We hooked a mooring at Balboa Yacht Club in time for sunset in the shadows of the Bridge of the Americas. Several other sailors sat outside enjoying the view of this grand waiting room. Some boats seemed to have been there for decades, while others sported Atlantic ports of call and crews ready to cross oceans.
The BYC building burned down a few years ago and TGI Friday’s has filled the gap for shoreside eats. We had a decidedly “TGIF” feeling from completing the sail around Punta Mala and clicked onto the wifi, scheduled a rendezvous with our canal agent, and enjoyed abundant air-conditioning, wings, salads, and drinks with ice.
A few nights later, Scott’s mom arrived for a visit from Virginia. The shore boat was out of commission for mechanical failure and no dinghies are allowed to tie up at the dock. After spanning a few thousand miles, we were separated by only a few hundred yards of brakish water! The next morning Linda hitched a ride with some friendly locals on their morning commute to a nearby barge. Our blond haired matriarch stepped aboard and we all felt a closeness with the guys on the boat for their part in this reunion. We introduced Linda to our feline crewmate and motored over to a nearby cove for our official measurement with the canal authorities.
The rendezvous was coordinated by our agent and I received updates via What’s App. We dropped anchor near the requested buoy, raised a yellow flag, and waited. A large power boat approached and a man hopped aboard with a backpack and clipboard in hand. He measured the boat and we sat down to fill out the remaining paperwork. We swapped stories of his recent family trip to Washington DC and Linda’s father’s childhood in Panama. He gave us our official canal number and said shortly we would receive a transit date via the agent.
We motored back to Balboa Yacht Club and were hit by a downpour of rain. Once affixed to the mooring again, we retreated to the cabin for tea and snacks and catching up on all that had transpired since we were last together.
The following day, we went on a reconnaissance mission to the visitor center at Miraflores locks and watched a few ships rise or lower in the company of one hundred or so onlookers. The canal is a wonder of the world, but it is also a machine operating day in and out. A very big cog in our global economy. We were grateful for the sneak peek to update our mental picture of the big day ahead.
We then grabbed a taxi and drove through the City of Knowledge, a cluster of government funded academic and business innovation buildings. On the other side, we found a cozy brewery called La Rana Dorada, or the golden frog, and quenched our shared thirst for IPAs.
Other highlights include the restaurant Fonda Lo Que Hay, a chocolate class at Nome, and hiking around Metropolitan National Park. Linda took the task of driving the rental car, squeezing into parking in Casco Viejo, and keeping us all in one piece amidst taxis driving with much gusto. The park is a short jaunt from the busier parts of Ancon, and also a world away. We encountered leaf cutter ants going about their routes, iguana, coatis, and turtles. The sloths eluded us, but have been spotted here. Park groundskeepers passed along mangos and crept up on the iguana with us.
During the last few sails, Scott read aloud from his Grandpa’s book The Lure and Lore of the Jungle. The tales of his childhood focused on adventures around Ancon Hill and the freedom to go into the bush to explore the vibrant flora and fauna. His words seemed to leap off the page as we hiked the area.
Our arrival to Panama City was a change of pace in many ways. The sky scrapers and bridges were the first we had seen since Acapulco and San Diego. The Panamanian accent was a little harder to understand at first. The Caribbean lay just a short passage away, but unlike time in the open ocean we would need to stay on schedule and maneuver under engine power alone. Having Linda on hand to take part in the logistics made the experience more meaningful, and the extra pair of hands lightened the load.
The history of the area loomed large. From the first “discovery” of this part of the world, mariners dreamt of hopping across the dense jungle to the Pacific. In 1513, Vasco Núñez de Balboa crossed the tiny isthmus and for the next three centuries ideas swirled for cutting a canal. Thousands of pages have been written about the strife and sacrifice of people of many nations to create this 50 mile route. I enjoyed reading several angles while moored nearby.
In 1903, the US backed Panamanian independence from Colombia, took sovereignty over the canal zone, and picked up construction where the French had left off – and added locks to account for the extreme tides of the Pacific. 25,000 workers lost their lives to build it, both from disease and working conditions. The first ship went through in 1914. Jimmy Carter transferred control of the canal to Panama on New Years Eve of 1999.
Today, passage through for the mega containerships costs $1M a trip. For little guys like us, closer to $3K. 14,000 ships go through per year and skip the 8,000 mile journey around South America. We felt a kinship with others who have crossed this threshold between bodies of water.
Transit day began with the arrival of linehandlers, lines, and big fenders at 3 AM. The authorities require four line handlers and an appointed advisor. Guiti and Santiago hopped aboard and met our friends Ulrich and Lis, who joined the night before to round out our line handling team, help keep the crew fed, and cross off a bucket list item.
We motored to a designated location and the canal advisor hopped aboard in another touch-and-go maneuver. With the crew all aboard, we proceeded to the first lock in the spooky suspense of the rising sun.
The first lock passed in a blur of explanations and actions. Even with enhancements over the years, transiting is quite physical and requires vigilance of hauling in or letting out line. Since we were uplocking first, we had to pull in the slack as quickly as possible while the water rose and floated the boat. The motions reminded me of quick linehandling skills learned aboard Mudshark and Incognito, while racing sailboats in the SF Bay. In between these bouts of activity, I got to know Santiago and a bit about his life balanacing canal work and nursing school. He and Guiti have made hundreds of transits and their experience and jovial nature brought more confidence and fun to the day.
After we were raised 80 feet, it was time to cross Gatun Lake. It is largely undeveloped and felt like transiting a nature presere, with the occasional close crossings with large tankers. The surroundings seemed to resemble the Caribbean as we got closer, and Ulrich and Lis pointed out familiar species from their property in Bocas del Toro province.
The locks won’t run for a ship our size, and once fully elevated we began wondering and peeking on AIS to see which ship we might pair with on the way down. If a match wasn’t made, all six of us would be having a sleepover on anchor in Gatun Lake. While this would have been neat, the preferences on board veered towards a one-day transit and we were encouraged to push the engine. As you can imagine, our little old sailboat is on the slower end of the spectrum. The countless hours of maintenance poured into our Westerbeke and the extra cooling effect of freshwater in the lake kept us running well for over fifteen hours. Sailing is prohibited and our cruising speed is just above the required minimum.
We paired with a US government supply vessel and were treated to a stunning view from the top of the lock as we descended into the Caribbean like unplugging a bathtub drain.
Our trek felt like a graduation and a trip to the water park and a long road trip and a really good group project. The scale of excavation required to create this path between oceans was staggering, and the hands, backs, and brains required to build it were evident throughout.
We had a little collateral damage – an aluminum cleat failed when under pressure from the propeller wash of the boat in front of us in MIraflores. Ulrich quickly recovered the line, fastened it to a winch, and it was nothing more than an exciting moment and goofy picture.
We cooked up this idea to move to the east coast via sailboat about 2 years ago and canal transit was the most pivotal day since we sailed out the Golden Gate. Jimmy Cornell says “translating dreams into reality means a lot of practical questions have to be answered”. Our days in the Pacific had been more full of practicality than we perhaps anticipated, and the dream continues to unfold.
The Path Between the Seas by David McCollough
Colombia and Panama by Joseph Stromberg
Battle of the Bastards podcast – Panama/USA episode