I’ll be honest, folks. When Jimmy Cornell shot me an e-mail after his new Garcia Exploration 45 debuted at the Annapolis show last fall and asked if I could carve two weeks out of my schedule in March to join him on a passage from Florida to Panama and on through the canal, I was skeptical. Not about the bluewater bit. I was sure we could pull that off inside two weeks. But I wasn’t so sure about having time to make it through the canal. I’d heard wait times for yachts seeking transits can run from one to six weeks, so when Jimmy assured me he had connections in Panama and could get us through with the quickness, I took all that with the proverbial grain of salt. Worst case, I reckoned, was I’d do the passage and miss the transit, which in the cosmic scheme of things seemed a pretty good worst case.
Well, I can now honestly report that Jimmy sure as heck wasn’t kidding. Dude has Panama wired. He has long cultivated close relationships with key logistical and governmental people in cruising crossroads around the world, and Panama is certainly no exception. This was to be his fourth transit on a boat of his own, plus he has shepherded six different cruising rallies through the canal, so he has learned exactly what strings to pull and exactly how to pull them.
Even before we arrived in Panama aboard Aventura, Jimmy had massaged various influential people via satellite e-mail and had worked out a pretty amazing schedule: Day 1, arrive at Shelter Bay Marina near the canal entrance, get measured for a transit, haul out for a quick bottom job. Day 2, reprovision the boat, finish bottom paint, and relaunch. Day 3, begin canal transit.
Even more amazing, that’s exactly how it went. Not that there weren’t various obstacles to overcome. Every step of the way there was confusion and various mishaps that needed sorting out, but Jimmy is like a terrier with a bone. He decides he’s doing something and won’t let go until it’s done. Mañana is not in his vocabulary. Back in the days before he emigrated to Great Britain he spent some time working for a film crew that was shooting on location in Romania and earned a reputation as “Jimmy the Fixer.” He’s very proud of that nickname. Plain and simple, he makes things happen, which is a talent that surely comes in handy when organizing cruising rallies.
We arrived at Shelter Bay shortly after daybreak on Thursday and took on fuel first thing. As in many spots in Panama, they have a fuel barge instead of a fuel dock proper. We rafted alongside and filled our tanks, plus filled nine jerry cans
A pilot launch with an admeasurer aboard appeared in the marina right after we finished fueling, but the admeasurer wouldn’t measure us, because we weren’t on his list. After arguing with the guy for a while, Jimmy fired off some e-mails, and a second launch with a second admseasurer appeared two hours later. Here we see our admeasurer on the right and Jimmy on the left sorting through the reams of paperwork required for a transit. The guy in the middle working the phone is Tito, Jimmy the Fixer’s fixer in Panama. He organized extra line-handlers, extra fenders, and extra-long lock lines for us
End result: our ticket to ride
By late that afternoon Aventura had been hauled and some fresh bottom paint was going on. Jimmy kept an eye on things while pounding out more e-mail on his laptop
Early Friday morning, while Jimmy and first mate Dunbar Lewis went off to buy provisions, I supervised the further application of paint and then had a bit of free time to explore the marina and environs. Shelter Bay Marina, with 200 slips, a 100-ton Travelift, a small hotel, and a modest range of other facilities, is now the hot place for yachts to prepare for an east-west transit. Last month was peak transit season for yachts, but there were still many foreign boats getting ready to strike out into the Pacific while we were there
Buried in the jungle behind the marina I found a series of old fortifications, obviously built by the canal’s former American overseers
And swinging around overhead I spotted several howler monkeys. These make a huge racket in the morning shortly after sunrise, also when it rains. They really don’t like getting wet
And sure enough, by the end of the day we were going back in the water. This shot of the boat in the lift with its board down gives a good idea of the Garcia Exploration 45’s underwater configuration
Why the big rush? (I hear you cry.) After all, Panama is a fantastic cruising ground in its own right (so I’ve heard) and most cruisers will want to spend some time here exploring before moving on. We, however, were in super-duper delivery mode, as Jimmy was rushing to catch up with his Blue Planet Odyssey rally, which had already been through the canal (with help from Jimmy, of course, who flew in between boat shows) and had already reached the Galapagos. Jimmy’s goal now is to get to Tahiti to rendezvous with the fleet by early May.
