Traversing the Panama Canal – A Uniquely Panamanian Experience

By Linda Card for Inside Panama Real Estate

There are lots of fun, interesting and exciting things you can do here in Panama… river rafting, zip lining, bird watching, hiking or cycling to name a few. Of course, these are activities you can enjoy in many places, in many parts of the world. But there is one experience you can have only in Panama, and that is a transit of the Panama Canal.

As a former cruiser (a person who travels the world living aboard a sailboat), being invited to transit the canal aboard a friend’s sailboat was a no-brainer. “When do we leave?” was my only question! My friend is captain of a 47 foot catamaran named Viva, with plenty of room on board, and he has done over a dozen transits of the canal aboard his own or other boats. We met up in Colon, where he was anchored off the Club Nautico Caribe, bought groceries for the crew, and prepared to depart the next day.

Every vessel transiting the canal must meet strict requirements set by the Panama Canal Authority (ACP). They call all the shots, scheduling when you go, where you stop, and who rides along. Every sailboat must have a captain and at least four crew members, whose primary role is to handle the lines when the boat is inside the locks.

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In the canal locks

In addition to the captain, the crew of Viva consisted of my husband, two friends of the captain who had previous canal transit experience, and me. As instructed by the ACP, we got underway from the flats outside Colon at 5:30 pm on Saturday afternoon.

Our Advisor, Oswald, was with us as we approached the Gatun Locks. All vessels that make the transit have an appointed professional of the ACP on board. For larger and commercial vessels, a Pilot is always on board and directs all activity from the bridge (the ship’s control center). Private and smaller vessels carry an Advisor, who directs all movement of the boat through the canal.

I took advantage of the opportunity to ask Oswald questions as we were underway. He told me there are about 200 Pilots and 80 Advisors on staff, with more Pilots in training to be ready when the expansion of the canal is complete. While piloting is a full time job, being an Advisor is a second job for these guys. Many of them work full time at some other position for the ACP, and take shifts on the weekends as Advisors. Oswald has been working as a civil engineer in the dredging operations of the canal for 13 years, and has been an Advisor for six years. He was with us until we anchored for the night, and the next day our new Advisor, Amado, joined us. With 20 years working for the ACP as a launch foreman and 10 years as an Advisor, Amado knows all there is to know about the canal.

Both Oswald and Amado spoke enthusiastically about their work, the boaters they meet and advise, and the huge project of widening the canal. From Colon, the new segment of the canal branches off to the left, or east side, and at the other end near Panama City, it branches off to the right or west side. To give you an idea of the scope of the post-Panamax ships that will be accommodated by the new locks, current Panamax ships carry a maximum of 4000 containers. The post-Panamax behemoths will carry three times that number: 12,000 containers. Wow!

Viva passed through the three Gatun Locks after dark, but the lighting made it seem like daytime. We spent the night peacefully at anchor off the yacht club at the edge of Lake Gatun. This recreational area is used by ACP employees on their free days, and by cruise ship passengers who come ashore to enjoy a welcome ceremony complete with traditional costumes and dances, and spend a few hours shopping at Colon’s Duty Free Zone.

Getting underway early on Sunday we crossed Gatun Lake with Amado as our Advisor and tour guide. He explained that the canal is divided into sections referred to as reaches, and every reach is named for a village that existed prior to the flooding caused by the creation of the canal system. It is a way to commemorate the people whose lives were so dramatically changed, and it is all that is left of these villages. Amado told us that divers have described the remains of some of these places as underwater ghost towns.

A village that is very much alive is the one on Isla Barro Colorado, the largest island in Lake Gatun, and the only inhabited island in the canal. As we passed Barro Colorado we could see the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, a major installation for scientific research and environmental studies. Tours of the island can be arranged from either Colon or Panama City.

Once through the lake the next landmark is Gamboa, a busy confluence of dredging equipment, ferries, tour boats, and huge ships. The small town along the shore supports all this activity, and the nearby Rainforest Resort is a jungle refuge for visitors from around the world. Ironically, just a little further on Amado pointed out El Renacer, which is anything but a refuge! It is the country’s most renowned prison, and home for life to the former president, Noriega.

We had to navigate two more sets of locks before reaching the Pacific Ocean, one at Pedro Miguel, and two at Miraflores. Rafted alongside another sailboat, we only needed two active line handlers aboard Viva, which left me free to take pictures! What is so impressive about being inside the locks is how incredibly fast the water fills the enclosure, and equally, how fast it is evacuated. This is accomplished with nothing more than gravity! It truly is an amazing engineering feat.

Once through the Miraflores Locks the captain and Advisor can finally relax, and we got a thrill from passing under both the Centennial Bridge and the Bridge of the Americas. We said good-bye to Amado as he stepped from the deck of Viva to a waiting launch, then made our way around the point of Amador and Flamenco Island to set the anchor at Las Brisas in Panama Bay, with a stunning view of the city skyline.

We made it through the canal without a scratch, and the passage was uneventful, which is exactly what you hope for aboard a sailboat! If you ever have the opportunity to complete a transit of the Panama Canal, do not miss the chance to experience this marvel of the modern world at sea level.

Read more about The Panama Canal here!

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