Transiting the Panama Canal

From the time I was about eight years old the only thing I wanted to do on my life was to be on a boat. Perhaps it might seem a bit odd that I never wanted to sail around the world single-handed in a small boat or to simply sail around the world at all. But while I did read all the books I could find about the subject it was never something I wanted to do myself. Too damned much water, if you ask me…

I looked to do things that were probably a bit more readily achievable. For instance, I wanted to cruise the Intracoastal Waterway along the east coast of the United States.  In fact, I’ve now done that half a dozen times. The very first time I did it I ran the entire 1,090 trip from Mile Marker  Zero to Fort Lauderdale, SINGLE-HANDED in a 43-foot Hatteras tri-cabin motor yacht in 1974. But to get to what is also called the ICW, I had to leave Burnham Harbor in Chicago and travel the lengths of lakes Michigan, Huron and Erie and then the Erie Canal from Tonawanda to Albany, and down the Hudson River. I dropped the owners of the boat off in Stamford, Connecticut where their daughter lived so I went up the East River, under the Brooklyn Bridge and past the UN building. When shed of those two I proceeded, with my deck hand, back down the East River, past the Statue of Liberty and then offshore until reaching the Chesapeake Bay and Portsmouth, Virginia for the start of the ICW. My deckhand had to leave there and return to Mackinaw City, Michigan.

In the United States the Mississippi River is mythical. Who has read Huckleberry Finn and not wanted to raft on that river? Well, I did for a short ways one drunken night my first year in college in Canton, Missouri, some 35 miles north of Twain’s birthplace in  Hannibal, but that’s a story for another time. In 1975 I helped a young couple bring their 51-foot sailboat from the same harbor in Chicago that I’d departed from a year earlier. We went down the Illinois River, entering the Mississippi at the Cairo locks and went all the way down to New Orleans where we re-stepped the mast (can’t pass under the bridges and a lot of overhead power lines on the Illinois). From there we sailed to Bahia Mar Marina in Fort Lauderdale thus completing what is known as “The Great Loop,” a circumnavigation of the eastern half of the United States.

Here’s a picture of me at the helm of the sailboat in the Illinois River and my old girlfriend and the true love of my life, reading as we cruise along. (You can read my story about her here in the post “The $16.25 Divorce”)

On the River copy

I often thought sailing across the Atlantic Ocean was doable  and I did it in 1991 on this boat after spending three years in Europe (France and Spain).

Jolie Aire-Golfe Juan

Of course I’d always thought cruising Australia’s Great Barrier Reef would be fantastic, but barring that I settled for sailing the world’s second-longest barrier reef, in Belize, SINGLE-HANDED on MY OWN sailboat in ’92…

Nancy Dawson


The one thing on my nautical bucket list that I hadn’t done was a transit of the Panama Canal. What lead me down the path to expatriating to Panama came about in a discussion with my good friend Stefan. I suggested to him that he should go over to Sicily and meet his family members. His dad was directly from Sicily and his mom is first-generation in the U.S. I said that, for my part, I’d like to come down to Panama, have a tee shirt printed up that said, “I can handle lines,” and hang around the Balboa Yacht Club and see if I could hook a ride through the Canal. All yachts that make the transit are required to have four people to handle lines at each “corner” of the boat. Well, that never happened though I did visit Panama several times before making the move here. I visited the Miraflores locks twice and have had drinks at the Balboa Yacht club with friends, but never did get that tee shirt made up.

Last month my Facebook friends Julie and Steve King emailed me and said the new boat they were running was coming to Panama from the island of Saint Martin heading to Quepos on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Well, it took me about a millisecond to respond that if they were going through the Canal they’d need four line handlers and that I would love to be one of them if at all possible.

Last Saturday/Sunday I took the midnight bus from David to Panamá (That’s how Panamanians refer to Panama City, $12.70 after receiving the Jubilado discount) and got in there at about 6:30 a.m. I then took the bus to Colón ($3 and something and an interesting ride across the isthmus.) THEN it was a $25.00 taxi ride out to Shelter Bay Marina, a location that gives new meaning to the term “Middle of Nowhere.”  Then Julie, Steven and I had out first face-to-face meeting though we’d been writing back and forth for a couple of years. I also met Danny, the Tasmanian Devil and Mike a lost Swede.


This is NOT the boat I was on, but is a sister ship. Colombo Breeze is an Oyster 61 Hull #11.

In the afternoon the “admeasurer” came aboard to actually measure the length of the boat and get other information so the Canal could levy the appropriate charges ($1,400 and a tad more). Four sets of 100-foot long lines were delivered to the boat. These are required in case the yacht is going through the lock by itself in which case it will be centered in the lock by itself (extremely rare) or “nested with other yachts on either side in which case the outside boats run their lines to the lock walls as the boats are lifted up to Gatun Lake through three locks or back down to sea level on the Pacific side via the Pedro Miquel Lock and the two Mirflores locks. He told us to monitor the radio and be ready to start the transit the next day, Monday.

In the morning we received word that we needed to be out “on the flat” at 1600 hours to pick up our pilot, Geraldo, to go through the Gatun Locks. We made it out to the flats on time and shortly afterwards our pilot, a rather young man, came aboard and we headed to the first lock and got our first glimpse of who we’d be sharing the locks with…

Big ship entering Gatun lock

The big ships enter the locks first on the upward lifts followed by the smaller ones. These positions are reversed on the other side of Gatun Lake and as our second pilot explained it is so that if, for some reason, the large ship has problems the gates can be opened and the smaller vessels can leave. The working barge is the Port Louis (and YES, it does have a pronounced list to port) is from the Netherlands and is working on the Canal enlargement project. After the white, Sierra Queen entered the lock and was secured mid lock, the Port Louis entered and tied up astern of the big ship with their port side against the lock wall. We came along and secured ourselves to her starboard side and went with them through the three Gatun Locks up into the lake casting off the lines and re-tying them at each stage. When we exited the final lock the Sierra Queen disappeared into the dark and we were directed out of the shipping lanes to a large mooring buoy where we spent the night. The Port Louis anchored nearby. We were to go down with them in the Pedro Miquel and Miraflores locks, which was great because we’d gotten to the the Dutch skippers and everyone knew just what to do.

Julie, from Virginia,  without the slightest exaggeration, worked harder than the other four of us combined keeping us fed with such gourmet meals as crab cakes and a shrimp dish you wouldn’t believe in between getting up on deck handling lines.

Julie King

Julie, Steve and I sat around and drank some wine for a bit and then they went below to bed. It was such a beautiful night with a light breeze blowing that I slept up in the cockpit listening to the light slap of the chop against the side of a boat again. I slept well. Better than the night before in the chill of the boat’s air-conditioning. I drifted off to sleep hearing the distant sounds of work being carried out on the Canal’s new locks a couple of miles away, but it wasn’t enough to disturb me.

At a little after 7 the next morning the pilot boat came along side and we met Jorge, our pilot for the day…

Pilot jorge

What a great guy (Geraldo was, too, but we spent nearly the next 12 hours with Jorge.) His father was Finnish and his mother Panamanian. He graduated from the Argentinian Merchant Marine Academy. And worked in Traffic Control for several years on the Canal and ran Canal tug boats for nearly 16 years before becoming a pilot. His wife, who we didn’t meet, graduated from Kings Point, the United States Merchant Marine Academy and is a licensed Marine Engineer who also does work for the Canal.

Jorge is a highly educated, very well-read gentleman who speaks perfect English. I asked him how he learned his English and it was through his father who always spoke to him in English while his mother, and of course everyone else around him, spoke Spanish as he was growing up. It was delightful getting to know both of our pilots. The admeasurer said that pilots could often be jerks when they are assigned to guide a yacht through instead of a prestigious ship, but both Geraldo and Jorge were perfectly wonderful people and certainly made our transit something special…

Now to get to some photos…

 Capt. Stephen KingOur Captain, Steven King

Gatun Lake SceneryGatun Lake islandA couple of the islands in Lake Gatun. When the Chagres River was dammed to provide water to run the Canal locking system it became, at that time, the largest man-made lake in the world.

