The Panama Canal

Around 13,000-14,000 vessels pass through the Panama Canal each year, at a rate of about 35-40 per day. Earlier this month Loki was one of them. The Panama Canal turned 100 years old in 2014, but even after all of this time, it still stands out as one of the true engineering marvels of the world. The initial construction of the Panama Canal dates back 1880-1893 to when it was started by the French, then was completed by the Americans 1904-1914. You can imagine the extraordinary difficulties of building a giant engineering project, in hot, humid and rugged jungle, more than 100 years ago. It is estimated some 22,000 workers perished during the French construction period, and another 5,600 during the American era. Challenging terrain, rampant tropical diseases such as malaria and yellow fever, and even earthquakes all contributed to the death toll.

Here’s a link to a 2 minute time-lapse movie I made of Loki going through the first three Gatun locks:

On the Atlantic side there is a series of three locks that raise vessels 26 metres up to the Gatun Lake. Ships continue through the lake without stopping, but yachts like us anchor overnight. The next day we continued south for 32 nautical miles up to Gamboa, where the Culebra Cut begins. Here a channel has been excavated through rock, 8 miles long, 150 metres wide and about 20 metres deep. At the end of this channel are the Pedro Miguel & Miraflores Locks that lower us 9.4 metres and 16 metres, respectively. The canal locks are gravity fed by the Gatun, Alajuela and Miraflores Lakes. A local taxi driver told me that it basically rains for 7 months of the year during the rainy season, so water isn’t a problem.

Only Panama Canal Pilots working with the Panama Canal Authority are able to captain a ship through the Panama Canal. When a ship enters the canal, they are boarded by a pilot, who has full control over the boat until it exits the canal. All yachts have an official Panama Canal advisor aboard, as did we. The advisors have other jobs they do for the Canal authority, like tug boat captains, dredge boat captains and launch skippers, so they know the vagaries of the canal well, which makes for a less stressful transit. Our first advisor was also called Adrian and made us feel very at ease. It was interesting doing a night transit and fascinating watching the water pour into the locks at the rate of a million gallons a minute!

The second day was a much longer day. A different canal advisor arrived and we enjoyed a pleasant motor through the middle section of the canal before it was time to nest up again for the second set of locks.

The sheer enormity of the lock infrastructure is quite awesome. Each lock chamber has two doors, 20 metres wide, two metres thick and 14-25 metres high, operating on massive hinges powered by electric motors recessed within the lock walls. The gates are hollow and buoyant, much like the hull of a ship, and are so well balanced that two 25 hp motors are enough to move each gate leaf. If one motor fails, the other can still operate the gate at reduced speed. Each gate has two leaves which close to a “V” shape with the point upstream. The force of water from the higher side pushes the ends of the gates together firmly. The gates can be opened only when the water level on both sides is equal.

Ships are guided by electric towing locomotives, known as mules (named after the animals traditionally used to cross the isthmus of Panama). These mules are used for side-to-side and braking control in the locks, which are narrow relative to modern-day ships. Forward motion into and through the locks is actually provided by the ship’s engines and not the mules. A ship approaching the locks first pulls up to the guide wall, which is an extension of the centre wall of the locks, where it is taken under control by the mules on the wall before proceeding into the lock. As it moves forward, additional lines are taken to mules on the other wall. Smaller vessels, such as private yachts (like us), are taken as handline transits, where mooring lines to the lock walls are handled manually by line handlers on the vessels and the docks. Yachts like us mostly go through “nested” or rafted up with two other yachts, behind or in front of a ship. We were very happy to be the middle yacht in the “nest”, which meant that we two very large fenders (the other yachts) between us and the lock walls. There are some horror stories about yachts spinning out of control in the locks. We heard of a 62 foot yacht that recently completed much of a lock transit backwards!

Since its original construction the canal has been expanded with another set of deeper, wider locks to accommodate the mega “Panamax” vessels which can carry 14,000-18,000 20-foot containers. We heard that the highest transit fee for large ships in a hurry can be as much as $1million for just one transit. On the second day of our transit we noticed that only one side of the dual locks system was being used. We were advised that regrettably there had been a fatality just a short time earlier that day when a bob-cat driver had somehow ended up in the lock, bob-cat and all. It’s never a good thing when a person doesn’t return home after going to work, and it was a timely reminder of how things can sometimes go so very horribly wrong. But luckily for us, before we knew it we were safely into the Pacific.