As for the canal itself, here are some random factoids:
-First opened for business in 1914, just over 100 years ago
-Total distance from Caribbean side to Pacific side is 48 miles
-Vertical distance is 85 feet through two series of three locks going up and down
-The lock chambers are 110 feet wide, 1,050 feet long, and 41.2 feet deep. Panamax vessel dimensions are 950 feet LOA, 106 feet Beam, 39.5 feet Draft
-Gatun Lake, which forms a large part of the canal, was the largest artificial lake in the world when first it was created
-Over 14,000 vessels transit the canal each year
-A new series of larger locks is now being built that will significantly increase the canal’s capacity. These are scheduled to open next year
-Panama has been running the canal since 1999, pursuant to a treaty signed with the U.S. in 1977, and has been doing a damn good job of it
-The Chinese meanwhile are working to develop a competing canal through Nicaragua. It remains to be seen whether this will become a reality
-The average time for ships to transit the canal is 9 hours. The minimum time is just over 4 hours. The average time for yachts is two days, though some pull it off in one
We were scheduled to start our transit at 5 p.m. Saturday, which meant for sure we’d be taking two days to get through. Every yacht going through is required to have four line-handlers aboard, plus a helmsman, so a minimum crew of five, not counting the advisor the Canal Authority puts on each boat. You also need to have four heavy 125-foot lines aboard. For more detail on official yacht-transit procedures and costs check this link here.
Joining us for our transit were Jeff and Anne Posner and their crew Bill Worthington aboard Joyful, a 2005 Wauquiez 40. Like Jimmy, they are Blue Planet Odyssey stragglers and are rushing to catch up with the rest of the rally fleet in the Pacific. Here we see them on the Flats outside the Gatun locks all fendered up in preparation for the transit. Three other random yachts, two catamarans and one monohull, also went through with us
We ended up waiting on the Flats for two hours for our advisor to come aboard, then spent more than another hour diddling around waiting for ship traffic to clear before we finally entered the locks long after nightfall. Aventura and Joyful rafted up either side of a big catamaran and are seen here going into the locks as a unit
Once you’re in a lock you are bombarded with monkey fists on the ends of messenger lines. You bend these on to your big lines and they are pulled ashore and secured to bollards while the locks are flooded. Before moving to the next lock, the big lines come back aboard and the line-handlers ashore walk the messengers along as you motor forward. When locking through in a raft, you need only two active lines and line-handlers on the outside boats. Locking through as a single boat you’ll be much busier, with all four lines working at once
Flooding a lock. Note the turbulence. There isn’t as much when you’re going the other way and the locks are being drained. The lock lines are controlled from on the boat as the water level changes
Sunrise on Gatun Lake, where we spent the night rafted up on huge mooring balls after completing our Gatun locks transit shortly after midnight
Our new advisor for day two of the transit came aboard promptly at 7:30 am
That’s Joyful ahead of us as we approach the Gaillard (or Culebra) Cut and the Centennial Bridge
Here we are passing through the cut aboard Aventura
Lunch aboard. That’s our advisor Rafael, in the bright blue shirt seated next to Jimmy, and Pedro, one of our two hired line-handlers. Many yachts use volunteer line-handlers from other yachts, but Jimmy likes boost the indigenous economy by hiring locals
Rafting up again outside the Pedro Miguel lock. After passing through this we continued on a short distance across Miraflores Lake, still in a raft, and so reached the last two locks
Almost done! This is Pedro picking a monkey fist out of the rig as we take on lines for the Miraflores locks
While we were in the Miraflores locks Dunbar decided to climb the mast and shoot some pix. Not sure if this is really a recommended procedure, but Rafael didn’t seem to mind. Here’s an aerial view of our three-boat raft
The doors of the very last lock closing behind us. You can see the first Miraflores lock behind them
The two-boat raft ahead of us in the last lock
By the time we were all done, it was about 4 p.m. Sunday. Which means our transit time, from our arrival at the Flats to salt water on the Pacific side, was about 23 hours, spread out over the course of two calendar days. As soon as we were through, I transferred to Joyful with my luggage, as they needed to stop for fuel in Balboa. Aventura and her crew, meanwhile, just kept right on going, heading out into the Pacific, bound directly for Tahiti. All told she spent about 81 hours between arriving in Panama and getting all the way through the canal, which probably is some kind of a world record for quickest total transit time by a yacht.
