Panama has 500 rivers, the longest of
which is Tuira  that  stretches 125 miles.
Panama Facts...
Area: 40,420 sq miles
(approx same land area as Maine)
Capital city: Panama City
Population: 2.8 million
Language: Spanish
Currency: $US but called Balboas
High Point: Volcan Barú, 11,401’
Quick history: Native indians were conquered by the Spanish
in early 1500's; ruled by Spain for 300 years; in 1821 became
a province of Colombia who had just won its independence
from Spain; 1903 rebelled against Colombia and won its
independence (with a little help from the US who wanted to
build the Canal!)
s/y Nine of Cups
Visit Panama's San Blas Islands
Panama has no natural large lakes.Lake
Gatun, 163 sq. miles, is manmade and
part of the Panama Canal.
The name Panama comes from a native Indian word meaning
“abundance of butterflies and fish”.
We left the San Blas Islands with regret; our time there was wonderful, but it was time to be moving west.  We anchored one night in a little cove,
Ensenada Indio, which proved to be too rolly an anchorage. We wanted to make one more stop on the Atlantic side before heading through the Canal:  
Rio Chagres.  The Atlantic coast of Panama is resplendent with rivers. A few miles from the commercial jammed-packed city of Colón, lies the entrance
to the Rio Chagres, a fresh-water river which meanders about 5-1/2 miles upstream before ending at Gatún dam used for water flow management of
Lake Gatún.  The depth ranges from 10-60 feet which renders the river very navigable and a delight for cruisers.
The river is part of the Parque Nacional San Lorenzo, one of Panama’s many national parks. San Lorenzo is the name of the fort  which sits at the river’
s mouth and was our landmark for entering.
Rio Chagres
The river is alive with flora and fauna.
Above, heliconia
The jungle is thick and lush. Every
shade of green you’ve ever seen or
imagined is here. Contrasting  the
green, brightly colored jungle flowers
bloom. The effect is breathtaking.
Above, ginger lily.
A small dock along the river looked inviting
so we stopped for a walk. There was a trail
cut through the jungle, but a brief survey of
the area and an encounter with a large spider
made us think twice about tromping around in
the jungle with reef shoes, shorts and
sleeveless shirts. We’ll try again another time
when we’re dressed more appropriately for
the terrain and its residents.
We took dinghy rides to explore the dam at the
end of the river as well as little side tributaries off
the main river. We drifted close to the shore to be
able to photograph flowers and animals we saw.  
Though the river supposedly has caimans (fresh
water crocs), we didn’t see any.
Excerpt from the Ship’s Journal….
We ate dinner in the cockpit last night
and tried to identify all the sounds we
heard with a verb…chirp, peep, flutter,
ker-plonk, buzz, hum, squawk, whoosh,
howl, screech, roar, tweet, ping, rustle-
rustle, hoot. I’m sure we missed a few,
but the jungle symphony was in high
form and we were enthralled.
We tried to identify as many flowers as possible,
but many we’d never seen before like the one
From the ship's jouirnal..."Butterflies are
everywhere... hundreds of them, fluttering by
across the deck, through the cockpit, over
the dinghy when we’re out exploring. Their
colors are vibrant...blues, oranges, greens,
black velvet, reds and turquoise...almost
neon in effect." Above, a Zebra Longwing
We anchored about half way up around  a bend
which allowed us seclusion even though we
knew there were 5 other boats also anchored
further upstream. This view taken  from Ft.
Lorenzo overlooking the river.

