Pulling into the Bay of Panama and weaving through ginormous tankers and freighters solidified that we were finally here. After 3 years of anticipation, we were staring at the entrance to the Panama Canal.
In some ways it’s just a system of locks, it’s a relatively short journey, and it’s a daunting experience that takes patience, trust, and a lot of money. But it is also a wonder of human perseverance, an engineering marvel, a rich lesson in history, and a memorial to the thousands who sacrificed their lives constructing this 50-mile passage. I mean it’s not every day you can say you crossed a continent in a day! To us, the experience was one we looked forward to and it was now time to prepare for this memorable voyage.
Bright lights, Big City
Before transiting the canal, Panama City was beckoning us to indulge with its modern skyline. Hitting the big city was a serious culture shock – huge skyscrapers, gigantic malls, and…..a sloth crawling on a powerline? The capital city of Panama stands in stark contrast to the other places we’ve been in Central America in terms of modern infrastructure. With the boat docked just outside the canal at La Playita Marina, we instantly had access to shops and restaurants, and were only a short taxi ride into the city. We anticipated staying only a week, so we balanced our time between exploring the sites and preparing our boat for the upcoming canal transit. And just as an aside, we had already found a great kennel for Quincy, as a Great Dane hanging out in the cockpit with 4 additional crew members aboard, barking at the locomotives and strange noises produced from the locks was not what we considered conducive to a smooth transit through the canal.
Right next to the marina was the Punta Culebra Nature Center, an educational site for the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. The guides were engaging, we got a glimpse of the rare golden frog – critically endangered and endemic to Panama, and also spotted one of the several sloths high in the trees above. They have cool aquariums with underwater life from the Caribbean on one side and the Pacific on the other, reminding you of your unique location and the very different sea life found in each body of water. I highly recommend visiting this center as it afforded some very hands-on education that encouraged the kids to tap into their inner scientist. Go first thing in the morning for sure.
Topping our list for the city was a visit to Casco Viejo (the old city) and the Panama Canal Museum. The museum is located conveniently in Casco Viejo right on the Plaza de la Independencia. It houses a diverse collection of relics from the earliest concepts of a passage connecting the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, and continued to unravel the fascinating story of resilience, innovation, and sacrifice as we walked through the exhibition halls. We also found a noteworthy exhibit on worldwide plastic use and its unfortunate global impact. Just outside the museum stands the glorious Catedral Metropolitana de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, one of the largest cathedrals in Central America dating back to the 17th century. We found out from our taxi driver that the Presidential residence is also located in Casco Viejo. Today it is heavily guarded by police, following nationwide protests and government negotiations, so we only caught a quick glimpse of it from a far. Mario, the taxi driver knew these roads well enough and so we wove through some beautiful, albeit cramped roads of the old town. Having satisfied our inner tourist and shopper for a bit, the boat was calling us back for cleanup and preparations for our transit.
Preparation for the Canal
Preparations for canal transit begin long before your journey. We had been in touch with our agent, Erik Galvez with Centenario Consulting for several weeks now to assist with the official paperwork and now that we were here, we needed to solidify our date. After consulting with our buddy boats S/V Kyrie and M/V Soulmate, we settled on Saturday, as this was suggested to be a good day for availability of advisors (the person who comes aboard during transit, stewards you through, and acts as your liaison with the Panama Canal Authority). We confirmed our date with our agent, paid our fees, and the countdown began. First, our Canal Admeasure Representative arrived to measure our boat and give us our official ship identification number. This made it real for us as we’ve been staring at my in-laws’ ship identification number which still sits framed in their hallway from 42 years ago.
Next was stripping the rails of paddleboards, outboard engines, and anchors since we would be rafting up with our buddy boats. It is also commonly advised to pad solar panels to prevent damage from the monkey fists that are hurled down to your line handlers once inside the locks from nearly 50 feet above the boat. We heeded that advice and covered the rear solar panels with cushions and a dog bed that was not presently in use (thank you for your contribution Quincy). It wasn’t pretty, but we weren’t going to a fashion show after all.
A few days before, we tore our Panama courtesy flag line after 65kt winds blew through the marina, removing roof tiles at the marina office, disabling boats in the anchorage, and damaging nearby trees and structures on the island. Our casualties were minimal compared to the damage we saw while walking around town. Regardless, we certainly couldn’t transit the Panama Canal with a Panama courtesy flag pathetically hanging from our boat. So, with the aid of our boat hook, we quickly restrung it and tied it off to get it flying with finesse again.
We ran through our list for the next day and readied any last-minute items over dinner. Now all we had to do was get some sleep and be ready to leave the dock just after our line handlers arrive at 0345 tomorrow for a full day of transit – rest up!
I went for a run the day before our transit along the Pacific canal entrance. I needed the exercise, but also the mental peace to think through the experience we were about to undertake the following day. It reminded me of driving the course of a triathlon the day before a big race, kind of demystifying the unknown to cool my nerves. The day of any significant event, things fly by so fast that I also wanted to take some time to myself to appreciate this historic place before we moved on. I found this plaque commemorating the centennial of the first “shovelful” of the Panama Canal in honor of France, the United States of America and Panama. With the Bridge of the Americas standing proudly in the background, I thought it was an appropriate closing for this post and lead-in for my next post about the actual canal transit.
Posts by the HelmsMistress are published every Wednesday (when we have wifi) and written from a women’s point of view. She writes, she helms our heavy and experienced sailboat and she teaches our children….just to name a few of her responsibilities. Every post on this website is written, photographed, edited and published from a cruising sailboat, our home as we continue to cruise full-time.
An important point from this article….the use of a professional agent to get checked into Panama and through the canal. Before we came through the canal, we met a boat who pulled into a slip beside ours….and didn’t have a great canal experience with their line handlers or agent. See, the agent and his family came onboard AS the line handlers (and apparently didn’t give lots of guidance) and seemed to eat them out of house and home. I know from several different sources that it’s highly recommended that you use a bonded and certified agent before starting the canal paperwork process. The Panama Posse allows you to get a discount if you use “their” agent, who is also mentioned in several of my books by name as a bonded and certified canal agent. So we used that agent and I strongly recommend him. That info is in the articles above and below. And, the use of a professional agent ensures you don’t have to pay the $800 buffer fee.
Ok….so much more to come: Saturday I’ll have a significant post about this year’s major project (still going on) and coming next Wednesday we’ll publish the next article from theHelmsMistress.
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Here’s other articles we’ve written about the Panama Canal Process: