Posted by: Sailing Camelot | November 16, 2012

Lock ‘n Roll: the Panama Canal Crossing – November 8th

The day starts really early for us, around 3 in the morning. Not that we need to get up this early: our appointment with the Advisor that will accompany us thru the crossing is not until 8:30, but Tom couldn’t sleep and I’m a bundle of nervous energy. It’s going to be a long day!

Around 7 the team of line handlers arrives, ready, smiling and eager for action. We all introduce ourselves over coffee and banana bread.

Tito, the leader, is from Panama and has been doing this pretty much forever. Pedro and Roberto, originally from Colombia, are part of the regular team that works with Tito. Then there’s Adriana, originally from Colombia as well but living in Panama City, currently a Deckhand on tugboats and training hard to be a tugboat Captain. She’ll prove to be the star of the show, skilled, strong and athletic, very knowledgeable and with a great personality. Not that the others slacked in any way, mind you…

The Motley Crew! From left: Pedro, Adriana, Tito, Roberto. Couldn’t have made it without you!

We are summoned to Buoy 16 to pick up our Advisor: it’s 8:15 am. Off come the mooring lines that kept us tied here for almost four months; one last wave goodbye to Balboa Yacht Club and its great staff, and we’re underway.

Heading to Buoy 16 – Lines ready, each 125 feet long .

Like clockwork, the pilot boat carrying our Advisor approaches us and without a hitch offloads not one, but two Advisors! As it turns out, one of them is finishing his apprenticeship under the supervision of the senior Advisor. No problem, there’s plenty of breakfast for everybody!

We meet Frank Samudio and Luis Estribi, who will safely get us through the crossing.

Pilot Boat delivering our Advisors

As we slowly make our way towards the first set of locks, Miraflores,  Tom is given an outline of the procedures by Luis – while Frank gets on the phone to verify our lock time. We are asked what maximum speed our boat can do under engine power, and told that there may be a possibility we’ll have to spend the night moored at Gatun Lake if we don’t get to the last set of locks in the allotted time.

“We’ll make it in one day, no problem” says Tom confidently. “We’ll see” is Luis’ cryptic answer. I’m sure he heard many overconfident statements before from other sailboats that didn’t perform as advertised…

I’m groaning inwards, I sure don’t like the idea of spending the night with four extra people aboard –much as I like them all.

Luis is telling Tom about the possibility of spending the night at Gatun Lake. Look at Tom’s face!

Frank calling ahead to arrange  an earlier transit. You’re the man, Frank!

Frank gets off the phone with a satisfied expression: he managed to get us in the first lock an hour ahead of schedule, which will improve our chances to complete the transit in one day. I have mixed feelings about this; I had previously advertised to everyone who would listen our original lock time of 10:30, even providing web links to the live webcams for those who wanted to see Camelot cross the locks! Now our friends will miss all the excitement, but we’ll have a better chance… Sorry, friends! You’re probably going to be staring at some other boat crossing… Oh, well.

Heading to the Miraflores Lock. Looking crowded, there!

Roberto preparing the lines as we get closer

Two lanes! We’ll be on the right lane.

My job today is strictly to feed the crew, make sure everybody is okay, and take a ton of pictures. Since the crew won’t have time to eat until after passing the second set of locks -Pedro Miguel-, I perch myself on the bow and start happily clicking away.

We proceed at a good clip towards the Miraflores Locks, slowing down to enter the right hand lane. On the left lane there’s an impressively huge Panamax cargo ship, the Maersk Merlion flying the Marshall Islands flag. I’m exhaling in relief that we won’t have to go anywhere near that monster, but then I hear the Advisor tell Tom to pull up as close as he can to another behemoth…

Oh, man, I feel so small…

Ok, these guys are too big to feel comfortable near them… Just don’t back up, dude!

See the level of the water there? It’s going to raise, way up!

There’s some swift and precise activity around us: a tug boat is moving in position to “receive” us, we’ll tie up to it while the lock fills with water.

