The Panama Journals
Talk about your quick passages!  We flew all the way to Panama.  One of the other cruisers said it had something to do with the wind bouncing off the Andes and swirling about off the coast of Colombia.  Well, whatever it was, it was a ride we won´t soon forget!

Wednesday, 3/5/97
We left Aruba on Wednesday at around 11 AM and set course for Colon, Panama. We have a steady 25 knots of wind about 120 degrees off our port quarter and with the 2 knot current, we end up pulling off 12 and 13 knots over ground according to the GPS! It's going to be a wild ride to Panama.

Phil and Lewis at the helm

Lewis and Phil have a lot of sailing experience while Perrin has been sailing since she was small.  Perrin adapts very well to her first long passage while Phil turns a little green the first 36 hours or so. We actually all feel the effects of the heavy wind and the large waves off the coast of Columbia. We have on average 15 to 20 foot seas the majority of the way to Panama.  We head up as high as 14 degrees north latitude before making the final turn towards Panama.

During the passage, Lewis and Phil put out enough fishing line and lures to catch Moby Dick. Phil gets a huge hit on our big Penn rod and reel combo. With 80-pound test and solid wire leader, the fish simply hits one time and snaps the line. Wow, big fish!

Three and one half days later we pull into Colon at 11 PM at night. Skirting the entrance to the Panama Canal, we hail Cristobal Signal on VHF channel 12.  They provide a quick window to swoop into the harbor before we can get T-boned by one of the big freighters.  We head towards anchorage area F, better known as the “Flats”.  Once the hook sticks, all 6 of us rejoice with a steak dinner and rum & cokes.  Lewis, Phil, and Alex stay up until 5 AM yammering on about all of life's mysteries.

When light first dawns, we find that Scanhalla II is anchored right in front of us!  We head over to say hello.  Alle, Johno and Inje are on board as are the owner John, his daughter Bridgette, and Inje's Mom. They invite us to dinner that night. We accept.  I run into the Yacht Club to do a ton of laundry for the crew of OOB. Phil, Lewis, and Perrin hit Colon to stock up on some provisions. By the way, everything you may have heard about Colon being dangerous is very true.  We hear at the Panama Canal Yacht Club to watch our step.

That night, Scanhalla II whips up a great supper and we spend the night enjoying their company.  The only bad part is when someone on OOB who shall remain nameless (not me!) ties a slippery knot on Scanhalla II's dinghy painter.  The dink makes a quick getaway, but is found the next morning hugging some beach side shrubbery.

Saturday, 3/8 - Friday, 3/14/97
We have arranged through the Delphino Maritime Agency to take care of all the assorted paperwork to go through the canal. We called them from Aruba and set everything up with a guy named Peter Stevens. The end result is that we arrive late Thursday, get cleaned up on Friday, have the forms dropped off  Saturday morning as well as getting admeasured. It’s Saturday afternoon, and are ready to transit Sunday Morning. This really pisses off the crew of Scanhalla II as they have been waiting a week to get admeasured and transit. If anyone wants to transit the canal, the extra $300 or so for the agency is worth the money. Way less stress and quicker transiting.  We definitely didn't want to stick around Colon.

Here's how it goes when you want to transit the canal in a small boat.  First, you fill out about 30 forms. Questions include; how many people died on the voyage? Bill asked everyone to raise his or her hands so he could count.  Boy, were we glad to find all six in relatively good health (Lewis still looked a little green from his late night foray, however). Next, you have to have someone come out and measure your boat so they know how much to charge you (they call this admeasuring).  This is what takes the longest, trying to get the adrneasurer from the Panama Canal Commission (PCC) to come to your boat.  You then get put on the transit list and wait until they have a slot next to a freighter that is less than 800 feet.  The reason for the length restriction is because they can only take 1000 feet in total length in the locks.  If you are too close behind the freighter when they kick the engines into gear, you can get flushed back against the lock doors. They also have to assign you a pilot that stays on board the entire time you are moving through the canal.

So here's what happened to us. Sunday morning at round 5 AM, Bill hears us being hailed on VHF channel 12.  How Bill actually hears this and gets up at 5 AM is beyond me.  Peter Stevens from Delphino says that the pilot will be on board at 6:30 AM. We wake everyone up and prepare the boat by putting out the fenders and clearing the deck. We also have to have four 100 foot lines ready in case we transit by ourselves. The four lines would hold us in the very center of the locks if needed.

At about 9:00 AM, Walter, our PCC pilot is dropped off.  Walter is a very professional chap and very knowledgeable as we will soon find out. One problem, though. Just as Walter hops on board and asks if we are ready to go, the windlass quits. I hit the up button and nothing happens. Bill and Alex run forward and we start pulling the 125 feet of 3/8 chain up. This is not an easy task with 20 knot winds and the silty mud bottom.  With one huge last tug, the anchor is freed from the muddy bottom and the final 30 feet comes up. We secure the anchor and head towards the first set of locks.

