“Slow down, we need to wait here,” our canal pilot, Francisco, says in a somewhat concerned tone. He looks forward and aft — at what I’m not exactly sure — and I can feel that our delay is only going to get longer. Accordingly, I shift Yahtzee into neutral and let her glide slowly towards the Panama Canal’s Miraflores Locks, the first set when transiting from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Having left the marina at 4 a.m., we should have already been through this part by now, and I try hard to remain patient.
Shifting in my seat behind the helm, we come to a near stop as soft morning sunlight fills the turning basin. A massive cargo ship steams by off our port side. Tug boats of various shapes and sizes whirl around us. And a seemingly endless stream of nimble pilot boats criss-cross the channel leading to and from the canal’s Pacific entrance.
We only need to go 45 miles north through this infamous waterway and our crew’s excitement is palpable, but the task of transiting six enormous locks seems more daunting than ever. For now, though, we wait… and while we do, my mind swerves back to so many incredible memories in the Pacific and forward to what the future may hold in the Caribbean Sea and beyond. This Panama Canal transition marks nearly a decade of our family’s adventures with Yahtzee and I recall that our journey began at a different set of locks.
The doors to Seattle’s Ballard Locks opened on a sunny day in 2012, revealing the limitless possibilities of the waters on the other side. When Jill and I nosed our new-to-us and freshly christened Grand Soleil 39, Yahtzee, out into Puget Sound, we were on top of the world. It had been a painstaking boat buying process, but with that part behind us, new adventures were on the horizon. With high hopes that Yahtzee would be the perfect platform to turn into our home, raise children, and explore the world ahead of us, we set sail.
Certainly not new to sailing, but definitely new to the Salish Sea, we eagerly started exploring Puget Sound from our slip at Shilshole Bay Marina. Cruising and racing on the weekends were highlights no matter the season, and we very quickly realized that being away from the dock was what we wanted and needed. In that time, we also welcomed our first son, Porter, who we swiftly brought aboard after being born at Swedish Ballard amidst an April gale. He was a sailor from the start.
Two years after arriving at Shilshole, we cast off the lines on a sunny summer afternoon with the intention of having no permanent slip but, instead, pursuing the dream of cruising and racing the amazing waters of the Pacific Northwest full-time as we saw fit. Our second sailor, Magnus, joined the crew in Bellingham that windy December and we ended up spending the first of three incredible winters cruising around the San Juan and Gulf islands.
Each year, when winter faded to spring, our young crew started to make serious tracks. Down to the Columbia River for a voyage up to Portland we went, and then back north we raced in the Oregon Offshore Race to Victoria. The waters of British Columbia became our summer playground — from Princess Louisa Inlet to Desolation Sound, a circumnavigation of Vancouver Island and more — and our family gelled as a crew. Cruising was seriously for us.
All the while, I worked as an editor and writer to pay the bills, and bills we would have when we came south to Seattle to do major boat work. Our sights were set on Alaska and, after preparing Yahtzee, we shot north in the spring of 2017 with a plan to explore Southeast for the summer before sailing south. As happens when cruising, our plans changed, and we sailed to Kodiak Island, the Kenai Peninsula, and Prince William Sound before settling in Seward for two winters.
Again, boat work commenced and by 2019, we were more than ready to be cruising. Back to Southeast we went, and from there it was a 1,300 mile non-stop passage to San Francisco (See: “One Tack, Two Jibes” in the January 2020 issue of 48° North). From California, we hopped our way south to Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and now — where I sit as I type this — Panama. It has been an incredible journey from those humble beginnings in the Ballard Locks, and with all of the miles and places behind us, we were ready for another ocean. We just had to get there.
Transiting the Panama Canal is a hurry up and wait process. First is the paperwork, which you can complete with or without the assistance of a canal agent — we chose to go with. In doing so, we sent him digital copies of all our personal and boat information and informed him of a general time that we’d like to transit. In our case, we wanted to go through at the end of February. Over the course of a month, he kept us updated on possible times and then said, “Come to the canal zone as soon as you can to get in line.” So we hurried there.
“Getting in line” means that you need to have your boat measured by a canal measurer, who literally measures your length and beam with a tape and then enters the information into their system. Once you’re in, the canal authority gives you a date. For Yahtzee, that date was two weeks away, so… we waited and enjoyed Panama City. During that time, our agent started setting up the logistics of our transit.
To go through the canal, you’re required to have a pilot and four line handlers aboard. You also have to rent eight fenders and four long lines. Since I was going to be at the helm, I was out as a line handler, but Jill was in. So, we hired three line handlers and arranged to get all the necessary lines and fenders.
For cruising vessels, transiting the Panama Canal means going through six locks. From the Pacific to the Atlantic they are: Miraflores (two locks), Pedro Miguel (one lock), and Gatun (three locks). The thing is, you don’t really know how long it’s going to take. It could be one quick day, it could be two or more. But typically, you can expect that some amount of waiting will be involved. Basically, they give you a time, and you hope for the best knowing that shipping traffic and tug boats will always take priority. We were told that they wanted to get us through in one day with another sailboat and ahead of a tanker, which would require that we leave at 4 a.m. “Great!” We thought, “This should be easy.”