The last thing I want to hear right now would be Tom saying “Hon, take the wheel for a moment, will you? I have to go pee”… Luckily, it doesn’t happen and Tom firmly and skillfully maneuvers close and closer to the tug boat, until Camelot gently touches its side.

Approaching “our” tugboat, Miraflores Visitor Center on the right.

Getting ready to throw the lines

…And we’re tying up!

Our line handlers jump into position in a well-choreographed dance; they make it look easy and effortless as they tie us to the tug boat, doubling up the tires that serve as fenders.

Tito muscling his way closer to the tug boat.

All tied up to Calovebora the tug boat, snug as a bug in a rug!

Then it’s a matter of waiting for the lock to close and fill up with water, 10 to 15 minutes. Good, I have time to look around at leisure and try to understand the process!

We’ll have to go through a total of six lock chambers: two at Miraflores -raising us-, one further up at Pedro Miguel -raising us some more-, and the final three in Gatun -lowering us to the Caribbean Sea level.

We’re going to be raised in the first three of them to bring us to level with Gatun Lake –which sits 85 feet above the Pacific, and then we’ll be lowered in the last three in Gatun to be level with the Caribbean Sea.

Each lock will raise us 28 feet.

Shutting out the Atlantic side.

Let the water rise!

I take a closer look at the big ship a few feet ahead of our bow: its name gives me a jolt. It has an Italian name, it’s called  “Cielo di San Francisco” – San Francisco’s Sky – although it’s flying a Liberian flag.

It must be a good omen: we hail from San Francisco and I’m Italian. And the sun is shining, we’ll be ok.

My cell phone rings, it’s my brother Maurizio calling me from Italy! He’s watching the Miraflores webcam with his two young sons and he’s wondering if that tiny sailboat he sees could possibly be us, since we’re not due for at least another hour… Yes, yes, it’s us! Oh, I’m so happy he gets to see us! I felt the need of some sort of family reassurance, and I got it in spades.

My good omen, so much more than just a bulk carrier…

We spend this down-time munching on banana bread, watching the crowds perched on the balconies of the Miraflores Visitor Center watching us, taking pictures of us.

Tom makes friends with the crew of Calevobera, the tug boat hosting us, offering them some banana bread as well.

They have a lady Captain! Adriana elbows me and says “See? That’s me a few months from now!”. I have no doubts she’ll be great at it, her competence and enthusiasm are certainly well above average.

Tom chatting with our hosts and neighbors on the Calevobera. In Spanish!

Finally, we get the order to move; the lock is full, so we move on to the second one, repeating the process. Untie, move, retie, wait. And damn, it’s starting to rain on us!

I take a peek behind us: the water level of the Altantic is already a lot lower!

Lock is filled!

Looking back at where we came from, the “lower level”.

Eventually we move out of the first set of locks. The giant “Cielo di San Francisco” leaves us behind, moving swiftly and with surprising grace for a ship her size. I’m just glad we manage to plow thru the turbulence she left behind without too much trouble.

The canal banks are lined with Panamanian flags: November is Panama Month, and it’s pretty much an ongoing celebration all month long.

I give a final salute to the crowds on the balconies and look expectantly ahead to Pedro Miguel, the next lock.

One of the “mules” pushing and pulling the huge ship before us.

Wave goodbye to the webcam at Miraflores!

It’s a very short hop from Miraflores to Pedro Miguel, in less than five minutes we’re approaching the designated spot.

A pretty landmark along the way, I wish I knew what I’m looking at…

Well ahead of us, the Panamax ship “Maersk Merlion” and the bulk carrier “Cielo di San Francisco” are crossing each other and swapping sides, preparing to enter the double lanes of the Pedro Miguel lock.

Running hard to catch up the Big Boys.

