Panama Canal Transit

Just an hour before we were scheduled to leave the marina at
Shelter Bay and begin our transit across the Panama Canal we
received a phone call from Naomi, Mark’s sister, telling us that
their beloved mother Kitty (Nana) had just died. We knew that
Kitty’s health had been rapidly deteriorating. Indeed she has
been fading for the past few years… but still, the news was a
terrible blow. Because this blog is not meant as a “personal
diary”, and is open to anyone to read, we are not going to use
this space to write about Kitty or what her loss means to us. We
will save that for personal communication with family. It just
doesn’t feel right to write about the crossing without
acknowledging Kitty’s loss. So here is the story of our

Within a half an hour after receiving the phone call, and in
fact right in the middle of Mark’s phone call to Ben in Israel
to tell him about Nana, a car pulled up into the marina driven
by our Panama Canal agent Enrique Plummer, and filled with 3
other men (line handlers), 4 huge coils of line for the transit,
and various duffle bags for the men’s overnight stay with us.
Since the Panama transit is tightly scheduled we could not
delay. The captain (Mark) was urgently being called by everyone
to get on board for final preparations and to start moving
towards the canal entrance. We put our overflowing emotions on
hold, and proceeded with the tasks in front of us.

The crossing was an amazing experience. We left the marina and
motored a few miles across the open channel to “the flats” – an
anchorage where all sailboats wait for their turn to do the
transit. About an hour after we arrived there a pilot boat
zoomed over an to us and dropped off our advisor, Marin. Boats
smaller than 65 feet are required to have an “advisor” from the
Panama Canal Authority on board. Larger boats have pilots.
Advisors supposedly only advise the captain what to do, and he
is free to follow that advice or not. If the boat comes to
grief, it is the captain’s (Mark in this case) responsibility.
On the big boats that have pilots, the pilot is in charge and

The two other boats that were apparently scheduled to go through
with us got their advisors dropped off and then we all proceeded
closer to the actual canal. By then it was pitch dark and the
task at hand was to get all three boats rafted up together –
ours being the largest of the three we got the prime middle
position. This is a great spot to be in because the other boats
actually work like two huge bumpers for you. If anything goes
wrong in the canal they will hit the wall, not you. The two
other boats keep their engines in neutral, and Sabbatical III
steers the whole way. Our 3 linehandlers, Roberto (talkative,
outgoing, liked to eat), Winston (quiet, handsome) and NG (
looked 30 years old, but had been working on the canal for 25
years), were extremely competent, and it did not take long for
us all to get tied up together properly. Besides our regular
boat bumpers, we had 18 plastic-sheet covered car tires tied
onto the stanchions to protect the sides of the boat. You always
know when a boat is either preparing to go through the canal, or
has just done so, as everyone uses the same “attractive”
protection. Our advisor was great – very calm and knowledgable
and helpful – particular in helping Mark who had the most
critical job of all – steering the boat and controlling its
movement as we motored into and out of each set of locks. Our
two crew, Annabelle and Matt were extremely helpful as well,
Matt taking on the job of 4th line handler (and photographer),
and Annabelle taking a terrific series of photos.

We were rafted up in the middle of two other boats – a French
catamaran ( G-d help us), and an American sailboat named
Euphoria. The French catamaran had about 10 people on board,
including 3 little kids strolling, jumping, crying, and playing
all over the catamaran during the entire crossing while the
parents chatted, smoked and mishandled lines. They had no
professional linehandlers and seemed to be totally unprepared
for the experience. One little girl was nearly hit by the end
of one of the the 120 foot lines that are thrown down from the
top sides of the canal by Panama Canal employees. Her mother
finally made her move under the protection of an awning. Our
fear was that one of the kids would go overboard right in the
middle of the canal. The other boat also did not have
professional linehandlers, relying on their grown sons, who did
a pretty good job for their first time through. The funny thing
was that our linehandlers, who were clearly competent and
experienced after 15 years of 3 or 4 transits a week, really
didn’t have much to do. After the boats get tied together, all
the lines get tossed down to the outside boats from the top of
the locks, so the two totally inexperienced boats were doing all
they could to keep it together, while our guys were just
watching, ready to jump across to their assistance if needed.
Despite their shakiness, everything turned out OK, and we glided
up the three sets of locks to Lake Gatun that first evening.

