There are many things that need to happen before you can transit the Panama Canal.
The first step in crossing the Panama Canal is to get your official Ship Identification Number (SIN). This is the Panama Canal registry number that will stay with the boat. To do this the Canal Authority sent out an official to inspect and measure our boat on April 6th.
He took measurements of the boat (because whether it is 38 or 40 feet is going to be a big deal in their canal) and checked that we had an air horn. He also checked to make sure we had a functioning bathroom with a door. He provided us with suggestions on what food to have on board for the Advisor and line handlers. More on that later. He had the certificate with our new SIN with him and we got it on his departure.
The next step was to advise our Canal Agent that we received our SIN and he could now collect payment and schedule our crossing. Our timing with this was not great as we are here during Semana Santa the Easter Holy week. Scheduling would not be done until payments had been received. It took a couple days until someone from the Agency could come to the boat and take our money and they took lots of it. It should be noted that you do not need to use an agent so long as you are willing to run to all of the different Canal departments and make the required payments at each. This does not include the 2 line handlers who each get $120 cash on the day of the transit.
Now that we are paid up, we wait a couple days and find out that we have been scheduled to cross through the canal on April 19th. This was a bit of a surprise as we had been told that transit dates were happening faster.
Friends we met while sailing in Mexico had expressed a keen interest in being line handlers for us during our canal crossing. We contacted Don and Laura and they jumped at the chance. They booked a 1-week trip that had them fly in on April 12th and out on the 20th based on us believing we would get a transit date in the middle of the month. Transiting on the 19th is cutting it a little close with their return flight. We have asked our agent to keep us on the list for any short notice cancellations that would allow for an earlier date. Fingers crossed for that.
Each boat requires four line handlers. Our agent will arrange for 2 paid line handlers to be on our boat for the crossing. He will also deliver the four 125 foot long mooring lines and large fenders that are required by the Canal Authority. When small boats pass through the Canal they are held in place by these 4 lines that run from the corners of the boat to bollards or cleats on the sides of each lock. Each of these lines are managed by an individual “line handler’. We will motor into our position in the lock, Canal personnel on shore will throw smaller messenger lines to the boat. Our line handlers will attach one end of the mooring line to the messenger lines and the shore staff then pull these up to and secure on the bollards. The line handlers must then pull in the extra line as the lock fills with water and floats us higher or conversely let line out as we descend. Working together they will keep us in position until the lock doors open and we can motor out of each lock.
Our complete transit will take about 12 hours. Part of the program is that the Advisor and Line Handlers must be fed. Due to the time you are looking at 2 to 3 meals for all 7 people on board. They are pretty strict on what constitutes a meal. Peanut butter and jam sandwiches will not pass. Breakfast and lunch both need to be hot meals. We have been told that if the meal is not satisfactory the hired hands can order food and have it delivered to the boat at an outrageous cost which is born by the boat captain. Although we have never heard of this happening it certainly has Barb on edge as she tried to plan out what will be served.
Our buddy boats Ghillie and Stella Blue transited the Canal last week and we were asked to be line handlers on Ghillie. Of course, we accepted as it helped them out but also gave us a sneak peak at what was in store for us. We had a great day. During the first 3 locks from the Pacific up to Gatun Lake we were part of a raft of 3 boats. Ghillie on one side and Stella Blue on the other side of a 62-foot Catamaran. All went well through the first 3 locks. We separated to run the next 28 miles through the lake. When we neared the final set of locks we rafted together again. Only to discover that as a group, we would not fit between the lock wall and a Cruise Ship currently waiting at the lock for us to get in front of it. Ghillie had to quickly separate from the raft and proceed in first so the other two could come in behind. It all worked out but there was a bit of stress for the captains and the shore workers as they had to line up another set of boats they were not expecting.
While we wait for our turn in the canal, we continue to tour the sites of Panama City. We took Don and Laura back to Old Town. We checked out Punta Cubela the Smithsonian Nature area. We toured Panama Viejo the original town site of Panama City and now an archeological site. We hiked up Ancon Hill, the highest point in Panama City, for stunning views of the city, ocean and locks. We went to the Mercado de Mariscos (Fish Market) for a quick tour of all the fish vendors. You can imagine what that smells like. We enjoyed a wonderful lunch at one of several restaurants just outside. At least the fish was fresh. In between all the fun and games we try and get a start on some of the post season decommissioning done so there are not quite as many chores when we get to the other side.
Next post should have us through the canal and we’ll have more pictures and details then.