Trading places and exchanging positions

Some tug boat nudging activities near the Centennial Bridge

We pretty much do a rerun of the previous lock clearing, but it still feels pretty exciting. The crew is calmly preparing, I guess after the umpteenth time it becomes pretty much routine…

Diligently lining up

Will you look at the friggin’ size of that monster! I feel like a flea buzzing around a dog…

This time we are directed to tie up to the faithful Calovebora on the port side, and Tom skillfully slides beside her without a hitch. I’m so proud of him, he’s keeping his cool while the knot inside my stomach grows larger by the second… There is a reason HE’s driving the boat instead of me! Even the Advisors compliment him on his skills!

Switching sides:port tie now!

Double Doors at Pedro Miguel lock. Just in case you wanted out…

This lock takes less time to clear than the previous two. In just a few minutes “Cielo di San Francisco” gets a gentle nudge by the mules and is soon released into the open Canal.  The Maersk Merlion is already way ahead of us, plodding on. I kind of felt like we were sort of a team, what with crossing the locks together and all… But clearly they’re in a league of their own, and we are but a tiny speck in their rearview mirror (if they have one!). Well, guys, it was nice almost traveling with you!

I know what’s happening, but it stll makes me nervous…

Even the Big Guys need a little push every now and then…

We are slowly released as well; after passing under the very modern and beautiful Centenario Bridge Tom is instructed to put the pedal to the metal. We’re still making good time in Frank’s opinion, but it’s still better to build up some advantage.

Camelot gets set at about 3000 rpm, a little hotter than we normally run her but still far below the limit she can be pushed at, no sweat.

It’s starting to drizzle now and there’s no more excitement for a while. No more excuses for me, I duck below in the galley and start whipping up a more substantial meal for the crew. Scrambled egg with veggies and potatoes, call it brunch!

Panama Canal traffic jam

I never though THEY could be dwarfed, but there you have it! Meet Parsifal, a car carrier.

Everyone but Tom (who has to drive) and me (who has to feed the crowd) can pretty much relax, and soon the sound of multilingual chatter fills the air. After brunch I casually mention that there will be lasagna for lunch later on, but the crew unanimously decides that there’s no reason to wait until later to eat lunch, so bring it on! Everybody eats their fill, then pretty much they all slip into a half lasagna-induced coma, spreading out in the cabin to take naps, listen to music or generally chill out. It’s down time!

Luis, Frank and Tom remain at their positions in the cockpit, protected from the persistent drizzle but a little cold, so they swap sea stories to keep awake and warm up…

Tom, Frank and Luis trying to escape the drizzle

After quietly cleaning up I pop my head up again; drizzle or no drizzle I want to savor this trip of a lifetime. After all, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC “100 Journeys of A Lifetime” puts the Panama Canal at #5!

Armed with my faithful camera I shoot pictures left and right, but it’s quite non-exciting scenery around me. Reminds me a little of the Sacramento Delta, though…

With the difference that there’s a Smithsonian Institute for Tropical Research here… How cool is that!

The Smithsonian Institute for Tropical Research is nested right halfway thru the Canal

Big and bigger ships coming from the opposite direction, yikes!

I marvel at the huge ships loaded to capacity coming from the opposite direction every now and then. I was told that the Canal is a one-way operation: South-North from 6 am to 6 pm, then North-South from 6pm to 6 am… I’m confused!

Luis sets me straight; it is true, he says, but commercial traffic never stops. The rule applies to pleasure boats only. Damn, I’m happy nobody told me that beforehand or I’d have worried even more… We end up crossing maybe a dozen of them, but the Canal is plenty wide for everyone.

This is my favorite ship sighting. Very appropriate for the location, don’t you think?

The weather gets a little worse, it starts raining a little harder, visibility is definitely bad. Bummer, so much for my picture-taking!

We’re now about an hour from the Gatun Locks, so Frank places a radio call ahead to confirm our position and –most importantly- to confirm that we’re going to be there well on time, before the last lock transit at 16:00. The Gatun radio operator sounds a little surprised, they already made available a mooring for our overnight stay, so sure they were we wouldn’t make it!

No, Frank tells her, we won’t need your mooring, thanks all the same. Yesss! I mentally pump my fist in the air.

Visibility deteriorates. Is that a ghost ship in the distance?

