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:


One thought on “The Panama Canal

  1. Love your blogs Kate. Thanks – I learned so much about the Panama Canal through your research and first hand experiences. Safe travel, Jan (Ben’s big sis)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *