Atraxia Part II – The Panama Canal

After a couple of days of playing in Las Perlas we sailed to Panama City and anchored at Las Playita Anchorage.  Before anyone could leave the boat, captain Ron had to clear into the country with the port captain, customs and immigration.  That gave us a 72 hour visa to get to immigration for a tourist visa and wander around the city.  The next priority was to begin the canal transit procedure.  Many people hire an agent to take care of the paper work and many visits government offices required to get things done but captain Ron has been through the canal numerous times before and chose to be his own agent.  This supposedly has potential to get an earlier transit date. Our date, in the end was 7 days after our initial arrival in Panama city.

Las Perlas Islands Gulf of Panama

Las Perlas

Panama City Gulf of Panama Entering Panama Canal

Approaching Panama City from the Gulf of Panama

The seven days between arrival in Panama City and canal transit were spent cleaning the boat after our 16 days at sea, re-provisioning, prepping the boat for transit and being tourists in Panama City.

Panama City is a fairly easy and cheap city to travel around if you’re good at haggling with the cabbies.  It’s no surprise that they do have a tendency to try to take advantage of tourists who probably don’t know any better coming from countries with metered cabs.  Funny how it cost $7 to get from the marina to the Casco Viejo tourist area but the initial quote to get back was $17.  Hmmmmm ……  In the end we paid $10.

Casco Viejo a.k.a. Casco Antiguo a.k.a. San Filipe is part of the old quarter settled in 1673 after Panama Viejo (original Panama City) was sacked by the English pirate, Henry Morgan.  The old city has some fantastic heritage buildings some of which are being restored to their former glory in an attempt at gentrification.  Others are crumbling to the ground leaving behind an empty shell.  Quaint little restaurants are sprouting up out of the rubble across the street from abandoned buildings housing squatters.  There is much to see and experience here, the Presidential Palace, Panama Canal Museum, National Theater of Panama and a few tourist markets to name a few.

Casco Viejo Casco Antiguo San Filipe Panama City

Casco Viejo Casco Antiguo San Filipe Panama City

Casco Viejo Casco Antiguo San Filipe Panama City

Casco Viejo Casco Antiguo San Filipe Panama City

Casco Viejo Casco Antiguo San Filipe Panama City

Casco Viejo Casco Antiguo San Filipe Panama City

Casco Viejo Casco Antiguo San Filipe Panama City

Casco Viejo Casco Antiguo San Filipe Panama City

Casco Viejo Casco Antiguo San Filipe Panama City

Panama City Skyline

It’s a long process just getting to the point where you are given your canal transit day. But it finally arrived and we were instructed to wait by marker 6 for our advisor. He showed up around 9am, approximately an hour and a half later than expected.

Channel Marker leading into the Panama Canal Marks the shipping lane transiting the Panama Canal by sailboat

Channel Marker 6

Panama Canal Advisor arrival transiting the Panama Canal by sailboat

Canal Advisor finally arriving

We watched the massive cargo ship Lingue pass us in the channel and were instructed to follow it into the locks. The big ships have to be towed into the locks by small mule engines on rails that move along beside the canal. Lingue took up the entire width of the canal so it was a bit unnerving pulling into the lock behind it. Thankfully we were in the centre canal position rafted up next to a tourist ferry that was next to the wall. The ferry workers had to do all the line handling while we played tourist on our boat. We hardly even noticed when the lock started to fill with water and the boats began to rise. When the lock was full the door opened to the next chamber. Lingue was pulled ahead by the mules, we untied from the ferry and all boats moved forward to the next lock where we rafted up to the ferry again and repeated the line handling dance.

Cargo Ship Entering Panama Canal transiting the Panama Canal by sailboat

Lingue passing us out in the Gulf before entering the canal

Bridge of the Americas Panama Canal transiting the Panama Canal by sailboat

Lingue and the tourist ferry passing under the Bridge of the Americas ahead of us

Lining up inside the Panama Canal Locks transiting the Panama Canal by sailboat

Tourist Ferry moving into the locks ahead of us. Lingue and its tugboat are already positioned

Lining up inside the Panama Canal Locks behind cargo ship transiting the Panama Canal by sailboat

Lingue being towed by the mule engines

Looking at Panama Canal Tourist Center from inside the Panama Canal locks transiting the Panama Canal by sailboat

The Panama Canal tourist centre

Lining up inside the Panama Canal Locks waiting for the water to rise transiting the Panama Canal by sailboat

The Crew

The last lock was a bit farther along than the first two and in this one the smaller boats pulled in ahead of the big ship. After we finished tying up to the ferry we turned to watch the giant ship bearing down on us. Again, an amazing experience. Finally we were in Gatun Lake. We finished crossing the lake in the late afternoon and elected to transit the down locks to the Atlantic side the next morning. Anchoring in a fresh water lake proved a welcome opportunity to clean the salty sea air off our bodies. So we went for a swim in the crocodile infested waters of Gatun Lake and lived to tell the story.  It also provided opportunity to practice a few rope coiling techniques.  The expectation was that we would be working as rope handlers the next day in the locks to keep the boat steady and it is pretty important to have an efficient technique that prevents the ropes from being tangled.

Lining up inside the Panama Canal Locks with Panama Canal Tugboat transiting the Panama Canal by sailboat

Tugboat pushing Lingue towards the side of the canal so it can be roped up to the mule engines

Waiting in Gatun Lake for Panama Canal Transit transiting the Panama Canal by sailboat

Practicing line handling in Gatun Lake

The next day we woke up bright and early for transit. We waited and waited and waited for word on when our advisor was to arrive. Finally Captain Ron called in to find out when we were getting through. They told us to expect our advisor at 3pm for transit at 4pm. Apparently it was yet another national holiday (the second one in 7 days) so advisors were hard to come by. Lame! Finally we got our advisor at 3:15 and headed towards the locks. This time we were positioned in the centre again but rafted up with a very fancy new Panama Canal tugboat on steroids.  Another opportunity to be tourists as the tug worked the lines along the side of the canal.

Waiting in the locks for Panama Canal Tugboat transiting the Panama Canal by sailboat

Waiting for the tugboat and ship British Serenity to enter the locks

Rafted up with the Panama Canal Tugboat in the down locks transiting the Panama Canal by sailboat

Rafted up next to the tugboat in the down locks

Lining up inside the Panama Canal Locks transiting the Panama Canal by sailboat

British Serenity

We finally floated into the Atlantic side at dusk and proceeded to the drop off area in Canal Flats where we  left our advisor.  A quick top up of diesel fuel in the dark and we motored outside of the huge breakwaters that protect the Atlantic side canal anchorage.  Beyond the breakwaters were strong winds and 1.5 meter swell (a.k.a rather rough conditions compared to the sheltered calm of Gatun Lake and the Panama Canal!)  for our overnight sail to the San Blas Islands.

Read the continuing story here:

Atraxia  Part I – The Open Ocean

Atraxia Part III – San Blas Island Culture

Atraxia Part IV – Snorkeling San Blas

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