We can barely see the buoys marking the narrow Banana Channel

There’s a shortcut that small boats are allowed to take called the Banana Channel. It shaves off maybe a little over a mile, so it’s not much of a shortcut, but it’s a pretty scenic route. Our Advisors tell us that there are many little islets and tributaries from the Chagres River, and crocodiles can be seen on the banks.

We have to take their word for it, tough. The visibility is pretty crappy right now, our very own version of 50 Shades of Gray…

But the water looks clear, and we catch a glimpse of a pretty jade color here and there. The only spot of color comes from the round buoys marking this very narrow channel.

If there’s a spot of color…

By Golly, I’ll photograph it! It’s prettier than a crocodile anyway…

Eventually we emerge from Banana Channel into the anchorage at Gatun Lake: it is now14:10 and we’re maybe 15 minutes from Gatun Locks. Frank calls ahead to alert the lock crew of our impending arrival, only to be told to slow us down. Considerably, they add.

The ship that will be placed ahead of us is not there yet. So we slow to a crawl, taking our time until we’re given the ok to dock.

Tom takes a well-deserved bathroom break, and comes back on deck with some bad news. Someone used the bathroom and forgot to turn off the sink faucet after washing hands… No one used the bathroom in hours, so no one noticed. We’re completely, totally, absolutely out of water. We flushed one hundred and sixty gallons of fresh water into the Panama Canal. FUCK! (excuse me, I couldn’t help it)

While I (quietly) verbally work out my frustration, Tom shrugs it off.
“We’re only just a few hours away from destination, we’ll refill the tanks at Shelter Bay Marina when we get there.” he says. Then he adds with a pensive expression “I wonder how much we raised the level of the Canal?”

That makes me roll my eyes, such a goofy thing to say, but it makes me laugh and takes the worry away. He’s right. About the refilling, I mean.

At long last, the entrance to the Gatun Locks! The Big Boys are there already.

Ok, there’s the dock… Where exactly are we going again?

In the distance I can see the huge Maersk Merlion entering the first lock chamber. I guess we won’t be going down that one together! Bummer…

Luis explains that in the locks the big ships are always placed in front and the smaller boats behind on the way up, like we did at Miraflores and Pedro Miguel. On the way down it’s the opposite, smaller boats in front and the behemoths behind them: this to avoid disasters in case of unforeseen accidents, which so far have happened very rarely.

We’re advised to make our way very slowly to the end of the dock, very close to the first lock, and to wait for further instructions.

Tom is mildly concerned; he doesn’t like to move at very slow speed –which restricts maneuverability- in such tight places. Besides, there’s a current of 3.7 knots moving us around… He looks pretty tense. I know he’s tired, too. But there’s nothing I can do to help him, so I join in the worrying… That’s a big help, right?

Just while he’s wondering how to keep the boat steady without moving forward in the swirling current, Frank’s radio crackles to life with the order to tie to the dock. Praise the Lord!

Wait a minute, those ships looks familiar…

Already half way down the first lock chamber

The crew comes to life again, scurrying up and down the deck, securing Camelot to her staging spot. Tom can relax, and he suddenly doesn’t look so tired anymore!

Tying up to the dock to wait

Everyone is ready for action, but the big ship is taking her time. I observe the energy of the group; it’s like watching a light bulb with wattage spikes, up then down, then up… And it’s starting to rain again.

We see the ship we’re waiting for a little farther away, slowly being pushed into position by three tug boats.

It’s an oil tanker, the Genmar Companion flying the Bermuda flag. I always make the effort to get to know my neighbors…

Our new Lock Neighbor, Genmar Companion

A couple more pushes…

We watch a tug boat disengage from the ship. Yay, it’s coming for us! We’re instructed to get ready for a starboard tie, the crew scrambles in place.

Cecil is coming for us!

Then, wait, no, it’s not going to happen yet. By now we’re all eavesdropping  to the radio communication between tug boats, ship and lock crew.

