Panama Canal Transit

Published on 3 February 2024 at 22:07

We're halfway through the Panama Canal, which has been fascinating.


We were one of 3 yachts that left the dock at 4am; each picked up an advisor from a pilot boat shortly afterwards, then we made our way towards the canal.

A large cargo ship entered the first lock in front of us, then the 3 yachts tied together to make a single raft, and we followed the cargo ship in. We were lucky enough to be the centre yacht, and I was lucky enough to be helming the whole day, with the advisor giving me detailed instructions. The raft is secured well away from the walls of the lock (and the ship!) with a line at each corner (throwing lines from shore staff are used to heave lines from the raft to bollards on shore, then boat crew keep the ropes taut as the water level rises).

We went through the original locks (a new much larger set was added in 2016 to allow larger ships to transit) - there are 2 parallel flights (1up,1 down) of 3 locks. In each case the downward lock empties into the upward lock until the water levels match (to halve the water consumption) then the upward lock uses water from the upstream lake to fill the second half in the normal way. The scale is enormous but the operation is exactly the same as smaller locks, and everything went very smoothly.

The 3 interlinked locks (each 1000 feet long x 110 feet wide) took us up a total of 84 feet into Lake Gatun, a manmade lake formed by damming the Chagres River (the same river where we met Embera indians) - the dam is next to the Gatun locks at the Caribbean end.

The Gatum dam was the largest in the world when built, and the Gatun locks (3 on each side) were the largest concrete construction in the world at the time, and remained so for many years. The 3 locks extend a total of 2km.

Lake Gatun is 423, and we motored across it in very close company with some seriously big ships before mooring at Gamboa at the south esstern corner of the Lake.

Tomorrow we will go on, through the Guillard Cut where the canal goes through the highest mountains on the isthmus where most of the excavation had to be done, passing "Gold Hill" before descending one lock into the much smaller Miraflores lake (also man made) then 2 more locks into the Pacific.


Webcams for those can be found at Webcams showing live pictures of the Gatun Locks are at


A bit of history - I hadn't realised the state of Panama was created specifically because of the canal. It used to be part of Colombia, and the original attempt to build a canal (at sea level) was by the French in the 1880s who negotiated a deal with the Colombian Government - but that effort failed despite the French spending 1.4 billion francs, a fortune at the time. It killed 20,000 men, more than have ever been killed in any project before or since, except war.

The French tried again a few years later, this time planning to create a lake to cover most of the isthmus, and building locks up to the lake at each end of the canal, much as the present design - but this time they failed to raise sufficient funding, the project went bust and the equipment and rights were all sold to the US.

The Colombian Government then wanted to negotiate a much higher fee so the Americans were on the verge of building a canal in Nicaragua instead, but volcanic eruptions there meant they reverted to the Panama site - but rather than agree to Colombian demands, they supported Panama declaring independence from Colombia, supported by US troops moving in ( basically a land grab by the US!) with agreement for the canal signed within months.

Even then the Americans almost ran out of money and were in danger of not being able to complete the excavation needed. So they started a rumour that gold had been found in the mountains - investment and labour poured in and the excavation was completed but no gold was ever found in "Gold Hill"!

The American army stayed in Panama for many years - they finally left in 1999, honouring a treaty Jimmy Carter had signed in 1977.



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4 months ago

All a bit tricky on the webcams. Can see vir s of locks alll the time at to the pacific but they are pretty long distance so not clear. Also my analytical skills may not be at their sharpest after a few 8.5% local ales!

4 months ago

The webcams seem much clearer this morning! Still can’t see you on them though,

4 months ago

Hey Bill, nice but of history and logistics there. It is an amazing feat of engineering and it's got to be so cool to go through it. Yeah, the US did have a big stake in it and as usual pushed their own agenda on local politics!
One thing that's been on the news quite a bit is how low the water level is in the lakes, and as a result the cargo ships are having to go through at reduced capacity. Global warming, etc, etc.
Bloody great adventure you guys are having!

4 months ago

Looks like you’ve made it through. I hilts you were transiting the last two sets of locks Sue and I were transiting the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic. Another journey that didn’t go to plan but at least we made it home on the day we were scheduled to this time. Would have loved to go through the canal - enjoy the Pacific!