I caught a cab in Balboa and headed into Panama City, where I’d booked a room in the Old Quarter for the night. My hotel, Las Clementinas, was right across the street from a police station. Soon after my arrival there, some kind of riot broke out on the street. I stuck my head out the window to investigate and immediately saw a lady cop striding out of the cop shop with a pistol raised in the air… which she promptly fired off. Ka-bang! In an instant there were cops everywhere, including two little SWAT teams with assault rifles that pulled up on motorcycles.
Some kind of a cop magnet. I’m still not entirely sure what attracted them
SWAT guy, loaded for bear
Innocent bystanders, just watching like me
The next morning I spent a little time exploring the neighborhood before heading to the airport to jump on my flight home. Back in the day Panama City was one of the big Spanish treasure ports in the New World, but unlike those on the Caribbean side (e.g., Cartagena, San Juan, Havana, and Veracruz) wasn’t heavily fortified, due to the lack of pirates on the Pacific side. Henry Morgan, arguably the most successful pirate of all time, solved this problem by marching a pirate army across the isthmus to sack and burn the city in 1671. What is now called the Old Quarter is the town that was built to replace the one that Morgan destroyed.
View from the roof of Las Clementinas with the modern skyline of downtown Panama City in the distance. It is a major Central American hub for international banking and commerce
A big old hotel in the Old Quarter
One of many churches
Breakfast at the Fonda Pritty Pritty bar
The patron saint of canal transits
Some parts of it are all fixed up and beautiful, just like the Old City in San Juan, in Puerto Rico. Many other parts are still run down and pretty grungy. There are a few boutique hotels and swank-looking restaurants, but so far not too many fancy retail stores. At least not as far as I could see. Once they come, I am sure, folks of more modest means who live here will be priced out of the neighrborhood.
UPDATE (April 4): Just received an e-mail message from Jimmy last night in which he announced a change of plans:
On 31 March, while sailing en route to Tahiti, an unexpected matter requiring my presence back home forced me to make a drastic change to my long term plans. So I have decided to abandon my plan to sail to Tahiti and have turned around.
We changed course for Golfito in Costa Rica, from where Aventura will be shipped to Vancouver, B.C. Another attempt on the Northwest Passage will be made this summer.
I assure you that it is nothing serious, just an unforeseen change of plan… it happens when you are sailing! This is in fact a better solution for me, as I was planning to re-attempt to go through the Northwest Passage next year, so decided to do it this year, and return to Europe one year sooner. Everyone is happy with it, Gwenda most of all!
Charlie brings back 2011 when my wife and I did it. Our transit was in rain your pics are better. Bill
Thank you for a wonderfully descriptive narrative, Jean (Dunbar’s mother)
Enjoyed that! Want to talk to you about Nicaragua Canal sometime. Being urged to consider retiring along its phantom banks.
@Katy: Phantom banks, indeed! It will be interesting to see if the Chinese pull it off. One big question in my mind is whether the U.S. government can tolerate such an important Chinese project/presence in the Americas. As we all know, the U.S. can get a little proprietary when it comes to Central America.
an excellent description, good facts and well written. we are planning a crossing at the beginning of march 2017 as part of the Oyster World Rally. I would like to know a few facts :
1. what if you wanted to spend a few days in the Lake Gatun area, anchoring and cruising about. is this permissible and if so how is it done and how do you connect up with the advisor to complete the crossing ?
2. if you want friends to join you on the passage eg at the “downward” section through the locks, is this permissible and if so how is this done, ie where would they get on.
3. at Panama City where would you dock if you wanted to spend a week there ?
I hope these questions are not “impertinent” and that you can advise me.
thanks Len on Shalen
@Len: I recommend you contact the folks at Shelter Bay Marina for precise info on all your questions. All I can do is guess. Based on what I saw and learned during my transit I would guess:
1) You cannot cruise Lake Gatun. In that it is a flooded tropical forest anchoring might be a bad idea, at least if you want to get your anchor back, and I would guess also it is not allowed, but I might be wrong. There may be moorings, and it may be permitted.
2) Picking up and discharging crew while locking through would be pretty dicey and is almost certainly not allowed.
3) Panama City probably does have some parking for yachts. You can certainly park at Balboa, which has a yacht club and is close to town.