Monday, April 7, 2014

The Panama Canal

The journey through the Panama Canal from the Caribbean to the Pacific has been part of our destination for almost ten-years.  We first bought the boat in 2003 with the very idea of immediately sailing it from Florida to Bellingham, Washington.  The journey we are on now was our original "shake-down cruise," if you will.  We intended to live on and prepare the boat for our circumnavigation in Bellingham where Becky's family lives.  When I arrived in the Bahamas my plans changed.  How could we sail past all of these beautiful islands, not to mention the whole Caribbean?  We decided to move aboard in Florida, cruise the East Coast of the USA, Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands and on down the chain to Trinidad.  When our home in Montana was burned to the ground through arson we found ourselves with nothing left but our boat.  There had been no insurance money and our home and business had been destroyed in one day.  The loss of our home and business changed our plans.  Now we had to work part of the year just to make ends meet.  We spent the next seven years working for six months and cruising for six months.  Finally this year we found ourselves in a position to continue our voyage and to finally make the trip we had planned so many years ago.

As I write this we are anchored on the Pacific side of the Panama Canal.  I'm not sure if the wonder of this is felt as keenly by all of the cruisers who pass this way.  I can only speak for myself, and I am in awe of where we are right now and dazzled by what we experienced in our path between the seas.  I thought you might want to experience the whole thing in a small way through this blog post.


Before we left St Thomas I researched online and discovered a number of cruisers who recommended using an agent to make the Canal arrangements and the one name that came up over and over again was, Roy Bravo.  I emailed and called Roy while we were still in St Thomas and he sent me a detailed rundown of the cost to transit the canal.  Without breaking down the whole estimate sheet he quoted around $2,500.00 total cost for the entrance fees, cruising permit (six people), canal fees, his fee, $450.00, and line rental.  He provided all of the fenders, checked us in and out of Panama (we never even had to go see an official)  he did all of the canal paperwork and set up the measuring of the boat.  From the very beginning we knew we had made the right choice.  Because Roy has connections he was able to book our measurements for the next day and we could have transited the canal within three days of our arrival in Panama.  We chose to stay and provision the boat over the weekend so it was one week from our arrival till we transited.  We knew of several boats who had done everything themselves and had been there for a couple of weeks and were still waiting on a transit date or had been bumped.  The process for them involved multiple calls to the canal authority, taxi trips down to the office, and they had to put up a sizable security deposit in a bank account which is waived if you use an agent.  We were not the only boat to have great luck with Roy.   "Wunjo," the boat next to us in the marina, sailed by single hander John Michelle, also used Roy and came in the same day we did.  They could have transited earlier but because his parents were in Panama to help with the transit, they decided to explore a little bit before transiting and they ended up being our buddy boat on the transit.   In the end, because Roy was able to save us money on cruising permits and other things, we ended up only paying $1,700.00 total, including fees for Panama itself.  Some of the folks who did it all themselves claim to have done it all for around $1,000.00 and I am sure that is possible if they took the bus everywhere, walked to the offices and bartered for their fenders and lines.  For us, it was well worth the money we paid to have everything taken care of and we would recommend Roy Bravo, without hesitation to anyone planning on a Canal transit.

Transit Day #1:  Gatun Locks

We were told to be out in the anchorage at 6:40pm last Monday for the boarding of our advisor and the beginning of our transit.  We actually left the marina around 4:30pm just because we wanted to be anchored before dark and have a nice dinner before the advisor arrived.  You are required to provide a HOT meal for your advisor so Beck made spaghetti and garlic bread and she just reheated the sauce for the advisor later on.  This was a great way to do it because all of your line-handlers, and you need four, are all fed before the transit begins.  The advisor boat actually didn't arrive until about 9:30pm.  We found him very informative, pleasant and knowledgable.  Once we pulled up the anchor we made our way toward the Gatun Locks.

While underway our advisor told us that because we were the biggest boat we would be the center boat in a three boat raft to transit the locks.  He also informed us that the center boat was the boat who would power and steer the raft.  I have to admit that this was a little intimidating to me, but I have moved a LOT of boats in close quarters over the years doing deliveries and took this in stride.  As we made our way toward the locks the channel narrowed and we were informed by our advisor that when locking up to the lake the small boats would enter the locks behind a large ship.  As we approached the final red buoy he asked us to hold position while the 800 foot Cargo ship passed us to enter the lock.  This was when things began to get interesting.  The sailboat in front of us, who had obviously been told the same thing, began to reverse in order to hold his position.  The wind was blowing us down toward the lock and as soon as he began to reverse he began to walk to port, right out into the channel where the ship was bearing down on us.  Instead of powering forward and holding his position the captain of this boat reversed harder and now was in real danger of being run down by the behemoth cargo vessel approaching the locks.  Our advisor was franticly trying to radio the advisor on the other boat to find out what was wrong but as we found out later the advisor on that boat had his hands full with an inexperienced crew and a captain who would have fit very nicely on a Klingon Vessel.  I yelled out,
"Hey guys?  You do know there is a BIG ship bearing down on you right?"  In retrospect, I should have just kept my mouth shut and watched the train wreck.