Walter informs us that we will be center boat in a raft of three boats.  We meet the two other boats, a 38 foot Jeaneau and a 35 foot Swiss sloop. Bill remarks that they will make excellent fenders against the concrete walls.  We toss both boats spring lines and they toss us bow and stern lines. We line up the masts so that back and forth motion won't entangle the spreaders or shrouds. Now that we are rafted together, we use our boat as the main power plant.  Bill guides all three boats towards the first set of locks.

Lock Gate

We slip in behind a huge 750 foot Roll On-Roll Off freighter and the outside boats get tossed lines from the PCC lock hands. A quick word from Walter warns us to watch when these guys toss the messenger line from shore.   Attached to the end of the messenger lines is a wad of lead. Walter says people have been beaned in the head and hurt very badly if they don't watch when the line is tossed.  So, with no mishaps, the outside boats receive the messenger lines. The outside boats then tie them to their 100-foot bow and stern lines and feed them back to the PCC lock hands.

Walter tells the lockmaster that we are all set and a small siren goes off.  The huge 6-foot thick lock gates start to close behind us. Then the water starts to swirl around us and we start to go up.  We are expecting a very turbulent ride from all that we have read. However, the lock fills very smoothly and we slowly ascend around 40 feet. We look back over the stern rail and watch the Caribbean Ocean fad away. On to the Pacific!

Panama Pilot

Walter and Bill as we enter the first lock

The two people that are in charge of the lines on both outside boats seem to be more interested in sightseeing thin actually keeping the lines tight and the boats in the center of the lock. Walter has to yell several times to keep them focused on their task.  If the lines should get too slack or too tight, the whole raft of three boats could be flung against the concrete walls. This, thankfully, does not happen and we transit the next two locks and end up in Gatun Lake.

Gatun Lake is a huge man-made lake that is all fresh water. Our boat sinks several inches farther down because fresh water is less buoyant thin salt water. Walter also informs us that the PCC will provide, free of charge, a bottom cleaning. Just the act of the boat being in the fresh water lake will kill all the sea water critters that we have growing on the hull.  Bonus!

Watch that shine off Jeff's head...

We start to motor through the lake and take the small craft shortcut.  About halfway through the transit, Walter informs us that we won't make it all the way through in one day. We will be anchoring off Gamboa, a two-hour motor.  The whole canal is only 50 miles in length and Gamboa is 15 miles from the end. With the extra time available. the three boats decide to anchor for lunch and a quick swim.

Alex, buried down below in the windlass wiring, finds our problem and we have a working windlass again.  We drop anchor off a small island and we jump into the water.  Walter warns us of possible crocodiles and snakes, but the chance seems remote of getting chomped, so we all hop in. The water is a refreshing 83 degrees. I inflate a pool float that we got in Venezuela and paddle over to each boat.

We spend about 2 hours at anchor and then head towards Gamboa.  After setting up the two cloth hammocks on the foredeck, I promptly crawl into one and take a quick snooze until we reach Gamboa.  Walter jumps off as we stick the hook and says that a new pilot will be back at around 10 AM tomorrow.  That night, before the sun goes down, we end up meeting two air force guys, Jason and Jay. They are stationed in Panama and were out bass fishing.  We ask them if they want to join us for a few beers. Three hours later, they take off, definitely the worse for wear.  We will meet up with them in Balboa on the pacific side for some bar hopping.

A floaty toy and abeer, what more could you want?

In the morning, our next pilot, Hamilton shows up. We are all impressed by how professional and knowledgeable these Panamanian pilots are. We are very impressed with the whole operation, in fact.  We start our journey to reach the Pacific.  We pass these huge earth-moving machines that are part of the Galliard Cut widening project. We pass a Canadian frigate going towards the Atlantic.  I shout over and inquire if they have any cold Molson on board. No luck.

We reach the last locks on the Pacific side. There are three lock sets spaced apart and we raft again with the other two boats. Besides Bill driving all three boats, there is really nothing for the remainder of us on board to do but watch the scenery go by and take pictures. We send Alex up the mast with the electric winch on a spinnaker halyard to take video and still photos.

One tense moment ensues. Just as we are descending the last lock, the bow line handler on our starboard boat decides to cleat off his line and walk back to get a picture taken with the rest of his crew.  As the water empties out of the lock, the bow off his boat starts to get suspended above the water, putting stress on all the lines. Alex and I start to shout and point and finally, the guy runs back to ease the line. He lets off the cleat and his boat drops about two feet back down into the water. Alex and I keep an eye on the line, as the guy seems to be pretty clueless.

The last lock opens and we are in the Pacific Ocean! I pop bottle of champagne and start spraying everyone on all three boats. We all take a few sips and then the boats unraft.  We all head towards the Balboa Yacht Club. Bill brings up a hidden bottle of chilled champagne.


As we approach the Yacht Club, Bill, obviously overjoyed with the whole Pacific experience, hops overboard. A little exclamation of "Oh, Sh@#$%!" escapes him and we look at the water temperature.  It’s 12 degrees colder in the Pacific than the Caribbean. We pick up a mooring and relax.  Tomorrow, Lewis, Phil, and Perrin will fly out. But right now, we all just want to relax a bit. Sergei is due to join us on Wednesday. Then it's off to the Galapagos Islands and the South Pacific!

Jeff Johnson 1997

Gulf of Mexico

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