The Panama Canal and Onward Plans

5/13/2017We made it to the Pacific! My goodness, it was a bit ridiculous what we went through to make it through the canal, but as I write this I am sitting in the cockpit at a mooring ball at the Balboa Yacht Club, just a couple miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. We were supposed to have been through the canal on the 8th, but we didn’t make it through until yesterday, the 12th.

On the 7th around noon Kyle, Max, myself, and three new crew members, Itai from Isreal, Fransisco from Germany, and Richard from California, left Shelter Bay Marina and headed to the anchorage where our pilot was supposed to board the boat. It was a full boat with 6 people, but 4 line handlers are required so we just had one extra person- Richard met Max at the dock and expressed his interest in seeing the canal. Anyway, once we got to the anchorage it started pouring, and it poured all afternoon. Four other sailboats were at the anchorage who were also waiting on pilots to transit, and around 3pm the pilots started showing up. We were all so excited and hanging out in the cockpit, when the pilot boat drove past us and asked us the name of our vessel. “High Climber”, we said in unison. The men on the pilot boat looked a bit sad and shook their heads, “not today, not today” and drove off to the other boats. Max instantly called the agent, as both our agent and the canal authority told us to be there on May 7th. We soon found out that a pilot just didn’t show up to work, and therefore we weren’t transiting that day. Everyone was rather disappointed as we waited for the rain to lighten before heading back to Shelter Bay. Our new date was supposed to be the 9th, but on the night of the 8th, we were told it would be the 10th. They seemed to be just pushing us around, it was rather frustrating and bit disheartening as we started to wonder if we were ever going to get through!

Max fixed the autopilot! No hands needed, yaya!

So finally on May 10th, the same 6 of us, once again headed to the anchorage to wait for our pilot. This time I called the Signal Station on the radio who is in charge of transit times, and bugged them until they confirmed High Climber was a-go for that afternoon. Around 5:45pm our pilot arrived, and so did the rain. It hadn’t rained all day, but once he arrived it started pouring, and it didn’t stop until we were through the first set of locks. Our pilot’s name was Robyn, and he was a really nice guy who has been doing this for over 9 years. While he never takes the wheel, he guides Max through the busy channels and told all of us, the line handlers, what to do. Once near the first lock doors we tied up with another sailboat, and stayed connected to them until we were through all the locks. We went into the lock behind a massive ship, probably 800ft long. Not nearly as big as the ships on the Mississippi, but much much taller, which made it seem bigger as it towered over us. There were 3 locks, and they were right in a row, which made it rather quick once we got through. We raised up a total of 90 feet, about 30 in each lock. Men on the sides of the locks would throw down ropes to us, which we would connect to the ropes we had on board. They would then pull the ropes back, secure us to the sides, and from High Climber we would haul the lines in as the water raised, getting rid of the slack. Itai, Fransisco, and I worked together on the stern line, while Kyle and Richard were at the front of the boat. It was pretty simple as long as we were paying attention and not getting distracted. I was actually surprised how similar it all was to the locks on the Mississippi. Even though things were a bit bigger on these locks, because we were in a bigger boat, the scale seemed similar to when we were in Solvi.

Once through the 3 locks and raised up the 90ft, we were in Gatun Lake which is a large fresh water lake that Panama uses as their drinking water. Our pilot led us to mooring ball and we tied up on one side and the sailboat we went through the locks with tied up on the other. “Your next pilot will be here around 7am tomorrow” Robyn told us and he disembarked our boat. Feeling thankful that we made it and looking forward to finishing the rest of the canal the following morning, we ate some pasta and went to bed.

Max so happy that we are finally transiting 🙂

Itai happy to be going through the canal
Waking up early as to be ready for our pilot, we were in the cockpit awaiting his arrived by 6:45am. It seemed the other 3 sailboats felt the same way, as they were all in their cockpits as well. As usual we waited and waited, until around 8am one of the line handlers on the boat we were sharing a mooring ball with came over and asked if Eric was our agent and if our boat name was High Climber. “Yes”, I said, feeling nervous about why he was asking this. He then handed his cell phone to Max and said “Eric wants to talk to you.” Instantly I knew something wasn’t right- and sure enough Max informed us that, once again, a pilot didn’t show up and that we were going to have to wait until tomorrow to finish transiting the canal. Everyone on board was rather upset and angry at this news, as we had never heard of this happening! They told us we weren’t allowed to get off the boat or to leave the mooring ball and that we had to spend the entire day in Gatun Lake confined to High Climber. One of our crew, Richard, had a flight the next morning at 8am and would miss his flight if he stayed on High Climber. Thankfully the boat we were moored with offered to take him on board, as they were still transiting that day. The line handler who gave us the news said he has been doing this for over 9 years and had never once heard of something like this happening. I guess we are just lucky? Haha. Anyway, we said goodbye to Richard and watched as the other 3 boats loaded their pilots and headed toward the Pacific. Max, Kyle, myself, Itai, and Fransisco spent our entire day on the boat. I spent the day keeping to myself, reading, watching movies, talking to my best friend on the phone, and hanging out in my cabin. The guys had a chess tournament, went swimming, and attempted to do some fishing. It was a long day, but turned out to be rather relaxing and we made the best of it.

