The Panama Canal on a Sailboat

Like a good pot of soup, this idea kept simmering and simmering until it finally boiled over into a not-often repeated adventure. In February, our friends aboard Blue Raven said, “Why don’t you come with us and handle lines when we transit the Panama Canal in March?” That would be amazing, we thought, but we’ve got work and school and other life obligations. Still, simmer and stir.

[caption id="attachment_95675" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Opening the lock gates. Opening the lock gates.[/caption]

Work slowed down, and the kids’ teachers were on board. The pot boiled over when our friends said they were scheduled for a transit over a weekend. Affordable tickets would get all four of us to Panama on Thursday and back on Monday, so my husband, our 12 and seven-year-olds, and I packed our duffel bags and headed off to assume our roles as line handlers.

Thursday afternoon found us at Shelter Bay Marina near Colon, Panama. The marina is situated on a former U.S. naval base, now abandoned save for the marina facilities and a police academy. We heard tales of transients who had been at the marina for months, and as we enjoyed dinner at the dockside restaurant that night, I felt as if I was in a scene from Casablanca, where you wait … and wait … and wait.

While we waited, we had our first taste of the plentiful Panamanian friendliness. The cadets at the police academy saluted us in chorus with “Saludo a Panama” as we took an evening walk. The next day, a troupe of monkeys delighted us as they leapt from tree to tree, even across the road on which we walked.


Our turn to transit came on Friday. We received our rented lines for tying up in the locks of the canal, and we cast off. Small vessels such as sailboats usually transit the Panama Canal in two days. In the late afternoon, we welcomed our advisor aboard and headed for the Gatun Locks and our very small place in the story of a remarkable achievement.

The Panama Canal has existed for 102 years, but it has been dreamed of for half a millennium. The French were the first to try to turn dream into reality when they began a project to build a sea-level canal in the 1880s. Yellow fever and the challenges of the landscape doomed French efforts, and the United States purchased what was left of their equipment in 1902. While the U.S. faced the same daunting challenges that the French had faced, two crucial insights enabled America to succeed in building the canal. First, Dr. William Gorgas, working on his assumption that mosquitoes spread yellow fever, aggressively eradicated them, and consequently, fatalities resulting from yellow fever that previously numbered in the thousands ended. Second, chief engineer John Stevens realized that a sea level canal would be impossible to build and recommended a system of locks to raise ships 84 feet above sea level to pass through the mountains in central Panama and lower them back to sea level again.


This amazing engineering feat is still in place today, though an expansion project nearing conclusion will soon complement the original locks. Here we were approaching the massive buoyant gates of the Gatun Locks that have been swinging open and closed for more than a century. There are three locks on the Atlantic side and three on the Pacific side, with each measuring 1000 feet in length and 110 feet in width.

We nested, or rafted, in between two other small vessels, one a catamaran and the other a wooden canal boat offering daily tours. After much tying off of lines and adjusting of fenders, we started rising up in the lock amidst strong currents and dramatic whirlpools. Children and adults hopped around the boat, snapping photos, taking video, and smiling. The friendly crew in the canal boat didn’t have their cameras out. I asked how many times they had crossed; they do it every day.
Two locks later, under cover of darkness, we dropped our anchor in the stillness of Gatun Lake, which was formed by damming up the Chagres River between 1907 and 1913. At the time, Gatun Lake was the largest artificial lake ever created.

Saturday morning started slowly. We woke early and waited a few hours for our advisor to board Blue Raven. Twenty miles of motoring in the narrow ship channel of the very wide Gatun Lake followed. Except for the channel, the lake is shallow with many islands dotting the waterscape. Despite being fresh, the water looked as brown and brackish as Back Creek, reminding us of the Bay we sail on.

[caption id="attachment_95678" align="aligncenter" width="800"]culebra-cut Culebra Cut[/caption]

History caught our breath again as we approached Culebra Cut, the manmade canyons blasted through nine miles of mountains between Gamboa and Pedro Miguel over 100 years ago. The canyons are terraced, the channel narrow, and the ships enormous.

As we approached the Pedro Miguel locks, we had to form another nest of three vessels—this time with our catamaran neighbor from the night before and another monohull skippered by a couple from Florida. Rafting up proved to be the diciest part of the whole adventure. The wind blew 20 knots straight through the channel, and the current flowed in the opposite direction. Our advisors suggested first that we try rafting beam to the wind and current and then running downwind. A third try succeeded mid-channel and upwind.

Our nest led the way into the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks. Behind us, mules (diesel locomotive engines) pulled in our lock mate, a rather looming tanker named Strategic Venture. On the way down the locks, the gates revealed their riveted artistry as the water drained away. Great egrets occasionally stood guard, watching over the locks and the traffic.

One, two, three locks behind us, and suddenly, we were in the Pacific, casting off lines from our fellow transiters. Then, on to the anchorage off Balboa Yacht Club, where we spent the next two nights right next to the ship channel. On our last evening, we ate bowls of chicken soup and talked of the dreams ahead for our friends in the Pacific and the dreams ahead for us on the Chesapeake. Then, with the soup pot empty and our spirits full of the adventure we had just shared, we flew home.

by Tracy Leonard