Finally, our time had come. The fenders and lines were dropped off on Yahtzee the night before and our three line handlers — Juan, Nik, and Mikey — bounded down the dock at La Playita Marina at 3:45 a.m. on Friday, February 25. With very little chatter amongst us, the guys dutifully got on the dock lines, instructed me to back out of the slip, and off we went.
Outside the marina, the lights of Panama City lit up the water while green and red channel marks blinked in a line reminiscent of a runway. Soon, a black and white pilot boat swiftly pulled up alongside Yahtzee and our first pilot, Francisco, jumped aboard. After getting him settled and talking through the procedures of the day, we passed under the iconic Bridge of the Americas headed for the Atlantic. This was really happening.
ATLANTIC OR BUST
Holding Yahtzee on station outside the Miraflores Locks, Francisco breaks my retrospection on our decade of cruising experiences in a matter-of-fact way, “The ship we’re supposed to go through with is late. We’re going to transit with tugs instead and need to wait for them.” Well that’s that.
The morning sun has gone from soft to blazing, and I try to drink enough water to keep me hydrated for the long day ahead. We wait for another hour and, finally, the tugs show up from astern, wake us as they go by, and all hands jump on deck. It’s go time.
Just outside the locks, we raft-up to our buddy boat, Ed and Lolly on the Baba 35, Sonho, and proceed forward together as what we dub a “mono-maran” — Sonho to port, Yahtzee to starboard. Moving slowly into the first lock, tenders with hardhats and lifejackets heave monkey’s fists to us and our line handers quickly attach our dock lines, which get pulled back up the wall. Shortly after, much to the amazement of Porter and Magnus, water starts rushing into the lock and up we rise from the Pacific Ocean. When we get to the top of that first lock, I look back at the Pacific and think, “Until next time, my friend.”
The process of locking through is intense at moments, but our line handlers and pilot are calm, experienced, and knowledgeable. In a little over an hour, we’re through the first three locks and are steaming north at 6 knots. We’ve now entered the narrow Culebra Cut that leads to Gatun Lake and eventually Gatun Locks. We’re in a hurry to make it through this section of the canal because a gas tanker, or LPG ship, is coming the other way and we’re not allowed to be in the channel with it at the same time. Fortunately, we squeak out of the cut with 20 minutes to spare and tie to a large metal mooring to wait for its passage. Using the downtime to our advantage, some of us take naps, and the line handlers play games with the boys. Then, when Francisco gives us the all-clear, we’re back underway.
At this point, we’re nearly halfway through the canal; but because of the morning delays, it looks like we’re going to miss our afternoon lock time at the final set. Darn. We continue northbound into artificial-yet-stunning Gatun Lake. The water color, adjacent jungle on the shoreline, and quaint nooks and crannies of the lake make me think, “Wait, can we just cruise around here for a week?” Alas, it’s not to be.
When we reach the northern end of the lake, Francisco directs us to a mooring on the west side of the channel just three miles from the Gatun Locks. The Atlantic is so close, yet so far. This is where we’ll stay for the night. Then, just as quick as his arrival, a pilot boat appears, we shake hands, say our goodbyes, and Francisco is gone.
Making the best of our plight, Juan turns on music, Jill hands snacks up to the cockpit, and I pass a round of beers out for the crew. Twelve hours from when they came aboard, we hoist a cheers in Gatun Lake and look forward to transiting the final three locks tomorrow… whatever time that might be.
Juan, Nik, and Mikey stay the night with us and, by the time we’re up and having coffee, it’s looking like we’re not going to be getting through the locks anytime soon. The first notice of a pilot coming is noon, then 12:30, then by 1:30 we’re starting to worry if we’ll have to spend another night. Fortunately, the call comes in that a pilot is arriving within 30 minutes and the anticipation aboard ramps up. We’re doing this!
Our new pilot, Guillermo, leaps aboard with tricky maneuvering from the pilot boat and some fanfare from the crew. It is time to get in line for the passage down to the Atlantic. While we wait, a third sailboat (a 50-something foot Gunboat catamaran) comes into the mix. The plan, according to Guillermo, is to raft Yahtzee to the Gunboat’s starboard side and Sonho to its port side. We’ll all go through as one big raft with the lock lines being handled from the bow and stern cleats of the big cat. “Perfect,” I think, “we can just enjoy the ride.”
After some jockeying into position, our three-boat raft wedges its way in front of a hulking blue tanker and into Gatun Locks. Together, we all descend through the three locks with only minor mishaps in line handling. Going down is much easier than going up. While transiting, I walk back and forth to the helm and foredeck where Jill and the boys are taking in the entire experience. We’re about to be in the Atlantic and our smiles can’t be any bigger.
When the final set of lock doors opens, Guillermo turns to me and, with a grin on his face, says, “Hey Andy, welcome to the Atlantic Ocean.” I look at him in awe. I almost can’t believe the moment we’re in. Nudging Yahtzee’s throttle forward, more of the Atlantic appears and a sense of accomplishment washes over me. We’ve done it. All these years after first setting out through the Ballard Locks, here we are as a family with those same exact feelings. New adventures are ahead.
This article was originally published in the April 2022 issue of 48° North.