August 15 – 17, 2019 The Panama Canal!
Updated: Sep 21, 2019
Bringing your boat through the Panama Canal is a bucket list activity for cruisers… it’s also a sobering moment when you realize you can’t easily turn around – you are now committed! WOW – the Pacific Ocean awaits.
We had watched many YouTube videos, spoken to many other cruisers and had read numerous articles in the cruising magazines, but nothing prepares you for the enormity of the Canal. It’s BIG!... the ships are big, the operation is big, the lake is big, the rock walls and cuts where so many died creating the canal are big. We are tiny.
We used Shelter Bay Marina as our prepping point. It’s unique “hidden away” feeling changed just before we left, as the new highway bridge over the canal opened. Suddenly, the relatively quiet marina was now easily accessible from Colon and Panama City and the marina restaurant suddenly became a hot spot for motorcycle touring enthusiasts and families wanting to escape the city for the cooler shore and the yacht scene. Unfortunately the marina will have to change to accommodate, and gated docks will likely be required. It’s a great problem for them to have, but the close knit cruiser community will be affected.
Our line handlers and friends from Redding CT, Paul and Georgina arrived at the marina and settled in quickly on the boat. The great food and libations at the marina helped! We reviewed safety aboard, how the boat systems and head pumping worked and worked on line handling skills. Since we were to be rafted to another boat, we only needed two line handlers, so Candy took the stern with Paul took the bow. Georgina assisted with both stern and bow lines, managed the spring lines to Lakota and took tons of pictures. After a crazy provisioning run to Panama City (thank you Spenser!!) and fueling up at the fuel dispensing tug, we were ready!
Our Canal agent had six large inflatable fenders (no more car tires in plastic trash bags we had read about) and four 1 inch X 200 ft polypro docklines delivered the day before. We had requested to transit the canal with another boat we had become friendly with (Monte and Lakota) and we both set off for a late afternoon rendezvous right inside the Colon breakwater near Shelter Bay to meet our assigned Canal Advisor, Roy. He would be with us as we completed the first set of locks at night behind a large freighter with 105 ft beam in the 110ft wide lock. The lock had three sections and took two and a half hours to transit. We then spent the night rafted with Lakota in Lake Gatun, tied to a large (6 ft dia.) plastic mooring buoy. An exciting but exhausting day.
The next day a new advisor (Harold) arrived at 9 am and we were off on the 26 miles through Lake Gatun and the cuts leading to the locks on the Pacific side. We hugged the edge of the channel, right off the buoys as ships passed us from both directions. This time we went into the locks in front of an 800 ft container ship and were dwarfed by his bow, which seemed to tower over us! A few rain storms dampened our enthusiasm, but the sky eventually cleared. (After all it was rainy season in Panama). Suddenly, we were through the last lock at 7:30 pm and were dropping off our advisor, plus the lines and fenders at the Balboa Yacht Club. It then struck us… We Were In The Pacific Ocean!!! Holy Cow.
We were too pumped up to call it a night, so we took the 24 hour launch into the Balboa YC (basically a restaurant with almost no boating amenities) We cleaned up and caught an Uber into the old section of Panama City, where we sampled rum cocktails at some of the hopping rooftop bars and a great dinner.. A great end to an incredible day.
August 17th – Rick’s B-Day and Touring Old Panama City and Balboa
We caught an early launch in and headed to the old city for breakfast and tour of The El Casco Viejo, the ancient city ruins. We found we had missed the 500 year anniversary celebration by 2 days! Very nice museum and grounds and fun to learn more of Panama’s history. We visited the Biodiversity museum and learned more about human migration, Panama’s history and biodiverse climates.
The old city was hoppin! Very upscale restaurants interspersed with ruins and small shops, bakeries and bars. We found ourselves at another rooftop bar for Rick’s Birthday celebration and ended up having dinner at a restaurant with very eclectic décor… horse saddles as bar stools and colorful things all over the walls. There were old rotary telephones on the tables and an upside-down table and chairs attached to the ceiling, mirroring the floor. We really enjoyed our brief stay in Old Panama City.