We couldn’t resist the temptation to buy Panama hats in Panama City. The boys had lots of fun trying on assorted styles. After doing a final round of provisioning and getting the boat fumigated (mandatory for going to the Galapgos) it was time to venture south. We felt very blessed to be greeted by a whale on our first day in Pacific.

We thought we were going to the Galapgos Islands to experience the wildlife. It turns out the wildlife decided to come and find us about 250nm out from the islands. There’s something quite magical about sailing along in the ocean with a couple boobies on your bow! They weren’t the least bit concerned by the plastic snake we had positioned there. We were escorted by the red-footed variety for many, many miles, until it became all too much for Fitzy with eight hitch-hikers taking up residence and he started chasing them away.

Along the way to the Galapagos we achieved another important milestone, crossing the equator under our own steam. The next day we were treated to a formal Equatorial Crossing Ceremony by King Neptune’s official representative, none other than Kath Solly (being the only Shellback on board who had previously crossed the equator in the Indian Ocean). For us three remaining pollywogs, we had to swear allegiance to King Neptune, etc, to become duly anointed as Shellbacks, complete with official certificates! Much fun was had by all. Thanks Kath for all the effort you put in.

We are now in the Galapagos and looking forward to exploring these enchanted islands. After we leave here we will be at sea for about 3 weeks on our way to the Marquesas, so don’t forget to leave a comment or drop us an email, as we’d love to hear from you. We are wondering what’s been happening in your world?

Happy Easter. Hope all is good at your end.

Hasta la vista,



With acknowledgements to:


Canal Transit Update

We’ve been advised that our Canal Advisor/Pilot (every boat must have one) won’t be boarding us until 17:30 hours. By the time we get ourselves nested with the other yachts (there are usually three rafted together) I think that’ll put us at the entrance to the first locks about an hour later, at around 9:30am Australian time. If we’re later than that we may well be going through in the dark. Hopefully we’ll go through the Miraflores locks in daylight tomorrow.



Farewell Atlantic & Caribbean

So, I have a passport therefore I can travel internationally, right? Ever since I was a teenager I’ve had the freedom to pretty much travel wherever and whenever I’ve wanted to, depending upon what time and budget allowed. We recently came face to face with a very different reality for so many people around the world. We arrived with our yacht at Obaldia, Panama, which is very close to the border with Colombia. It was here we planned to clear into the country and cruise nor’ west along the coast. Outside the Immigration office there were about thirty or so people making quite a ruckous, many speaking loudly in Spanish. After we’d completed our formalities I spoke with a couple of the girls who told me they had come from Cuba and that the intention of their group was to join “the caravan” going to the USA. If I understood them correctly, they said they had flown to Venezuela, crossed overland into Colombia, then taken a boat around to Panama. Their group included Haitians, Venuzuelans, Africans, Surinamians, etc. The poor young guy at Immigration, who spoke quite good English, explained that he was not authorised to admit them into Panama. So these people were in immigration limbo. We then understood why there was such a visible military presence, with clusters of army guys about the place and in the Immigration office. Then we noticed the tents dotted along the shore, which suggested these people were planning to settle in for the long haul. How bad must it be in the place where you live, that you think it’s better to try and travel through umpteen different countries (often walking vast distances), to get to another country that has already said they won’t accept you? They looked like normal, rational people, and not just a pack of ratbags. I would have loved to have been able to spend some more time with them, to gain an understanding of their situation, but that didn’t seem appropriate under the gaze of the gun-toting army guys. We wished them good luck as we parted, but the utter futility of their predicament was not lost on us. It was a timely reminder for us that we are indeed very privileged to be doing what we are doing.