At any rate, they powered forward and took up a position behind us, almost t-boning John Michele's boat as they powered forward as fast as they could.

After the ship entered the lock it was time for us to raft up.  Our advisor radioed to the other guys letting them know that John Michele's boat would raft up first and the other boat was to stand down and wait to be advised that we were ready for them.  John Michele motored up to our starboard side and the tie up went smooth with everyone on both boats laughing and high-fiving the handlers on the other boat.  We exchanged pleasantries and introduced ourselves while we were tying up.  Suddenly we looked over and noticed that the other boat was approaching our port side at full speed without having been radioed to do so.  Our line handlers were still on the starboard side and had to rush to port to grab lines.  The crew of this boat had been told to keep quiet and no one said a word, as they tied off the stern line I introduced myself and asked for the name of their vessel  and the Captain/owner yelled,

"This is a VERY stressful time!  It is NOT a time for pleasantries!"  He sounded like a guy who had been forced into the cockpit of a 747 and ordered to land her.

I chuckled and looked at John Michele, who smiled and laughed.  The tie up with the port boat was a mess.  They had all of their lines under their fenders and had to retie them.  All of this was happening as the raft was slowly drifting down in the wind toward the lock.

Once we were all tied up it was my responsibility to steer and power the boat into the lock.  Suddenly my monohull was a trimaran!  Having spent a couple of years as Captain on Sweetest Thing, a 48 foot catamaran, I knew that the best way to steer this monstrosity was to use the engines of both the starboard boat and the port boat using reverse and forward to position the raft.  John Michele quickly understood what we were doing and I would give him a little fwd motion to go forward and a little motion aft to let him know to power in reverse.  I didn't initially ask anything of the port boat because the wind was blowing us in such a way that we were able to control it with just my boat and John Michelle's.  We came into the lock and the guys on shore threw their monkeys fists with the lines.  Again it was all smooth on John Michelle's boat and a wreck of yells and what not on the other boat.  John Michelle had his lines attached and transferred with no issues and his handlers positioned perfectly but the port boat was slow tying off their aft line which caused the whole raft to drift forward in the lock and turn to starboard so I asked for them to reverse, looked over and there was no one at their helm!!  I asked again and the captain just stared at me from his port side.  I looked at my advisor who then yelled for the port boat to reverse.  Finally the guy jumped down to his helm and hit reverse as hard as he could, jerking all three boats and shaking our masts together.  I yelled,

"Gently! Easy on Reverse!"

When he let up we were now too far the other way but John Michelle was right on top of it and straightened the raft out.

Once the lock doors were closed the current of the water entering the locks began to push our bow to starboard because, again the port guy didn't keep his aft line snug.

I smiled over at the Captain of the port boat and asked nicely for a little reverse again and he just stared /glared at me.  I was perplexed and laughed and smiled and said,

"Do you understand what I am asking?"

He stared at me and then yelled angrily,

"Yes I understand!  Are You an advisor?   I don't think you are an advisor!"

I was stunned and before I thought about it I asked,

"Are you a Dumbshit?  Because you look and act like a dumbshit." (Those of you who know me won't be too shocked by this...)

He jumped out of his cockpit and started to leap on my boat saying he was going to kick my face in!  I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried people.

Now both John Michelle and I realized we couldn't count on this guy for help so I looked at john Michelle and said,

"Ok!  We won't use him!  You power in forward I will reverse!"  We did it and straightened the raft and I asked my advisor to keep an eye on the port boats stern line to make sure they kept it snug.

For the next two locks John Michelle and I acted like he wasn't even there and steered the raft with our boats.  It went very smooth and we had a great time.

Once we locked through the final chamber we entered Gatun Lake.  By now it was 12:30am and the big mooring buoys had four boats on them so we had to anchor in 65 feet.  Yikes!  I sure was glad I had a working windlass!

The night on Gatun Lake was calm and tranquil, like being anchored on a... lake.

Transit Day #2:  Gatun Lake

Our advisor on the first day had told us that our next advisor would arrive the next morning at 10:00am.  We had been given a schedule which had shown the arrival time at 6:30am so we were a little surprised but it would be nice to sleep in.

I never sleep very late so I was up at my normal 6:30am.  Our friend Jim from St Thomas, who was helping us with the transit, was also up.  We began to put the boat back together and around 7:00am Rebecca was up making coffee.  We were all just sitting down to drink our first cup of coffee when the pilot boat arrived with our advisor and he was ready to ROLL!  We shuffled around and managed to get the cockpit awning stowed and the anchor up (from 65 feet!) in under 15 minutes.  Rebecca started making pancakes and eggs while we started motoring down the lake.