The tug boat gets recalled urgently to the ship side. One of the mules attached to the ship has broken down and needs to be replaced. As luck would have it it’s the middle one, which means all the mules have to be disconnected in order for the middle one to get out of the way. We’re going to be here a while…

We’re not the only ones waiting… Mule operators, standing by.

A collective loud groan rises from Camelot. Nobody likes to play the Hurry Up and Wait game.

Time to break out some steaming coffee and Oreo cookies! It does help a little; I see faces brightening up…

By the time our leisurely coffee break comes to an end (read: we polish off the Oreo cookies), the big ship is being led towards us like a mellow huge dog leashed to a tug boat and the mules. Hallelujah!

Leading Companion to the lock

She’s in position… Let the procession begin!

The tug boat assigned to us, the Cecil F. Haynes, assumes its position and we quickly snuggle up to her. Everyone can now relax a little, shoot the breeze with the tug boat crew. They look pretty beat, too. We offer them cookies and Diet Cokes, since we slurped up every last drop of coffee and I can’t make any more.

The guys of the Cecil are so grateful and appreciative that it’s almost embarrassing… But it warms my heart.

Making friends with the Cecil crew

Tired, a little worried, half wet, but still smiling. That’s my boy!

Tom is smiling too, he’s enjoying the company and he knows we’ll get moving pretty soon.

Such close proximity can really be unsettling

Last set! The first of the three chambers

Ok, now we’re all in position. Let the first lock empty out! It doesn’t take long. Then we dance again.

Untie, move on to the second chamber, tie up again, wait for the water go empty out…

It’s all quite smooth and effortless, or so I think until I look at Tom’s tense expression. He’s working hard to make it look easy when it’s really not that relaxing… Come on, buddy, you’re almost there!

If only this rain would stop!

Ok, one more time, it’s the last one. Out of the second chamber, rev it up and scurry to the third chamber, tie up, catch your breath, wait.

And wait. Then wait some more. Damn, we’re so flaming close, what’s taking so long? Who knows… So we twiddle our thumbs, look ahead at the next lock, looking DOWN should I say… It’s impressive.

I’ve been so busy busying myself that I almost missed the impressiveness! But it finally registers, I remember with gratitude that I’m in the middle of a truly unique experience…

“Anybody wants to take a picture?” I yell. Adriana volunteers, so I get my shot for posterity. Yes, I was there and have proof! Never mind that I’m not at my photogenic best, I’m way beyond that concern; I’m just so thrilled to be here! And almost there, too…

Luis anf Frank at my sides, Tito in front. And Tom watching my back as always. Thank you all, guys!

Adriana, still happy and energetic after a long day.

I fooled myself thinking that the last lock is home run, but I know we’ll have another hour or two before we can give in to fatigue.

Man, if I am this tired, how does Tom feel?

One more and we’re done!

Companion coming down the last chamber

But luckily I have no time to dwell any further on how tired we are. I’m saved by the bell, literally. A loud bell like the one that used to announce recess at school is ringing my ears off, signalling the go ahead.

The last lock chamber is opening up, finally revealing the Caribbean side of Panama.

First glimpse at the Caribbean, less spectacular than I anticipated

For some reason, maybe it’s the rain, the grayness, maybe I’m just tired and the adrenaline rush is wearing off… Or maybe there’s just not that much to see after all. It’s almost anticlimatic! I built myself up to all this anticipation and now… I don’t feel much. Nothing more than just a sense of relief, maybe a mild sense of accomplishment.  I don’t know what I was expecting, but I’m a little disappointed by my reaction…

Oh, well, screw it. We’re here. We’re safe. It’s done.

Next order of business is to take Luis and Frank to the pilot boat rendezvous spot so they can go home after a long day’s work, then discharge our crew to Club Nautico in Colon, then find our way to Shelter Bay Marina… Jeepers, we still got a little while to go.

Looking back at the last lock chamber. End of the line!