SmithsonianThe Smithsonian Institution runs the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute on Barro Colorado Island in Gatun Lake. To learn more about what it is and what they do here, check this out…

Lighthouse 1One of the many unique Canal navigation aids used to guide ships on their transit. Besides the usual red and green buoys there also a large number of “range markers” through Galliard Cut that the pilots use to keep the large ships in the center of the channel.

Our buddyPassing our locking buddy Tuesday morning. We weren’t speed demons but we left this guy in our wake. So much so, as well as the big ship that was going to go through Pedro Miguel and Miraflores with us that when we got down near the Pedro Miguel locks we had to anchor for about an hour an a half until everyone caught up with us. Not to worry, Julie prepared an absolutely fantastic shrimp and pasta lunch. (Should have taken a photo of that, but you’d probably drool all over your keyboards and short out your computer circuits)

Noriega home

El Renacer prison – home of former Panamanian ruler Manuel Noriega.

Canal TugsCanal Tugs

Maintenance DepotThe Canal maintenance depot

Titan CraneThe crane, TITAN. It was built in Germany for WWII and was taken by the U.S, in reparations. Among other jobs it is used to remove lock gates for repair.

Moneky Hill and Centenario BridgeGold Hill, the highest part of the continental divide the Canal had to cut through. It was named “Gold Hill” to entice workers to come to Panama thinking they could get rich picking gold up off the ground here. That’s the Centenario Bridge, ahead. It was built by a French company and was the second bridge built over the Canal. A bridge, similar in design is being built in Colón, but this time by a German firm. Currently traffic traveling from one side of the Canal to the other up at Colón can only do so when the gates to the first of the Gatun locks are closed. They form a bridge for land traffic.

Sightseeing boat approaching Pedro MiguelWe were to lock down through Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks with one of the sightseeing boats that take people for excursions on the Canal. I had thought of doing this to make a transit. This boat was making a partial transit, just going through the Pacific side locks and a bit of a ways up the Galliard Cut, also known as the Culebra (Snake) Cut. I wouldn’t have been satisfied with just going part way up and returning. I’d have had to make the entire trip or nothing, and let me tell you, watching the people on that boat it would have been more exciting to die than to hang around on that thing as it locked through. The arrangement on the down locks is that the sight seeing boat would enter first and tie up on the right hand wall. Then our buddy would come in and tie up behind this one and we’d tie up alongside the Port Louis. After that a large ship would come in behind us and when they’d entered the gates would close and we’d drop.

Last to enterThis is the ship that came in behind us at the three down locks. I didn’t get any other pictures of it but I can tell you this: it filled the entire width of the lock which is 110 feet wide with, literally only inches to spare. It looked like you couldn’t slip a playing card down between the lock sides and the side of the ship. And when it finally came to rest its bow was no more than 50 feet from our dinghy.

Watching us in MirafloresSightseers watched us as we passed through the Miraflores locks.

Container Port in Pacific sideThe container port in the Pacific side after we had completed our transit.

Danny the Tasmanian DevilDanny, the Tasmanian Devil using a chamois to dry things off after a little bit of rain.

Mike JohannessonThis is Mike, our Swedish crew member. Most of the time when, we weren’t actually handling lines and when everyone was busy and there was no time to be taking pictures, he was down below, so I never did take his picture. This comes from his Facebook page.

We finally tied up at Flamenco Marina at the end of the Amador causeway. Julie got a break. We all went to dinner at the marina’s restaurant and had a wonderful, relaxing meal and pleasant conversation content in having accomplished our transit.

