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Panama – Transiting the Panama Canal in a superyacht

By Captain Mathew George

DURING MY CAREER OF 15 YEARS sailing as professional crew aboard both private and charter yachts, I have been fortunate to sail on some wide-ranging and adventurous vessels.
In this time, I have been lucky enough to transit the Panama Canal on no less than ten occasions.
For most of these transits, I was sailing in the position of first officer and in charge of the deck. The vessels were all motor yachts and ranged from 47 to 74 metres.

Give yourself as much time as possible to start your preparations prior to making the transit.  Appoint a good Panama Canal agent as this is the key to having a successful transit. It is important to make a reservation well in advance to prevent delays.

Of course, one cannot overstate the importance of crew awareness and training. But there are also some essential items I always have on board before arrival and some preparations I complete before we start our entry into the canal.

• Two large Eski coolers
• An ample supply of popular soft drinks
• Lots of bags of bite-size chocolate bars
• As many of the thick removalist-type blankets as I can store on board
• Protective covers for work boots. These can be the paper kind but I will normally purchase the more durable vinyl type used by the European yards. These have a vinyl edge glued to a non-slip sole with an elastic band around the top to hold them on
• A roll of Visqueen plastic
• A roll of Blue Diamond plastic
• Roll two-inch blue tape
• A regulation pilot boarding ladder
• Eight mooring lines of 35 metre or more in length, four each for the bow and stern.

Some of the latter can be expensive items to purchase outside of the USA so, if you know you’re heading for the Canal, stock these before you depart.

Regardless of the ocean from which you begin your transit, before you can start you will be visited by a number of Canal officials. Apart from your agent, the Canal Authority will send their people to inspect the vessel to ensure it complies with their regulations. None of these guys remove their steel cap boots.
Before the officials begin stepping onto the teak decks, try to cover as much of the aft deck, one side deck and the path to the foredeck with the Blue Diamond plastic and tape it down with the blue tape. Even if you think you have covered all you need, have another look. Someone will always manage to stand on the only bit of teak you didn’t protect. When visitors arrive on board, they usually step off the wet, greasy deck of a launch, so always tape down a few of the moving blankets in front of your bulwark door. This dries their boots and acts as a door mat, containing a lot of the mess as everyone piles on.

Like all officials, they expect to be shown respect upon arrival. The mate should be present to introduce himself when they board. When met professionally with a formal introduction and a welcoming handshake, the officials are more apt to show respect for the vessel and comply with its operating procedures. Once all are on board, ask if they would mind slipping on the boot covers. This will give you a perfect opportunity to conduct your ISPS duties and identification checks.

The mate should let your guests know he will escort everyone to the bridge to see the captain. Once on the bridge, have the mate introduce the captain. It’s also a good idea to have one of the interior staff on hand to offer refreshments.

While all of the paperwork is being completed, use the time to continue your preparations. The next project is capping rail protection. This is where the moving blankets will pay for themselves. Triple or quadruple fold the blankets and tape them securely to the rails above the fairleads you will be using for the transit and the boarding area. You cannot have enough buffer on top of the capping rails, varnished or not. Also tape a few blankets on the outboard side of the hull around the aft deck fairlead and cover the rubbing strake. This will protect the paint from the steel cables the line handlers hang on to while trying to thread your soft lines through the cable eye when you enter the locks.

Once this has been completed fore and aft, you can then start to organise the boat to receive the line handlers. Tape off sections of the boat that you do not want people exploring; a simple line of tape across a stairwell works remarkably well. During the transit the line handlers will always ask for the use of a head. If you have an exterior head, this is your best option. If not, use plastic to cover the interior and create a path directly to the head. Always have a crew member escort visitors to and from the head. It is important to keep people from wandering off and exploring unsupervised.

As the time for your transit draws near, fill the coolers with a good selection of popular soda and ice, then place one on the bow and one on the aft deck. You should receive eight line handlers and a bosun at each end of the canal as you approach the locks. Have enough for a few cans each. Do not fill the coolers with all your stocks as the line handlers will fill their bags before departure.

Lastly, flake out four mooring lines of 35 metres at each end of the boat. These are going to be used as your soft lines. General procedure for the commercial ships transiting is for steel cables to be pulled on board and placed directly over the ships mooring bits to keep the ship in place while in the lock. Due to the yacht’s very shiny and very expensive stainless bits, make sure you use what the Canal refers to as “soft lines”. The basic procedure is to pass the end of the mooring line with the eye through the fair lead and pull about five or six metres through. You can then take a few turns on your bits with the tail end of the line and make it off. The line handlers will pass the eye of your mooring line through the eye of the steel cable then slip the eye of the mooring line back through the fairlead and drop it over the bit. This will create a loop of mooring line through the eye of the cable and act as a bridal for the wire cable. Most of the line handlers know how to do this though run through it with them to make sure everyone is on the same page.

