We finally did it! We crossed the isthmus through the Panama Canal, affectionally called the big ditch, into the expansive Pacific Ocean. Despite having read a ton of blogs and guides, there were quite a few surprises in store for us.
The crossing alone was quite the experience. It required extensive prep, and coordinating several moving parts. First, ¡Pura Vida! had to be measured and inspected by a Panama Canal official. Fortunately, we hired a rock star of an agent who made all of the arrangements for us. Once measured and approved for a crossing by The Canal Authority, we got our requested crossing date of January 3rd. Eagerly, we notified our friends who were waiting for details to be our crew. You are required to have four dedicated line handlers and a helm person. In addition, a canal advisor boards your vessel on the day(s) of the crossing. Since we were having friends join us for this momentous event, we wanted them to hang around a few days to celebrate with us. That meant we had to convert our 350 square foot living space into a home for six people. To achieve this feat of clown car dynamics, we shoved as much equipment, clothing, and spare parts into the back of our car; now doubling as a storage unit. We also converted our salon into a third bedroom. Luckily, our crew are all experienced sailors, used to living in tight quarters, and with little privacy.
Another stressful part of preparing for the crossing was checking all the boat systems. Once you start the crossing, you can’t just pull over for repairs without incurring significant fees for delaying the transit. Additionally, if you break down and need a tow, the going rate for a canal tugboat is $1,000 per hour plus expenses. So, we checked, re-checked, and triple-checked our engine, steering, instruments, water system, toilets, galley, navigations lights, and bilge pumps. We even took ¡Pura Vida! out for a quick test drive in the harbor. Everything was working…but this is a boat after all, and prone to tantrums of the mechanical sort at the least opportune times.
We made several trips to a variety of grocery, liquor, and convenience stores, to provision for everyone, advisor included. You are required to provide meals to your advisor. If he does not like what is served, or feels it is not safe to eat, he will order delivery at great expense to you. We later learned that the reason the advisors can refuse your meals is because they have had incidents where bad water or unsanitary conditions aboard have sent advisors to the hospital. Yikes! After all the shopping and systems checks, we were as ready as we could possibly be.
The Canal Authority does not give you a crossing time until the day before. On the morning of January 2nd, we got the call that we were to meet our canal advisor at specific coordinates outside the Atlantic entrance to the canal at 05:00 the next morning. We were dismayed by the early hour, but encouraged that it could mean a single-day crossing. Almost every cruising sailboat crosses the canal in two days, spending a sweltering, windless night in Lake Gatún in the middle of the canal. You are forbidden from swimming in the lake because of crocodiles, so we were genuinely hoping to avoid an entire evening of being stuck aboard watching each other sweat in the tropical heat.
At 04:45 on the big day, we released our dock lines and motored out into the moonless, cloudy darkness. We were saying goodbye to our beloved Caribbean Sea, our home since 2015. Our emotions were a jumble of exhilaration, anticipation, joyfulness, and jitters. We had talked about this day for years, and it was finally here.
We reached our designated link up point and bobbed in the gentle swell for about twenty minutes. Out of the darkness we spotted a pilot boat heading right for us. Expertly, they pulled up alongside and matched our speed while our friends relocated fenders. Our canal advisor, Ivan, hopped aboard and introduced himself. He confirmed what we suspected, we would be doing a single day crossing, all by ourselves. Usually, two or three sailboats transit rafted up together, but not us. Hurray!!!
Wasting no time, he instructed us to point ¡Pura Vida! towards the Atlantic Bridge, and give it some throttle. We were on our way. As we moved along the channel, we were awestruck by the vast quantity of lights. Ships, pilot boats, work boats, channel markers, docks, port cranes, city lights, bridge pillars, and stars. In the complete darkness of the early morning, it was a challenge to sort everything out. Luckily, we had seven pairs of eyes keeping watch. Right before sunrise, we could see the Southern Cross low in the sky ahead. Surely, a bright welcome sign to a new world, and the promise of a coming day. [Ha, I just put a song in your head…if I didn’t, look it up]
The basics of the Panama Canal are simple. You go up 90 feet, drive for a few hours, drop 90 feet, and voila! A new ocean awaits. The reality is quite more complex and truly awe-inspiring. Nothing can prepare you for the scale of the locks and the proximity to ships that have anchors larger and heavier than our entire sailboat. Under the watchful vigilance of Ivan, we steered ¡Pura Vida! close to the side of the first lock and our line handlers prepared to receive the guide lines heaved by the canal handlers on shore. Their lines have a heavy rounded end, called a monkey fist, to make sure they can reach at least halfway across the lock to little boats like us. Incoming!!! Four projectiles landed on our deck with a thud, and our crew quickly tied our larger lines to them so they could be retrieved and tied off to shore.
We slowly motored forward until we were uncomfortably close to the rear end of a loaded, 600 foot cargo ship. The gargantuan steel doors slowly closed behind us, more gently and quietly than expected. Slowly, the water filled the chamber and we rose 30 feet; our crew adjusting the lines to keep us in place. We repeated this process two more times until the mechanical behemoth opened its mouth and belched us out into Lake Gatún. Being behind a massive freighter when it put its propellers in gear was a roller coaster ride. The ship moved slowly away from us, but the water behind them was churning. ¡Pura Vida! was being tossed from side to side by the turbulence, but our line handlers earned their keep, ensuring we stayed in the center of the lock until we could exit.