Gatun lake is an amazing place.  Fresh water surrounded by jungles and jungle islands with parrots, monkeys and Alligators. I couldn't help but think back to my sea kayaking days and imagine what a great adventure it would be to explore the shoreline of this lake on a sea kayak.

Wandering Dolphin motored along nicely at 6.5 knots with her new Beta marine engine and even passed the other two boats from our flotilla (a first for her under power.)  While we motored down the side of the channel huge container ships would pass by appearing suddenly like Godzilla from around a bend.  By early afternoon we were going through the Galliard Cut, before it was flooded it was called Cullebra Cut.  This was the infamous cut through the mountains that was the single biggest hinderance to the building of the Panama Canal.  Enough dirt was removed from this cut to build 68 Great Pyramids, or to build a Great Wall of China from San Francisco to New York!

I had made it a point to read David McCullough's book, "The Path Between the Seas" in the weeks before our transit.  I am so glad I did this.  What would have been just another body of water that looked like a lake and a river were to me so much more.  I saw each mile for the over 1000 people per mile who died there, most from yellow fever and malaria.  Even though my boys had just done a report for school on the Canal, to them it was just a passage,  I tried but was disappointed that I failed to impart to them the real significance of the engineering marvel that was right before their eyes.  When we passed under the Centennial Bridge and then came around the corner to the Pedro Miguel Lock we were about all excited to see the Pacific Ocean.

Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks:

Once again we had to tie up to the same boats as the night before.  This time was pretty much a repeat of the night before with John Michelle's boat and ours laughing and having a great time and not a word exchanged with the other boat.  We made it clear to the advisors that John Michelle's boat and Wandering Dolphin would be steering the raft and asked that the port vessel simply keep their rudder straight ahead and someone at the helm and that if we need their assistance we would relay it through my advisor to them.  The Captain of that vessel had been demoted and his wife took the helm.

On the downward locks we would enter the chambers first followed by the huge ship, so we motored into the lock and took our position all the way forward in the chamber, it all went very smooth for both the Pedro Miguel chamber and the first chamber of the Miraflores locks.  If you were trying to watch us on webcam you would have seen us pass through the chamber but unfortunately we were all the way forward in the lock and that is off the screen on the webcam.

The final Miraflores chamber was a little more exciting because, once again the port boat refused to keep a snug aft line and the raft began to drift forward and to starboard when the chamber started to fill.  This time I looked over at the woman who was at the helm.  I smiled and asked gently for a little reverse.  Without comment she reversed, keeping her eyes on me until I asked her to stop.  Oh if only she had been at the helm the night before!

When the final lock doors opened Wandering Dolphin made her way into the Pacific Ocean for the very first time in her 25 years of sailing!  We passed under The Bridge of the Americas and my heart was in my throat with the thought of what we had done and what lay ahead of us.  There is truly no turning back now.  We must continue into the vast Pacific and we are ready for that!

That night we tied up to a mooring ball at Balboa Yacht Club and Roy Bravo brought us our clearance papers and picked up his tire fenders and lines.

We have been anchored out at the first Amador anchorage for almost a week now and have had lots of time to decompress while we wait for our new Backstay to arrive from Miami.  We  have also heard lots of other stories from boats who just made the same trip and we have found that we were lucky.  There were a couple of boats who turned sideways in the locks, one who hit another vessel and often the fault was with one of the boats in the raft that simple refused to get along with others.  We had john Michelle and his parents over to Wandering Dolphin and will be their friends for life while we hope to never see the other boat anchored to windward of us in an anchorage.

It's funny how that goes.  This community of sailors is just a microcosm of the rest of society.  Those who work together can accomplish great things with little stress but those who choose to let pride and stress get in their way become a burden and let down and even a danger to everyone around them.

Thanks again for riding along!  We should be getting our new backstay in a couple of days.  I will take pictures of our mast monkey EmilyAnne as she goes up the mast to install it.  What a kid huh?

In a Whole New Ocean,
Captain Tofer, Rebecca, EmilyAnne, Kanyon, Kaleb, and Benny
and of course... Wandering Dolphin

A Very Special THANKS to our friend Jim Blakey from Water island and our new friend Marius from  Austria who came along as linehandlers  for this special passage.  The pictures on this post are all pictures Jim took. 


  1. Amazing. Great writing. Felt like I was there with you. Sending you all lots of love &prayers.

  2. excellent post. yeah I've been through the Panama Panama Canal a couple times now. A king of the adventures, certainly brought a lot of flashbacks thank you so much I enjoy your posts tremendously

  3. I love reading your posts of the adventures! Keep them coming! I read them while stuck at my desk at work! It makes me remember of our adventures! Love and hugs to the all the crew. Melissa Clarke