Panama Canal transit

After a few days of battling with some boat jobs in Shelter Bay we were as ready as we’d ever be to head through the canal.

We managed to tick off lots of old jobs that had been hanging around- most importantly was was handheld remote for the main VHF radio. The charging cradle for this had broken a few weeks back and it’s very useful to be able to control the main VHF from on deck. Our dealer had sent out a replacement so I wired it up and thought everything was working perfectly.

The day before we left I thought it wise to check the radio. The handheld worked perfectly. The main radio. Nothing.

Over a very stressful hour I managed to find someone who’d kindly email me over the electrical and fuse locations for everything and fixed the fuse for the radio which must have blown when I connected up the cradle. I replaced this, kept my fingers crossed and turned on the main radio. It worked. Time to breath again.

During our 5 nights at shelter bay I learn’t how to fix radios, service shower pumps, learn’t what ‘thermal runaway’ is and how to prevent it, and 100 other things. The skills required for doing a trip like this are never ending it seems and there’s always something new to learn.

The morning of our transit was pretty easy going in comparison to the crazy days beforehand. We had nothing to do but wait.

Around midday our line handlers showed up. We hired two professional guys who’d done numerous transits called Chris and Felix, plus Marie, a French girl from a boat that had just sailed in and wanted experience of the canal before helping her skipper through. With Helen helping that made the four we needed. I was to skipper the boat and our canal advisor, who’s basically a pilot you take on board and tells you what to do, made up the rest of the boat. Six people! Interlude was pretty full and felt very heavy with all the food, water and extra fuel we were carrying.

At around 2pm we were ready to leave Shelter Bay and head out to the ‘Flats’ anchorage where you await your pilot.

People gathered to wish us well including everyone off Marie’s boat who were wearing Sydney t-shirts they picked up visiting Oz a while back. So nice to have a good send off.

I pressed the engine start button and…

The engine was fine. But the electrical fan in the engine room (which you can hear just before you start the main engine) wasn’t working.

Without this fan the engine could overheat. And we’d be motoring the whole canal. Panic mode!

I raced downstairs with Helen and grabbed the laptop and started to wade through the electrical diagrams, fuse charts, and other PDFs trying to locate the fuse for the fan. Everyone up stairs was still saying their goodbyes but the pressure was on.

I found the diagram, traced the wires back to the fuse panel. Ran over and found that when I was repairing the VHF radio I must have put the fuse for the fan in the wrong place. I popped it back over one slot and asked Helen to try again.

She turned on the starter, the fan powered up. The engine started perfectly.

I honestly don’t think I’ve ever had such a panicked, stressful, moment on the boat. Everyone waiting… The transit booked…

It really goes to show just how important having documents for EVERYTHING onboard is.

Luckily I don’t think anyone on deck realised anything had happened.

As the adrenaline subsided we eased out of our slip and headed over to wait on the Flats.

We were lucky enough to get the same slot with Pippy and Richard on Matelot- the Kiwi’s we’d met weeks before and had been sailing around with since. They headed out with their crew about an hour later and we hung out on anchor.


Around 5:30pm the pilot boat pulled up and radioed over to us to approach them. In order to get our advisor on board I had to position the boat close enough to them for him to safely step on board. No problem! 20 knots of wind, bit of roll to add to the fun, and they want me to get within 1 meter and hold her there. We managed to get the guy on board with no damage but Helen and I couldn’t help thinking there must be a safer way to do such an operation.

Our advisor / pilot was called Asfa. He was a lovely chap who gave us a run down on what we’d be doing. You only get to learn who you’re heading through with once he arrives and what formation you’ll be in. For our first night, yes sailing boats transit at night just to add to the fun, we’d be following a 230m tanker called Planca Muscat into all the docks while nested next to the Kiwi’s.

30mins after Asfa arrived we saw Palanca Muscat on AIS heading our way, we left the Flats and followed her down the channel with the Pippy and Richard following closely behind.

As the huge tanker sorted his lines out we needed to come alongside Matelot and raft up alongside  them. The advisors here asked too much the first time. The wind was blowing up to 25knots by this point, we were in the dark, and heading downwind. As we approached and tried to get lines to each other it became clear it wasn’t going to work so I backed away. We then tried upwind which was much more stable. I managed to hold the boat in place while the guys raced around with lines throwing them over to the Kiwi boat and ramming fenders in place wherever possible. It was pretty full on but we managed to get safely connected with no damage to either boat. We then turned back downwind towards the tanker and followed her into the first dock.

Panama1bYou can’t get a sense of the scale of these docks until you’re close to them. The engineering of everything is off the chart. Everything’s been super-sized. Bolts are the size of large trees, nuts the size of cars. The dock gates themselves are vast. The workers look like ants walking around them.

As we slowed up behind the tanker it was time for some monkey fist action. Basically to keep the boats from bouncing off the walls when the water is pumped in or out you need four lines, one of each corner of the nested sailboats connected to strong points on the docks. These lines are 50m long, as that’s how high the dock walks get, and very heavy. Our line handlers need to get the lines up to the canal workers high above.

So what happens is this…

The line handlers on the wall throw thin lines with tied up balls on the ends for weight (called monkey fists). These ping off the boats or go in the water until our line handlers catch one. Then the heavy lines are tired to the thin lines and fed back up to the guys above.