Wednesday I bid farewell to my friends who would be continuing their voyage up to Costa Rica come Friday morning. I caught a cab to the bus terminal at Albrook Mall and departed Panamá at 11:05. It was a bright, shiny Volvo double-decker. I was on the second deck by a window. They showed four movies during the trip. Three of them were totally in Spanish but the third one they showed was in English and Spanish with Spanish subtitles during the English parts It took a little longer than usual to get back to David because for about half of the distance, some 150 miles, the road west of Santiago is being four-laned. We got into David at about 6:40. The last bus for Boquerón leaves the terminal at 7. My duffel bag was one of the last to be dug out of the luggage compartment. I hightailed it (as fast as an old fart with COPD can hightail anything) and got up to the Boquerón slip just as the bus was pulling out. One of the nice things about living in a such a small town as I do, is that when I waved at the bus the driver recognized me and stopped to let me on. Believe it or not, I got the last seat available. ¿Que suerte, no?

So, what did I think of it?  To be perfectly honest it wasn’t as exciting as I’d hoped it would be, but it WAS great to meet the wonderful crew of Colombo Breeze and our Canal pilots. I’m extremely happy to have actually done it, but it’s not something I’d care to do again, if you know what I mean. I also learned a few things about myself. This was my swan song from spending time on the water. My COPD left me gasping for breath after the simplest of chores, though certainly not in any danger of keeling over in a dead faint or dying. But it makes me glad that I lived my life on the water and on boats while I was young and had the physical ability to do so. I have told young people for years: if you have a dream you’d better go out and do it while you’re able. Thank heavens I took to heart the advice Richard MacCullough spoke of in his book Viking’s Wake when I read it  forty-three years ago: “…And the bright horizon calls! Many a thing will keep till the world’s work is done and youth is only a memory. When the old enchanter came to my door laden with dreams, I reached out with both hands. For I knew that he would not be lured with the gold that I might later offer, when age had come upon me.”

To Julie and Steve King, I know I told you when I left the boat, but I need to say it over and over again: Thanks for your wonderful hospitality and the chance to close out my nautical bucket list. You have no idea how much the four days from July 13 to July 15th have meant to me.





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3 responses to “Transiting the Panama Canal

  1. What a great experience — perhaps not as exciting as you’d imagined, but far, far better than that sightseeing boat!

    A friend and I often talk about the point you make here: do it while you’re young, while you can. There were consequences to some of the decisions I made through life, but on the other hand — I have wonderful memories, and a good many people I know who are coming to retirement age are finding they aren’t physically able to do the traveling or other things they’d hoped for.

    You are such a good story-teller. It was fun making the trip through with you!

    I’m glad you enjoyed it, Linda. We all make choices throughout our lives. Not all of them are wise, but they are what they are. I remember my mom’s brother going to a job he hated all his life so he could send his daughters to Wellesley. Now, that might be an admirable goal but also so soul deadening. And my mom and dad had THEIR dreams of all the things they’d do when the kids were grown when they got married, or course. But my mom was invalided by arthritis when she was in her 40s, and was gone when she was 58. And things like that had a GREAT influence on how I lived my life, and looking at the shape I’m in now there’s no way I could do any of the things I’d dreamed of doing if I’d put them off to a later date. I’m done with those things, but I got to LIVE MY DREAMS and like the Edith Piaf song says, “Non je ne regrette rien (I regret nothing).

  2. Great post! I was very glad to hear about your time in the canal. How very cool that you got to do this! You inspire me to bike down there and hear more about it.

  3. Edie

    Kudos to you Richard for following your dreams! I’m not exactly a stranger here, I live in Alto Boquete and have been following your blog for a few years now.

    Thanks for taking a moment to leave a comment. I’ve followed my dreams for the last 40+ years. Never made much money. Always took the jobs I thought were the most interesting as opposed to those that paid the most. And I don’t regret it. After all, I spent three years getting paid to live on the French Riviera. If you’ve been following the blog, then you know I absolutely love it here in Panama, and I love my community here in Boqueron most of all.