Thankfully the following morning by 9am we had a pilot on board and quickly released our lines and motored toward the last set of locks. Crossing the 28 mile lake took about 4.5 hours and we arrived to the last set of locks around 1pm. This time it didn’t rain at all, and it was daylight, so we were able to experience the locks a bit more intimately. We again, tied up with another sail boat, and this time we went into the locks in front of a massive ship called a ro-ro (roll on-roll off car carrier). It was pretty funny being tied up in the lock and watching this massive ship bear down on us, we laughed about what would happen if for some reason it didn’t stop, we would all be crushed! This time, we dropped about 90ft, and so instead of pulling the lines in, we let them out- which for me was much less work and more enjoyable. At the last lock there was a viewing tower for tourists, and hundreds of tourists had paid to come see boats go down the locks- it was pretty funny having all these people take pictures of us. Again, once in the locks the process went pretty fast, and around 4pm we were through the last lock and in the Pacific! Motoring to Balboa Yacht Club our pilot disembarked our boat, and we found a mooring ball, as there are no docks at this yacht club, just a big mooring field (a mooring ball is a permanent anchor that has a large buoy at the top that you tie your boat to). Unfortunately this mooring field is extremely exposed to the massive ships’ wakes, and isn’t very protected from swell, so all the boats are constantly bobbing up and down and rolling around. Also, because some of the waves that come through the mooring field are so large, we aren’t allowed to take our dinghy to shore, we are required to use the yacht club’s 24 hour water taxi service. At first we couldn’t really figure out why they made us use this service, but last night when we all wanted to go to shore and the water taxi came and picked us up, an enormous ship drove by producing a wake that created 4 foot waves. The water taxi surfed down the waves, but had we been in our dinghy we would have totally flipped. The taxi dropped us off at the dock, which is floating so it is also bobbing up and down. Basically everything at this yacht club is just in constant movement and you have to use great care when getting on and off the boat as to not fall overboard. It’s rather entertaining. After using the yacht club’s showers we headed to the bar where Max bought beer for the crew and we cheers’d to making it through the canal and to the Pacific!

Our pilot Guermo (sp?) for the last set of locks

The lock doors opening to the Pacific!

As I write this, it is around 11am on Saturday morning. Fransisco is leaving us today. He has been traveling for over a year after crossing the Atlantic in a sailboat, he hitch-hiked from South Carolina all the way to Colon, Panama, where we picked him up and brought him to Panama City. He is now looking for another boat, as Brazil is his final destination, so he heading south in any means possible. I really enjoyed getting to know him and hearing his stories and learning more about the culture of where he grew up. Itai, who is a pediatric nurse from Isreal, is staying with us until Costa Rica, where he has a flight from San Jose back to Isreal. He found himself unhappy with the direction his life was going, and decided to quit his job, sell his car, get rid of his apartment, and travel for a bit. He met up with some friends from Costa Rica and helped them sail from the Caribbean to Colon. We picked him up in Colon and will take him to Costa Rica. He hopes to go back to work for a bit, save some money, and eventually buy a sailboat and travel on his own. Itai is an awesome guy- just so incredibly kind and good-hearted. He is one of the most genuine people I have come across in a while, and it is very refreshing to spend time around his kindness and positivity. It is also very interesting to learn more about Isreal, because all I knew of it is what I have seen on the media, which in my opinion is an awful place to learn about a country. I look forward to spending time with him for the next few weeks. 

We are going to leave on Sunday or Monday and head towards an island called Isla del Ray. It is a preserve and supposedly one of the most beautiful places on the Pacific Coast. From there we hit a couple more islands on our way to Costa Rica. We will then check into the country in Golfito Costa Rica where we are hoping to leave the boat at a marina for a couple days and check out this national rainforest and hostel. We will then continue up the coast of Costa Rica, doing mostly day and overnight hops and exploring as much a possible. Around the first week of June we will arrive at Playa Flamingo, a port near the Northern border of Costa Rica. This is where Kyle and I will be getting off the boat. Our original plan was to make it to California, but with the delay in the canal and a few other factors we have decided to depart early. Hurricane season starts the first week of June and Kyle and I do not feel comfortable traveling up the coast during this time. Max has friends who will fly into Costa Rica and continue up the coast with him. He also wants to do some large off-shore hops which I am not interested in at all, whereas his friends who are coming to meet him are. So it actually works out pretty great for everyone, and we all feel like the new plan is positive for everyone. Kyle and I plan to explore Costa Rica by foot for 2-3 weeks, as we have a flight out of San Jose on June 17th. Kyle’s friend Ryan is going to come meet us for a week or so in Costa Rica and we are hoping to make it to Montezuma and stay at a hostel and explore the rainforests of Costa Rica. Kyle and I will then fly into Wisconsin for a couple weeks and begin our 2 month road trip back to Florida via Utah, Colorado, and a few other states to visit friends, go to a wedding, back-pack, hike, and hopefully have another awesome adventure, this time by car! (My car is still in Wisconsin from towing Solvi there). I am really looking forward to heading back to Utah and showing Kyle where I grew up and visiting with my friends.

Anyway, as is the case with this type of travel, plans change but for now, I am excited about the next few months of travel we have ahead of us before making it back to Florida. It is a beautiful day today, and the weather seems much cooler on this side of the canal which I am very thankful for. Max and Itai are going to do a major food re-supply while Kyle and I go run a couple other errands to get ready for this next leg of the journey- this time heading North! Thanks for all the constant support and happy Saturday! 

3 thoughts on “The Panama Canal and Onward Plans”

  1. As always great pictures and interesting – I grew up on the Mississippi by the lock and dam between Illinios and Iowa. They are always interesting. The large locks of the canal are fun to see. Sorry for all you delays but sounds like you had good people to help you along the way.


  2. I’m enjoying and learning from your reports, but will be happy to have you back on terra firma and headed for the U.S.A. The best reward from travel is the appreciation of home! Love from Granny


  3. Glad you are all ok. I heard about the canal being a little iffy since the hand off to Panama. Living vicariously through you guys! Everyone at BPM says hi!

    Todd the zookeeper.


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