Having completed Panamanian Customs, Immigration, Port Police, National Police and obtaining a Cruising Permit, we were now free to travel along the coastal area known locally as the Guna Yala, or San Blas islands. There are 365 islands, of which only 49 are inhabited. The local indigenous people still lead a fairly traditional life, tending their vegetable gardens and doing a bit of fishing. The kids need to leave the islands to go to secondary school, but we did see older kids playing soccer and volleyball, so evidently some do return. Coconuts are an important part of their economy and are exported to Colombia for use in gelatin, biscuits, sweets and shampoo, amongst other things. But the area is most famous for the “molas” produced by the women. These cloths are made from layers of coloured fabric from which patterns are cut out then the remaining areas are stitched together onto the base layer. Whilst the men have adopted the western form of dress, molas are incorporated into the colourful traditional clothing which is very proudly worn by the local women. Kath and I couldn’t resist the temptation to purchase some small momentos of our visit to the area. Meanwhile, Ben amused himself admiring the local wooden boats.

The villages we visited were, for the most part, very neat and orderly. However it saddened us greatly to see the scourge of plastic waste in some coastal areas. This is not waste generated by the village, but has probably travelled many miles at sea before being washed up on their shoreline. When are humans ever going to wake up to the massive global problem that is plastic? But I have to say, the biggest bit of junk we saw was a sorry and salient reminder of the boat-munching reefs that abound in this part of the world, a yacht skeleton washed up on the shore, the result of someone’s unfortunate misadventure about three years ago. We felt really bad for the couple that we spoke to who now have to put up with this wreck sitting in their backyard. Aren’t insurance companies meant to clean up mess like this?


After visiting some of the villages we enjoyed some chillaxing time in the outer uninhabited cays. The locals have got it sussed. Realising that yachties like a good feed they zoom about in their wooden canoes amongst the various anchorages. I kid you not, the first lobsters were on board before we’d even finished anchoring. They were still kicking and at US$4 a kilo an absolute bargain! The fresh fish the next day were very nice too.


It was then time to make our way towards the Panama Canal. This is one very busy waterway, with shipping going in all directions. We’ve spent the last week and a half at Shelter Bay Marina getting ready to transit the Canal. We’re about an hour from Colon, stuck out on the edge of the jungle, but the marina puts on daily buses to a shopping centre so it’s relatively convenient. As I sit here writing this I can hear the howler monkeys howling nearby. We’ve undertaken various maintenance tasks, along with some more provisioning. The new mainsail has been hoisted and happily fits well. Upon our arrival in Curacao we discovered our wind instruments and bow thruster (both fairly essential items) had decided to stop working properly. Bummer! Much to our relief, the parts we ordered have finally arrived here at Shelter Bay, because once we’re through the canal we really will be of “no fixed address” for some months. We’ve rented the requisite large fenders & extra long lines, as well as an additional line handler for the transit (every vessel must have four). Loki has now been measured and we have our official Panama Canal Ship ID number. We are now ready for the Pacific! Amongst all this we also made sure we had some time out to celebrate Kath’s birthday last Tuesday and took a nice walk to an old Spanish fort nearby. Happy birthday Kath!


A few days ago Fitzy and I had a sneak canal transit preview, joining our Danish friends on “North Star” for their transit. Thanks for the opportunity Marie & Kim! We’ve heard a few stories about the odd yacht losing control in the locks. With a fill rate of a million gallons a minute there’s a shipload of water moving about, so it’s essential to be on your toes. It was good to have first-hand experience of how it all works and what to expect when we take Loki through.



So tomorrow the adventure continues. It will be “hasta luego Atlantic Ocean, hello Pacific”. All very exciting really! We should be at the Gatun locks around 3pm Sunday our time (7am Monday morning in Australia), so if you check out the web cams at you might even see us going through. We then anchor overnight in the Gatun Lakes before continuing the canal transit the next day. I’m not sure what time we’ll get to Miraflores locks on Monday, as there are many variables, but we could be there at a similar time, or a bit later. In the first set of locks we’ll probably have a big ship in front of us, but at Miraflores the yachts go first.

We’ll be in Panama City for a few days before heading off to the Galapagos, so don’t forget to drop us an email and tell us what’s happening in your world. It may be the last time we’ll have internet for a while, but hopefully I’ll be able to post about our Canal transit. See you next on the other side!

Hasta pronto!