In Lake Gatún, the journey gets boring. We motored for hours in the heat, crossing paths with ships as large as 1200 feet. Called Neo-Max, these ships are specifically designed to traverse the new, larger locks of the canal. Halfway through, Ivan learned that our “buddy ship” had a mechanical problem and may not make it to the Pacific side locks. That meant that we might have to wait until the following day to finish our crossing because the Canal Authority does not allow small vessels to go through the locks alone. Ivan went into a frenzy of phone calls and messages trying to find an alternative. He told us to go as fast as possible so we could possibly catch up to another ship and ride down with her. An hour later, things were not looking good as we were not gaining much ground on our potential new lock buddy. As we were nearing the Pedro Miguel lock, the first lock on the way down to the Pacific Ocean, Ivan got the call that the cargo ship with the mechanical issues was repaired and we would finish our transit that afternoon.
We are not sure why, but the Panama Canal makes small vessels go behind ships on the way up and in front of them on the way down. We eased our way into the lock and repeated the procedure of getting lines tossed at us from shore. We motored until ¡Pura Vida! was just a boat length from the Jurassic Park size doors. This time, however, the lock was full since we were going down. We could see over the gates at the water on the other side, 30 feet below. As we looked aft, we saw the bow of the cargo ship slowly creeping closer until it was towering above us. I hope to never be that close to that much tonnage ever again.
The final two locks are adjacent to the Miraflores Visitor Center. When we arrived, it was full of people watching the water elevator spectacle. Ivan sent some messages and then told us to pay attention to the announcer at the visitor center. We got teary-eyed when we heard her tell the crowd to please give a round of applause to the little sailboat from the United States with a crew from the US, Costa Rica, and the United Kingdom. Our emotions were running high already and I assure you there was more than one pair of moist eyeballs aboard as the crowd cheered us on during our final descent. Moments later, the last set of gates opened and the Pacific Ocean lay before us. We did it! For the first time in her life, ¡Pura Vida! and her crew were in a new ocean; full of possibilities and challenges.
We had an hour of motoring from the canal exit to our chosen anchorage, but we could not wait to pop the bubbles in celebration when we went under the Bridge of the Americas. Ivan was picked up by another pilot boat and then we dodged a dozen or more anchored ships on our way to Isla Taboga. It was the first transit for all of our crew, so we were all rejoicing about our achievement. We spent the next two days enjoying the water and beach with our friends until we had to return to Panama City for their departure.
After some quick reprovisioning in the city, we sailed off to the Archipelago de las Perlas, an island group about 40 miles southeast of Panama City. Upon arrival, we were immediately struck by the difference in these islands from those on the Caribbean coast. Instead of flat isles with palm-lined, white sand beaches, the shore was rocky and jutting high above the ocean with impressive cliffs. Waves roared and hurled mist high in the air as they bashed into the craggy shores. There were beaches in some areas, but most disappeared completely at high tide and emerged again a few hours later. After seven years of relatively non-existent tides in the Caribbean, our lives would now be ruled by tides as high as 18 feet that change every six hours.
We spent the next several weeks bouncing around Las Perlas. There is a handful of cruising boats that stay in the archipelago, but most boats we saw were just stopping for a few days before launching across the Pacific Ocean to the Galápagos or all the way to French Polynesia. We were happily surprised that, despite the number of sailboats passing though, we easily found secluded anchorages where we might be the only boat for miles.
In addition to the massive tides, the Pacific had another surprise in store for us. The water is cold, really cold. It has ranged from 71-75°F (21.5-23.8°C). While that may not be terrible for a cooling dip on a hot day, it is certainly too cold for us to go snorkeling. If you heard a loud stream of profanities in the distance sometime in January, that was Kimberly after diving off the boat when I told her it was “chilly, but not bad.” I think she’s still mad at me.
With some research, we learned that these frigid conditions are temporary. They are caused by a huge current that brings deep, cold, nutrient-rich waters from as far as the coast of Peru into the Bay of Panama. The current shifts with global weather patterns and should take a more southerly turn soon. We cannot wait.
After a month, we returned back to Panama City for a few days to resupply. This was necessary because there are only two mini grocery stores in the entirety of the Las Perlas archipelago; both on Isla Contadora. On some of the other islands we could buy limited fruits and vegetables in “stores” that were often just a window in somebody’s house in a small fishing village. While these vendors definitely kept us from returning to the city more frequently, there were many things that were just not available.
As our time this season was drawing to a close and our food stores got dangerously low, we chose to skip Panama City and spend our last week in a large bay on the Panamanian mainland; about ninety minutes west of the city. The bay is formed by a long, skinny landmass with a small kite-surfing and fishing town called Chame. We anchored completely alone behind a small island in the middle of the bay with the Chame off to the east and the mountains of the Panamanian mainland to the northwest.
Visiting Chame by dinghy, we stepped back in time. People live by the rhythm of the tide and the seasons. During the hottest part of the day, most locals rested in hammocks on their porches in the shade of enormous mango trees dripping with fruit. On the beach at low tide, the fleet of small fishing pangas waited high and dry for the sea to float them again, and for their owners to return for an evening of fishing. A pack of friendly beach dogs ran playfully in our direction as we anchored Lagniappe.
Although small, Chame had everything we wanted. We found a local shack that served us some of the best fried whole snapper and patacones that we have ever tasted. The fish were clearly caught that morning, as they were being gutted behind the shack after we placed the order. We also found a small but extremely well-stocked mini-super. After this successful day trip, we returned to ¡Pura Vida! prepared to stay for one more week before our scheduled lay-up at a marina.
We only explored a miniscule portion of the islands on the Pacific coast of Panama this season. Next year, we hope to venture further west and north, along the Central American coast, where a whole new cruising ground awaits. That area is known for amazing diving, so we will again be able to enjoy one of our favorite hobbies.