As we were a good 30-40m below the guys throwing the monkey fists this wasn’t that easy with the winds. Time and again they’d try as we motored slowly towards the tanker beyond. One smacked the solar panels, which is why you’re told to cover them up to protect them, and bounced off into the water. Another almost hit one of our line handles in the face so he had to duck out of the way. It’s quite funny to see the guys above throw again and again, their pace going from quite relaxed at first then having to run down the walls to keep pace with us as time runs out.

It felt like we’d never get a line on and just smack into the tanker but two perfect throws from the canal guys and some great fielding from our line handlers meant we got our larger lines up to them just in time.


Matelot to the side of us was of course also having the same fun next to us. They also needed many tries but also got their lines passed up.

We slowed as we entered the first dock, the echos of workers and the radios of our advisors bouncing off the walls. We stopped about 20m behind the tanker and the lines from each corner were tightened. The huge lock gates shut behind us and water started pumping in. It’s so amazing to experience this. Millions of gallons of water get pumped into the lock over just a few minutes. The turbulence was extreme, you can feel the boats pulling on each other lines groaning under the stresses. We were raised 25m in next to no time, the line handlers having to take in the slack while Richard (the skipper on Matelot) and myself fought to keep the boats straight. The stress on the cleats must have been crazy. And upwards, which is not what they are designed for at all.

Once at the top we could see back out from where we’d just come. 20-25m in the air with just a lock door holding all that pressure within.

The gates in front opened and the tanker, it’s lines handled by huge train wagons on rails, moved forward. The wash as he moved out of the lock again caused powerful turbulence which we had to counter.

Four canal workers, one for each corner then led us out walking alongside us as we motored forwards. I don’t think they liked the pace our advisors set as they had to almost run to keep up with us.

We then repeated the process in the second dock. And then the third. Each time being pushed higher to reach the height of the man-made lake in the middle of the canal.

Our only real issue happened in the second dock when our rear line got caught in the wall as we were moving down the lane. Our line handler, and the canal guy above, couldn’t free it so in the end the line was cut. With only three lines we needed to counter the effects with some quick steering and engine work but kept everything in place under a fresh line was thrown down. We now have a souvenir monkey fist onboard!

Just after 9:30pm we exited the final dock. The tanker we’d followed raced off into the night and we headed into the freshwater lake where we were to spend the night.


We moored up alongside a small US boat who were heading the other way. Our advisor was picked up and we all headed to bed, tired from all the excitement of the hours before.

It was an amazing experience for us. Doing it at night added to the effect I think. And it was great to have friends on the boat next to us. Was quite the party atmosphere, mixed in with a good helping of fear and tension. The advisors did a great job through and we always felt safe.

We stayed overnight in a lovely still lake lit by a full moon and the lights of passing tankers in the distance.

The next morning we awoke early (our second advisor was due on board around 6:30am) to a wonderful sunrise.

Panama1dWe had some breakfast, the crew slowly woke up, and the pilot showed up on time. With that we were off again, well after swinging round to pick up Marie who’d somehow been left behind on the mooring as all the lines were thrown off. Oops.

Panama1eWe had 25 miles to travel through the man-made lake towards the set of locks on the Pacific side that would slowly drop us back down to sea level. The reason the lake was flooded so high is that it made an easy passage through all the mountains and hills. Why blast through when you can sail over right?

The lake itself is very beautiful with lots of birds flying around the man-made islands. The tops of 100 year old trees can still be seen in the water, their bases once above ground before the lake was flooded.

We had a lovely few hours moving through the lake before mooring up outside the locks where we waited for our slot. For our second day we were to raft up with two other boats. Matelot again and a lovely old 60’ Swan sailboat called King´s Legend. The nesting process went much smoother this time and we headed into the locks together very controlled.

Panama1gThe first two locks back down to sea level went without a hitch. But the last lock is well known for it’s turbulence due to fresh water mixing with salt. I’d read that this always effects the port side boat (which we were) so was ready to try and correct things if we did get swung around.

As soon as the water started draining the pressure on the rudder was huge. All three boats started to twist as we drifted closer to the wall. The advisors were on top of this in a flash shouting over clear instructions to the outer boats which fixed the issue. The last lock gate opened and before us was a river leading out to the Pacific!

We broke away from the other two boats and grabbed a mooring at the Balboa Yacht club just outside the last lock. Pippy and Richard from Matelot did the same and seconds later a small ferry turned up to collect the fenders, lines, and our guests. It was quite surreal how quickly we went from packed boat to being totally empty again. We hardly got a chance to thank our line handlers for all the great work they’d done keeping us and Interlude safe.

Panama1iWe radioed over to Matelot, who were also now alone. We got the dingy out and popped over for some celebrationary drinks and to debrief the last 48 hours.

Panama1jThe canal was probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us and really lived up to the hype. We actually preferred the first night in the dark. It seemed to add to the excitement.

Being that close to supertankers, and seeing just how small you are when placed in machinery built for their world, was amazing to witness. Yes it was quite stressful at times and we’re pleased it’s behind us now but we also loved every second of it!

One thought on “Panama Canal transit

  1. When I was reading your blog
    It was as if I was there with you on
    Interlude .by the end I felt so tied and was please you got to the other side

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