There are places where everyone should visit at least once in their life. The Panama Canal is just such a place. The cultural, historical and logistical significance of this masterpiece of engineering can hardly be overestimated, so it's worth taking a glimpse of the Panama Canal. Tim Lynskey - journalist and yachtsman - shares his experience of crossing the channel.
Learn more about the Panama Canal
For first-time visitors to the Panama Canal Zone, there is a wealth of research and literature. Start with historian David McCullough's 1977 book A Path Between the Seas. There are many books and websites on the net dealing with more recent events.
Among the interesting pages of the history of the canal is the transfer of the canal from the US to Panama in 1999 and the opening in 2016 of the second set of locks for the passage of huge Panamax and Neopanamax ships (up to 1200 feet in total length, carrying up to 14,000 20-foot containers). This is more to soak up the atmosphere of the channel and its history. But at a minimum, you will already be aware of many of the technical aspects of its construction and characteristics.
Do not forget about who needs to provide data on the type of your yacht, its length, width, number of hulls (if catamaran). A lot of useful information can be found on the Internet, including from the Panama Canal Authority itself. On the net, you will also undoubtedly meet other cruisers who have already made this trip.
The Panama Canal is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and communication for all aspects of transit is now possible via email, text messages and WhatsApp.
Need an assistant agent?
How is your Spanish? If at the level of a tourist, it is better to hire an interpreter. It is he who will help to carry out qualitatively at all checkpoints and solve all kinds of problems and issues with local authorities.
Moreover, the agent will help you through all procedures related to customs and police. A good agent will describe every step of the way and keep you up to date on what exactly they are doing, for example, customs with your yacht.
Transit requires presenting the right documents to the right government official at the right office at the right time, and given the language barrier, there's a pretty high chance you could get confused. The agent will not allow this.
Overall, the cost of this undertaking, including transit fee, security fee, fender and line rental, agent fee, Panama cruise permit, and one line handler and pilot/consultant, was just over $2,900. Not cheap, but crossing the Panama Canal doesn't happen every day!
Tim Lynskey, editor of one of the major US yachting publications, recently crossed the Panama Canal himself. He describes this grandiose event as follows (further from his words):
“Before heading to the canal, we spent about 10 days looking for a company to arrange transit at the Shelter Bay marina. We found a full-service facility about two or three miles from the canal entrance. After that we realized that we needed a pilot. Our agent agreed with a local guy Juan, who was studying to be a canal pilot, to join us.
As soon as we were inside the Gatun lock, the sound of electric locomotives rang out, and the sliding steel gates of the lock closed behind us. Twenty-six million gallons of water rushed in, silently lifting our yacht.
If someone deals with the issue of security, then everything is like in classic gateways. If you are not familiar with them, then I recommend that you read them. Just for the sake of not getting into trouble.
For experienced ones, you will be fastened with lines. Keep two bow and two stern lines taut. We leased our lines from the Panama Canal Authority. Be sure to loosen the lines to avoid excessive stress.
After being released from the three Gatun locks, most yachts spend the night at the official mooring in Lake Gatun. The next journey usually falls on the morning of the next day. However, swimming from the boat is prohibited due to the crocodiles.
This short cut between the seas is also a cut through the jungle: howler monkeys, small creatures bobbing under the canopy, roar like an 18-wheeler, while jaguars and cougars make their way through the rainforest. And if you come during the rainy season from May to November, you're more likely to get a downpour: Panama gets 12 feet of rain a year.
The rest of the transit went smoothly. The interoceanic waterway turns into long winding stretches, including passages through mountain ranges, which were won at a huge cost in human lives - approximately 25,000 people died from tropical diseases and industrial accidents during the construction of the canal from 1880 to 1914. Only the last two locks - Pedro Miguel and Miraflores - and the channel lowered us into the Pacific Ocean.
It's worth it
History and politics heavily influence the Panama Canal, but for cruisers, the experience is educational and magical in equal measure.
More than 100 years ago, the canal was dug with the help of steam-powered excavators and men with shovels. Some of the cutting edge technology of yesteryear, such as electric locomotives operating lines running on both sides of the locks, is still in operation today.
Canal tugs costing millions of dollars with multi-directional engines are state-of-the-art technology. The six new Panamax locks are examples of engineering and construction. This colossal project took over 1.5 billion cubic feet of concrete and 192,000 tons of steel reinforcement.
Such a trip, although short, is worth the money and resources spent. And after all, it is not every year that a passage through the Panama Canal is planned.
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