of a small boat. This easily enough can force lines to part or rip cleats out of decks. 'There can be a lot of shakin' goin' on.'

Our first choice was to center chamber alone (not nested) because although it meant more work for our line handlers it meant we were less reliant on other boats' crews. Should we be nested or rafted to another boat while center chambered it meant the line handling would be shared with the other boat. Two lines would go from the companion boat and two from ours. It also meant if the line handlers on the other boat messed up or if a cleat failed on the other boat chances are it would be our boat that crashed against the canal wall. So if you are confident in your line handlers, lines and cleats and I was, I'd take center chamber every time.

The morning of the transit was spent shopping, securing tires to the side of the boat, flaking out lines on deck, settling our marina bill, and procuring our 'zarpe' (permission from the Port Captain to travel from Colon to Panama City).We slipped the dock lines at 2:00 p.m. and were anchored at the Flats by 3:00 p.m.

It was 5:00 p.m. when the launch bearing Freddy our advisor came on board. That's Tom A. on the left, Freddy on the right. Boats over 100 feet in length are guided by professional career pilots; smaller boats get advisors who generally have full time jobs with the canal authority and act as advisors as a part time job.

Freddy instructed us to weigh anchor and follow the orange freighter with whom we would share the Gatun locks. It was dark as we approached the Gatun locks when I learned that our navigation lights weren't working. This wasn't a major drama in the chambers because the chambers were bathed in light, however, after locking up 85 feet to the level of Gatun Lake and clearing the last chamber we needed to motor 2 miles to our mooring spot for the night. The expression on the advisor's face when he learned about the light failure spoke of his displeasure. Would he delay the transit until we fixed the problem? Would we lose our $890 damage deposit, or be otherwise penalized?

Tom A. took the wheel which freed Liz and me to come up with an ad hoc solution. There's nothing like the thought of losing that $890 or worse, to get the creative juices flowing- fast!

The fix was remarkably primitive. Liz got her green and red permanent marking pens and painted the light bulb on our trouble light which we then hung at the bow. The stern light was simply a big LED headlamp which we taped to the rail at the stern.

By the time we had the “nav lights”, we were just arriving into the first chamber. Once in the chamber it was bang, bang, splash as the men who towered above us some 35 feet hurled four messenger lines with very hard monkey fists attached which crashed onto the deck. The crews' job was to avoid getting hit by these monkey fists, but somehow get a hold of the lines and secure them to the boat's cleats.

Our crews' job was to then tension the four lines to ensure Feel Free stayed in the middle of the chamber. Terry and Gerry worked the bow lines while Tom A. and Liz, the two stern lines.

When the freighter in front of us and we were secured, the mammoth steel chamber door closed behind us. Immediately, a quiet turbulence developed around the boat as the water swiftly climbed the chamber's walls.

As the boat ascended the lines grew slack, but with the boat moving about from the turbulence the line handlers’ challenge was to take up the slack just at the right time, all the time being mindful of the other lines and the goal being to keep the boat in the center of the chamber. My job as skipper was embarrassingly easy. I sat in the cockpit chatting with the advisor who quickly realized that our crew didn't need much coaching.

In each of the Gatun locks' chambers we rose about 27 feet. When we arrived at the level of the next chamber the door in front opened and we motored forward 1,000 feet and the process was repeated. By 8:30pm we were lifted to the height of Gatun Lake. The canal line handlers untied our lines so we were free to proceed to our night's mooring. We said our good byes to the advisor as he boarded the launch that awaited him at the mooring. He was no sooner out of sight and the sound of popping cans of Balboa beer punctuated the quiet of the night. We had to celebrate our success so far, not to mention Feel Free's first night not only in a fresh water lake, but in a lake 85 feet above sea level.

True to their word our next advisor, Avan, was on the boat by 6:00am the next morning. He reported that we needed to cross the 29 mile Gatun Lake to be at the Pedro Miguel lock by 11:00 a.m. to begin our lock down.

The 6 hour trip had us wending through countless large and small islands densely forested in exotic hardwood trees of nogal, teak and mahogany. Under the boat as well were untold millions of valuable trees that were submerged 100 years ago when Gatun Lake was created by damming the Chagres River. Contractors send divers underwater to harvest these very valuable ancient trees that have been pickled for over a hundred years.

Occasionally we passed floating islands comprised of natural debris brought down the numerous rivers and streams during the rainy season. These islands became the habitat for a variety of flora and fauna and have become their own ecosystems.

Upon arrival at the Pedro Migel chamber, the first of the last 3 chambers that would take us down about 26 feet toward sea level, we were advised that we would be locking down alone in all of the chambers. Incredible! Even our advisor was surprised that we weren't being asked to wait for more boats to join us.

So there we were all alone in locks large enough for ships 950 feet in length-all to ourselves! Ironically, the smaller the boat or boats in the chambers the more water is required to lift them. No wonder the canal authority would love it if we small boaters could find another way to go between the Atlantic and Pacific.

We were told locking down was easier and less stressful than locking up for the line handlers. There seemed to less turbulence and the motion of the boat was less animated. (Note protective cushions placed on solar panels.)

It seemed that in no time we were down at sea level and saying good bye to Avan and motoring under the Bridge of the Americas and entering the Pacific Ocean, the ocean that we left 8 years earlier.

Transiting the Panama Canal was truly an experience we'll always remember. Liz and I did it twice and while we enjoyed both occasions, I put it in the same category as sailboat racing - it's great fun, but it is even more fun on someone else's boat. It was a great feeling to go through the Panama Canal, to see the vast Pacific off our bow and to contemplate the Pacific adventures ahead.