When your transit time arrives, the Canal Authority will send out a pilot to escort the yacht through the locks and lakes. Once your pilot has arrived and your “hotel” flag is hoisted, you will start to make your way up to the beginning of the locks. This is where you will receive the line handlers who will be delivered to the yacht via one of the canal ferries (50 foot launches that transfer all canal workers around). Be well fended both forward and aft of the boarding position, as the ferry captains are used to slamming into large ships and holding their vessels alongside while the workers climb aboard. They take this approach for yachts as well with some hitting very hard, then bouncing off and falling behind the yacht, so board them as far aft as possible. Once the ferry (launch) is alongside, the line handlers will flood aboard. They will all be dressed in the same blue / grey uniform except for the bosun, who will be wearing a white shirt and red helmet. The mate should introduce himself and then show the bosun the proper route to the foredeck. The bosun will then split the workers and take four forward with him while the other four remain aft. Before assisting with the crew set up on the foredeck, the mate must escort the bosun to the wheelhouse. The bosun will hand the pilot certain documentation, such as a list of the line handlers onboard. From this point on, you will need to have at least one crew member stationed at each end of the yacht who is able to go over the soft line set up with the line handlers. When visiting any country, knowledge of the language goes a long way. If you speak any Spanish this will be of great use. All of the pilots speak fluent English and a lot of the line handlers speak some so you can get by, but any local language will be an advantage.

As the yacht approaches the first lock, the line handlers will prepare their own heaving lines which will be passed to the little rowboats that paddle out to meet the yacht as she approaches. These boats have a line running back to the “mules” (locomotives on each side of the lock which will hold the boat in the centre of the lock by wire cable when filling or emptying) and attached to a wire cable. The line handlers throw their line to the rowboat and the boat crew ties both together so the wire can be manually pulled out to the yacht. This is the time damage can be done to the yacht’s paintwork. It is a good idea to have a crew member watching and asking the line handlers to be careful as the heavy cable approaches the side of the boat. Most understand and hold the cable away while the soft line is passed through the eye of the wire and then placed back onto the yacht’s bits. The wire is then dropped down into the water and taken up by the mule driver. Care needs to be taken as sometimes the handlers just let it go without making sure it falls far enough away from the hull. Only two lines each end will be used, though you need others in case a line breaks.

Once both sides are secure, the line handlers will sit down until you’re ready to leave the locks. This is the time when they look for something comfortable to sit on and have no problems making themselves at home on the deck furniture. It’s a good idea to not have the boss’ white cushions on the chairs. I normally stack the furniture or remove it from the deck altogether. When they are done with their work, I offer the coolers and their contents. More often than not, you will also be asked for food. It is your discretion to offer food – though we have never supplied a meal to anyone other than the pilot, hence the reason for the chocolate bars!

Even though the line handlers are relaxed, the crew needs to keep a close watch as the yacht rises and falls within the lock. Due to the large amount of water being pumped in or let out, there are all sorts of stresses being applied to the soft lines. If the crew sees that the lines are being over stretched, they must contact the bridge and have the pilot talk to the mule drivers to either let down or take up on their wires. It may be that the mule driver has fallen asleep or is not watching what they are doing. This has happened more than once, and I have had lines break in this manner. The recoil of the mooring line is extremely dangerous. No crew should stand anywhere near the lines when the locks are in operation.

Once you come to the end of the first set of locks, the shore workers will request the return of the heaving lines brought on when you attached the wires. To do this they throw more heaving lines at the yacht without regard for the deck, the paint or any anything else that happens to be in the way. The force with which the monkey’s fist lands is enough to remove paint and leave a large dent in the teak deck. To avoid this, politely ask the shore side to wait while you fetch the long wooden or fiberglass boat hooks most yachts carry. Hold the boat hook out as far aft of the stern or forward of the bow as possible and instruct the thrower to aim his line over the boat hook. The guy throwing generally has enough accuracy to lay the heaving line over the hook on first attempt.  They always seem up for the challenge while their mates watch! Once over the boat hook, pull in the line and the line handlers will attach the lines that are to go back ashore and will prepare to leave your yacht. The yacht is then released from the mules and can proceed to cross the freshwater lake under its own power. While transiting the lake the yacht will benefit from the fresh water flushing though the cooling systems. It’s also a good time to flush the fire mains to clear the pipes of any salt build-up.

After the lake the same series of events happen as you enter the locks on the other side and prepare to go down to sea level.

Most of the transits I have completed have run overnight, so it is important that good lighting on the embarkation area is available. Also have at least one or two crew on both the fore and aft deck while you have the line handlers on board to answer questions and escort them to the bathroom. Everyone I know that has had the opportunity to transit the Panama Canal agrees that it is an exciting event that they will never forget. My experiences transiting have enabled me to create a routine which I have found greatly reduces the clean up time and minimises any potential for damage.

These few steps have worked on all the vessels I have been fortunate enough to transit on, but may need to be adjusted to fit your yacht. I have been through the Canal using these procedures with and without guests with success. The owner has always been happy to have the protection down rather than a repair bill!
For those who may not have thought about travelling this direction, put it on your list of things to do and keep your camera handy!