But the pilot boat is delayed and we have to wait a half an hour. The crew is getting antsy; they’re tired and want to go home. We’re getting a little worried too, it’s getting dark and nobody likes to stumble their way in the dark, especially in a wide anchorage full of big ships lit like Christmas trees confusing our vision and blinding us to the feebly lit buoys we need to see to find our way. Can you tell I’m getting tired? I get all negative when I’m tired, not to mention grumpy…

Finally the pilot boat arrives and our Advisors take off in a flurry of greetings and heartfelt thanks.

We blast off towards Colon in the impending darkness, getting there within twenty minutes. Tom is swearing under his breath because not only is dark now, but the water is getting shallower by the second and we’re still far from the fuel dock where we’ll deliver the crew.

Tito, the leader of the group, suggests we lower the dinghy in the water and take them ashore that way. No way, that’s a lot of work and not very safe to do on a moving boat! Instead, Tom fires up the forward looking sonar to figure out a way in and we inch our way thru until, oh bliss, we finally sneak in to the blasted fuel dock.

Too much drama unfolding at the end of a very long day… And we still have a ways to go, it’s not over yet… The next hour and a half will prove to be the most trying of the whole day.

Eventually, we discharge the crew and even take on a little fuel to pacify the fuel dock operator who’s not at all thrilled we’re using his dock… In fact he’s downright menacing. This place gives me the creeps big time, I can’t wait to leave.

Tito strongly recommends we anchor out in the Flats in front of Colon City for the night. “It’s dangerous trying to find your way to Shelter Bay Marina in the dark, it’s not very well marked”, he says.

Tom and I are strongly against that option. Much too recently a couple of sailboats anchored here for the night have been attacked, robbed, and the occupants badly hurt . We’d rather take our chances.

By the time we untie from there it’s pitch black dark and we’re starting to feel beyond tired, but we’re happy to be alone again, less people to worry for/about. The team spirit is still strong, and we’re still smiling. Or is that grimacing?

So we take off and very carefully crawl out of the port and thru the anchorage, trying to find the buoy markers to guide us to the Marina just a couple of miles away on the other side of the bay. We open a trusted guide book hoping to find a map showing buoy markers, no success. We fire up all the electronics we have aboard, our seeing eyes in the dark.

We go the wrong way once or twice, the sea bottom getting shallower prompts us to spin a couple of frustrating circles and retrace our steps until we find deeper water. Finally we seem to find our way. We get on the radio and hail the Marina, obtaining an answer after we almost gave up hope just as we enter the narrow mouth of the channel heading into the Marina.

The Marina manager directs us to a slip via radio while I’m on the bow flashing a powerful flashlight all over to give Tom a sense of direction, illuminating obstacles along the way: to the left a wall of mangroves, to the right a row of huge luxury yachts at their dock. And just enough room to squeeze in between.

Just as I let out a loud and exasperated “God, is this day ever going to end?!” I spot two guys jumping up and down, waving frantically. “Turn left, turn left!” they yell. But to the left there’s a wall of boats in their slips, so Tom makes his trademark executive decision and turns right instead, aiming straight at the slip the guys are standing at.

It’s the right move. They meant right, not left… They must have had a pretty long day too!

And just like that, it’s finally over. We’re in the Marina at last! We’re safe, the boat is undamaged. We made it without a hitch, well, not counting the last couple of hours.

It’s only 19:30, but it feels like middle of the night. We’ve been up and going for eleven and a half hours, but we’re so giddy and wired that we even fill up the water tanks.

After that Tom demands his customary celebratory beer. As the knot in my stomach dissolves, I realize I haven’t touched food all day!

Break out the Nutella, girl! That’s MY customary celebratory ritual…

We’re in the Caribbean at last.


(now read it backwards)

Camelot passing the Miraflores Lock. Thanks Ed Jerbic for saving this webcam picture for us!



  1. Awesome. Bienvenidos al Mar Caribe!

  2. Wow!! We feel like we have been through for the 3rd time. Great photo adventure.You captured it all.

  3. WOW what a fantastic account of great adventure. Thank you Lori. Good luck kids.

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