Our transit through the Panama Canal on Zao

01-02 April 2018 – 50’ Bluewater Catamaran

UK John &Caroline, David & Maryann

Advisor : Robin – Security Boats

Day One : Shelter Bay to The Flats

Found out around midday on Easter Sunday that the transit would start at 06:00 the next day, and we would go through in one day. John was advised to go over to The Flats to anchor for the night so we were asked to get to the boat by 17:00. We got our stuff together and headed for Albrook, joining a bus at about 13:00. Deafening music gave way to a soapie, but we had our usual music players anyway. Amazingly we left right on 13:20 which was the scheduled time! Uneventful trip until Sabanitas where a guy with a banjo got on and sang a few songs!

We got off at Cuatro Altos at 13:30 and quickly found a nice taxi that agreed to $25. Our luck continued as we drove straight onto the ferry and only waited a few minutes to depart, so we were at Shelter Bay by 15:15 and found Zao.

John told us to go to the pool as they were still getting organised, so we were very happy to do that.

Chatted with a guy who is on a 31 foot yacht, wondering how he was going to get through the Canal. John and Caroline joined us at the pool but they had just got bad news from home so they were soon busy on the internet trying to sort some things out. We had a beer at the restaurant and waited for them to be ready.

It was17:15 when we cast off and headed out of the Marina and over to The Flats. We anchored at 18:00 and settled in to chat over a couple of drinks. Really interesting people and plenty of experience with big catamarans so things should be easy tomorrow.

The Shelter Bay Marina entrance looks very narrow from a catamaran

Not the nicest place to anchor as we were surrounded by the port and the construction site for the new power plant, with lots of crew boats and tugs blasting around. Was a beautiful sunset though.

We had dinner around 19:00 and then at 20:30 they all headed off to bed – yachtie midnight! Russ and I stayed up a bit longer but there was no cold beer so we were not too far behind them. Our cabin was enormous, with big windows right at water level, and two hatches that provided a perfect cross breeze. Makes such a difference when we can actually get some sleep on these transits.

Day Two : Gatun locks : Centre chamber rafted, Miraflores & Pedro Miguel locks : Centre chamber rafted

We didn’t set an alarm but were up around 06:00 and got on deck just after Robin the Advisor at around 06:15. We got on the move straight away, along with the catamaran that we were to raft up with.

The French bridge is developing fast now and looks like it might meet in the middle fairly soon. The word is that it will be ready in October.

We got secured in a raft ok although there were a few too many people giving instructions. Then as we headed into the locks Robin called out to us to catch the heaving lines and it dawned on us that we were going to be doing all of the linehandling! I took the stern which is usually more work, but on a catamaran you have the advantage of not working at your feet as you can step down.

Robin made things a lot harder than they needed to be as he hurried us in behind a big ship so there was lots of wash making maneuvering difficult. The shore guys had to send their lines a long way so they missed several times.
The discussion about which knot to attach the heaving line with continues. Russell tied a clove hitch and the guy ashore asked him to change it to a bowline, but his buddy said to leave it as it was. Robin’s vote was for a bowline as he reasoned that the guys are familiar with it, even if it is not so easy to untie with a monkey’s fist on the line.

Throughout the Gatun locks we were always well over to starboard, squishing Nakamakula very close to the wall. They were not helping things by hauling their lines in diligently, rather than letting the raft ease into the centre. In the second lock we were very close to ramming Nakamakula into the wall, but I managed to get my line made fast quickly so they stopped inches away. Robin even said “good job, you saved the day”! For me it goes to show that line handlers need to be competent more than strong. The shore guy was telling me to pull in my line but that was not going to happen while there was tension on it, and a big strong guy would not have achieved much anyway. My arm was still sore from the previous transit so I was already doing more pulling than I was happy with.

We made it through Gatun by 09:40 and started the trek to the next locks. Lots of lovely Guayacan flowering around the place, with huge splashes of bright yellow and some occasional pink.

Guayacan trees that flower for three days, twice a year

At 13:35 we tied up to the waiting wall at Pedro Miguel. The other catamaran had lost an engine so we were to go centre chamber. Poor guy probably had been told to go as fast as possible but he only has small engines and something let go.

At 14:05 the other cat appeared and we rafted up while still alongside, then went through the lock ok. At Miraflores we were told we had to stop at the forebay again. This time the dock was pretty much underwater which made fenders less than useful, and we had a strong breeze behind us as often happens, and of course another boat hanging off the side. We settled in a precarious position but John stayed calm which made up for Caroline getting bit stressed.

Tricky tying up to a submerged dock

Finally we got going with the car carrier right behind us. The guy on the stern of the other boat was pretty much letting his line run free but Robin said it was fine. Not that he was paying much attention as he sat on his phone in the cockpit.

The last lock had plenty of current and wind behind us but John made it look easy and by 16:05 we were suggesting the cold beer appeared.

They were going to La Playita so we stayed on rather than jumping off at Balboa, as we decided a taxi to the front door was a better option than the walk along Balboa wharf and up the hill!. We were moored by 17:30 and waited while they settled in and balanced the lines, then we were home by 18:00.

We asked Robin about this one day transit and it seems it is an experiment that they are still evaluating. We think the night on Gatun Lake is nice, but it was also good to get the transit done in one day. Didn’t make any difference to the time we spent away from home anyway.

NeoPanamax heading into Agua Clara locks

Traffic heading for Gatun locks, with one ship descending

Gatun locks closing on the Caribbean

Rowboat taking lines out to a ship

Russell in action

NoePanamax ships are huge!

Our lock buddy only just caught up

A Panama wait

NeoPanamax in Cocoli locks

Panama City skyline