Going up the locks is an amazing experience. You start out in a
roughly 200 foot long channel with about 80 feet of concrete
wall on either side of you, and Panama Canal employees at the
top of the locks throw lines down to the awaiting boats, who tie
their own lines onto the ones thrown down and cleat them on to
their boat bow and stern. Then the ends are pulled back up to
the top, and with coordination between the people on top of the
locks, and the linehandlers on the boats, plus the steering of
the captain in the center boat, you manage to stay pretty much
in the middle of the locks. It takes about 20 minutes for the
locks to fill and then you are almost to the top of the whole
wall. Then the metal gates in front of you slowly open and you
go through to start the process all over again. It is pretty
overwhelming – especially the first time it happens.

After the third set of locks we were in Lake Gatun where we tied
up to an incredibly huge mooring ball by about 9:00 P.M. and the
advisor got picked up by another pilot boat. Everyone else stays
on the boat for the night during a transit, so now we had 7
people on board. The linehandlers are very used to sleeping
whever they can, and were all prepared to just crash on the deck
for the night with whatever cushions we had for them to lie on.
It started raining really hard so we ended up with everyone
sleeping below – Matt and Annabelle in the forward cabin,
Winston and NG in the saloon, Roberto in the sea-berth, and Mark
and I in back.

One more thing… we ate like kings. We had prepared a huge
dinner of Indonesian chicken, rice, peppers, fruit and cookies
for the crew- everyone loved the Indonesian chicken. Apparently
it is considered bad form to feed your crew poorly, so we spent
a lot of effort getting everything prepared in advance.

By 6:15 the next morning the advisor was back on the boat and we
were off. We spent the next 4 hours just motoring through Lake
Gatun to get to the next set of locks. The advisor asked to
steer the boat through the lake, so Mark got to relax a little
and enjoy the beautiful view. The lake is filled with small
islands and lots of birds. It was very calm as we went through.
We passed under the beautiful Centennial Bridge about 10:30
a.m. and then were told we needed to wait for the other two
boats as they were way behind us. Our motoring speed is about
7.5 knots and theirs was only about 5.5 so we had quite a wait.
Mark docked the boat at a convenient spot and we all sat and
had lunch. By 1:00 p.m. the boats arrived and we re-rafted.
Our advisor was apparently not happy either with the French
catamaran, so they were instructed to proceed through the locks
by themselves while we tied up with the same American boat
again, and a new French boat – “Ciao- Ciao”. Two of the women
on that boat were handling the lines, along with one of their
sons. One women was a bit frazzled and after mishandling a line
she rushed back to the cockpit, lit up a cigarette and then came
back on deck to finish the job. Different strokes for different
folks I guess. We Americans were enjoying popsicles and cold
Fresca as the day was incredibly hot . At one point during the
afternoon I checked the thermometer in the galley and it read
102 degrees – so it must have been even hotter up on deck where
the sun was relentless. Going down the locks was smoother than
going up – no turbulence in the water at all. We had lots of
family watching the Panama Canal webcam which is set up in a few
places along the way . At the last set of locks, the Miraflores,
our advisor actually called the Panama Canal Authority and asked
them to train the camera in on our boat. We were able to
contact both Ben and Hannah by sat phone as we sat in the lock
and we were waving enthusiastically to the camera.

We passed through the last lock, into the Pacific Ocean at about
1:30 p.m. and then untied ourselves from our adjoining boats –
while they all thanked Mark for being such a good captain.
Another pilot boat came by to pick up our advisor. He just
pulled up close to us and our advisor hopped off from our boat
to theirs. The Balboa Yacht Club ( BYC), where we had a mooring
reservation was just 1 nm away, so we turned in and were
assisted to a mooring ball ( tire actually) by one of the club’s
employees in a launch. A minute late the three line-handlers
had gathered up their stuff, taken the bags of donuts and
muffins we gave them, plus some well deserved tips, and hopped
onto the launch. Successful and wonderful experience for all.

Just one more note: Our agent Enrique Plummer was just fantastic
– he made everything totally easy – handling all of our
paperwork, arranging for the lines and the line-handlers, making
multiple trips out to the boat on both sides of the canal. We
would heartily recommend him to all of you planning on crossing
the canal!