Blue water sailors on the barefoot route will eventually pass the 40nm of the Panama Canal. This gigantic structure was built over 100 years ago controlled by the American. Since a few years the extension for larger freighters is open. In addition to the military significance the Panama Canal is about money. Every minute counts when a huge container ship passes. In addition to a conventional reservation system there is an auction for transit slots without waiting time. Who knows how expensive they are. Cruising sailors take a low priority in the whole process. However, we also joined the whole process.
Just as we arrived at the Shelter Bay Marina, a nice Frenchman came to us and gave us some hints and recommended us the agent Stanley (Tel: 65233991) who arranged for us the cruising permit, clearing in and out, the admeasurer, the prescribed lines and fenders and two “hand-liners”. He also helped us with other things such as passenger transport, Galapagos fumigation certificate and new gas bottle. Sure, you can do everything without an agent, but we wanted to spend our time with the kids and boat work. Finally, you don’t save so much money when doing everything yourself, if you take into account costs for taxi, phone calls, fenders and lines.
For us the Shelter Bay Marina was just right. Every day we went swimming with the boys in the pool and they trained their skills. Nael could swim a full length alone and now he can”officially” swim. Reason enough for an ice cream from the mini market for all of us :=).
Our Bajka got prepared for the Pacific. We hauled her out in order to clean, sand and paint the underwater. This way she should be ready for the Galapagos regulations. Greg, the Engine Whisperer, helped us with the engine service. He also repaired the fridge, so we have too much solar power again :=).
Every day a few boats leave the marina and new ones arrive. You meet new people, such as SY Totem with one of the most read blogs (eg about Panama Canal fees), or the parents of Adam Minoprio, who brought his boat across the Canal while he was sailing in an Extreme 40 regatta, or Ross Blackman, who was leading the business of Team New Zealand at Peter Blake’s time. Coincidentally, there was also a half-day presentation on the sailing route through the Pacific to New Zealand. In addition to the advertising for the individual regions we got valuable tips. In the evening SY Pelizeno organised dinner where we could ask for more information about the Pacific from the experienced sailors.
Now we were well prepared, but our Bajka was still on the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal and our passage was scheduled only in three weeks. Ela could no longer wait and called the Canal Authority shortly after 15 clock, where all the slots are shuffled. They gave us a new date, two weeks earlier, so in three days. So we had time to go shopping once in Colon and once in Panama City. The marina generously provides bus rides. By the way the Shelter Bay Marina was only 36 $ a night, despite the rumours that it should be very expensive. For us it was just a perfect preparation time there.
The night before our big day for the Panama Canal transit, Stanley brought us the lines and fenders and the two local line handlers Javier and Woodley. At midnight we went to the waiting area in front of the Canal. However, only at 8 o’clock in the morning the official advisor was brought to us on board and at 9:30 we could follow an oil tanker into the first lock.
Transiting the Panama Canal
In front of the lock we connected the three yachts to a raft, so that only the two outer yachts had to serve the two lines each. Coincidentally the middle boat was La Cigale, our friends with their catamaran. They manoeuvred the whole raft and we had to support them on the side from time to time. It was impressive to be between these big freighters and tankers with our small Bajka.
A passage through a lock takes about one hour and after three locks we reached the artificial Gatun lake. We had to cross it under engine. That was the time for the spaghettis with vegetable sauce à la Bajka and salad. Slowly it was getting dark and we still had three locks in front of us. This time we were in front of a different tanker. We could watch his bow coming closer and closer and on both sides were only a few centimeters to the lock wall.
When the gates of the last lock to the Pacific were opening, it was already dark. We had to get out quickly to drop off the line-handlers at the agreed place. Then we drove a bit further to the Marina La Playita, where our friends from New Zealand were waiting for us. Our Panama Canal passage went smooth without an incident and we could enjoy the day, especially thanks to the professional help of the line-handlers and the advisor. Martin had crossed the Channel a few days earlier with the New Zealanders in order to support our passage.
In Panama we had a few days before we hit the Pacific. We explored Panama City with its huge skyline – a contrast to the last few months. We would especially recommend to visit “Mercado Abastos”. It’s not only the fresh fruit and vegetable for the next passage for a good price, but it’s also the whole ambiance with all the smell of the spices and the nice people helping you. Furthermore we recommend to see “Islamorada” in Balboa, where you can buy all just-in-time printed nautical charts and they also have many books on the Pacific in the store.
The few ship chandleries in Panama were rather disappointing. It’s almost easier and cheaper to get a shipment from West Marine (Miami) to Shelterbay Marina. Just do not forget to specify in the address: Yacht in transit “Bajka”.
Now the big Pacific with its thousands of island is waiting for us. We heard it will be more gentle than the Atlantic and Caribbean Sea. The first destination we are looking forward will be the Galapagos