Despite the jungle noises, it is very quiet
here. The buzz of the cicadas kind of
becomes a background white noise after
awhile and you don’t notice it. We speak
softly as it seems raising our voices would
be a sacrilege of some sort. The smell is
pungent and familiar, like wet leaves or
mulch, a whiff of some sweet blossom
drifts by every once in awhile. Jelly is on all-
sense cat alert, perched on the top of the
dodger, eyes wide. She is on the lookout
for caimans, bats, low flying, non-cat-
eating birds or maybe a small moth or fly.
Leaving the Rio Chagres, we headed for
Colon, the major port on the Atlantic
side of the Canal and the embarkation
point for the Canal Transit.  It was a thrill
to radio for clearance to enter the
breakwater and receive permission to
proceed to the “Flats”, the designated
anchorage area for yachts.
Panama Canal Zone - "The Flats"
The 500’ wide entrance to the Panama Canal is
marked by two huge markers standing at the ends of
two rock breakwaters. Plenty of room for Cups!
Colon is a commercial port and the view from
the Flats primarily as shown above…large
cranes and offloading equipment, lots of tugs
and pilot boats and huge ship after ship
heading down the channel to transit the canal.
The Panama Canal Yacht Club is
the place where cruisers meet
here. We stayed anchored out,
but could have moved into a slip
there. They offer a dinghy dock,
water, laundry facilities and a
trash dumpster as well as a
restaurant and a very busy bar.
Seeing this waterspout in the harbor made
us take notice. Usually described as a
tornado on water, we watched this one for
quite awhile before it dissipated, thankfully
before it got too close to us.
Colon is not a very pretty city. It is leftover from the
American occupation of the Panama Canal Zone.
The Colon 2000 Mall is a safe area as if the Free
Zone, a duty free gated area for wholesale, tax-free
No matter where we are, there are a
few simple things that bring warmth to
our hearts and smiles to our lips.
At the yacht club, several of the
indigenous peoples showed their
wares. As the Kunas are known for
their molas, so the Emberra-Wounaan
are known for their fine basketwork.
Above, Delaluisa, a Wounaan woman
we met, weaving a basket.
There are some pretty sights in the city
including the statue “Cristo del Mar”
(Christ by the Sea), but they are few and
far between.
Most of the city is dirty, dilapidated and
dangerous and yet, we still found that it
grew on you after awhile.
The fronds of the chunga palm are used for
making the baskets. The colors are all natural
derived from local trees and plants and even
some from burying the natural palms in the local
mud. We purchased the basket (right) from her
which shows a butterfly and monkey motif.We
purchased the basket from her which shows a
butterfly and monkey motif.
Wounaan men, known for their carving,
mostly carve cocobola ( local
hardwood) or tagua. I couldn’t resist a
cocobola seahorse, our ship’s logo and
Panama Canal Transit - September 14, 2003
A Quick History of the Panama Canal....
  • Among the great peaceful endeavors of mankind that have contributed significantly to progress in the world, the construction of the Panama
    Canal stands as an awe-inspiring achievement. The unparalleled engineering triumph was made possible by an international work force under the
    leadership of U.S. visionaries, who made the centuries-old dream of uniting the two great oceans a reality.
  • In 1534, Charles I of Spain ordered the first survey of a proposed canal route through the Isthmus of Panama. More than three centuries passed
    before the first construction was started. The French labored 20 years, beginning in 1880, but disease and financial problems defeated them.
  • In 1903, Panama and the United States signed a treaty by which the United States undertook to construct an inter-oceanic ship canal across the
    Isthmus of Panama. The following year, the United States purchased from the French Canal Company its rights and properties for $40 million
    and began construction. The monumental project was completed in ten years (1914) at a cost of about $387 million. Since 1903 the United
    States has invested about $3 billion in the Canal enterprise, approximately two-thirds of which has been recovered.
  • The building of the Panama Canal involved three main problems -- engineering, sanitation, and organization.                                                       
    Its successful completion was due principally to the engineering and administrative skills of such men as John
F. Stevens and Col. George W. Goethals, and to the solution of extensive health problems by Col. William C. Gorgas.  
  • The Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty of 1903 gave the U.S. the exclusive rights to build and operate the Canal and to establish
the Panama Canal Zone, a 10-mile corridor along the length of the Canal, as a U.S. jurisdiction.  The original treaty called
for a $10 million payment to Panama plus rent of $250,000/year beginning in 1913. By 1955, the rent had increased to $2
million/year. After several years of strained relationship, the USA and Panama signed two treaties in 1977. One treaty gave
jurisdiction of the Panama Canal Zone back to Panama in 1979. The other treaty provided for the return of the Canal to
Panama on 12/31/99.
A ship sailing from New York to San Francisco
saves about 7,800 miles by going through the
Canal versus sailing around Cape Horn.
Paying the Toll

This is the biggest toll we’ve ever paid…much
worse than the Mass Pike!
For sail boats up to 50’ the fees are as follows:

$550        Transit fee
$ 25         Security fee
$ 25        TVI Service (???)
$850        Refundable Deposit (in case we hurt
    the canal)
TOTAL: $1,450
The Transit Authority Building & Citibank
Lots and lots of paperwork!
You must have the following equipment aboard which most sailboats do not have and must rent:
  • 8 tires used as fenders on the side of your boat to protect it against the walls of the canal
    and other boats - $3.00 each plus another $1.00 each on the other side to dispose of
  • 4 lines – 125’ long, 7/8” thick without knots or splices to tie up to the walls or other
    boats during the lock transit - $15 each plus deposit until returned to the originating port.
  • Linehandlers – 4 are required plus the captain. We hired one professional line handler at
    $55/day plus meals. Another couple from the boat “Gertrude P. Abernathy III” also line-
    handled for us at no cost other than meals during transit and transportation back to
    Colon ($10).
The process for sheduling a transit is really not that difficult. In our experience, the Panama
Canal  Authority was efficient and courteous.
1)Secure the required lines and fenders.
2)Call the Admeasurer’s Office to schedule a boat visit usually within a day or two of your call.
An agent comes to the boat, measures your boat and insures you have the required equipment
aboard. He then completes all the paperwork for you and gives you copies of all paperwork as
well as lots of other information about the transit.
3)Pay the toll at the Citibank in town via cash or Visa (that’s Citibank pictured above)
4)Call the scheduling office after 6PM the night the toll is paid and get a transit time.
5)Call again 24 hours prior to transit to confirm the time your Advisor will board the boat.
Toll Trivia...
  • The highest toll ever paid by one boat for
    a transit was $184,114.80 in January
    2000 by the cargo vessel “Sister”.

  • The lowest toll ever paid was by Richard
    Hallburton in 1928, who paid 36 cents to
    swim the Canal which took him 10 days.
Autoridad del Canal de Panama is the
Panama Canal Transit Authority which
handles every aspect of the maintenance
and running of the Canal since the U.S.  
turned it over on January 1, 2000.
The Panama Canal extends ~50 miles (81km)
from Limon Bay on the Atlantic to the Bay of
Panama on the Pacific.  A ship traveling through
the canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific sails from
northwest to southeast.  The ship actually leaves
the canal 27 miles east of where it entered.  
Gatún Lake, pronounced gah TOON, is an
artificial body of water, 85 feet (26 meters)
above sea level. It holds 23 million cubic yards
of water and is contained by Gatun Dam, one of
the largest earthern dams in the world. It was
created in 1912 by damming the Chagres River.
There are three sets of locks to maneuver. Gatun Locks has three separate chambers which
ultimately raise the boat 85’ above sea level to the level of the lake. The boat then motors 31
miles to the next lock. The
Pedro Miguel Lock is a single chamber and drops the vessel 31
feet. The
Miraflores Locks are only a mile away from the Pedro Miguel Lock and consist  of
two chambers which brings the boat down to the level of the Pacific. Because of tidal changes,
the Pacific Ocean is about 18’ higher than the Atlantic. While passing through the Gaillard Cut,
the boat actually crosses Continental Divide of North America.
Going through the locks…
There are three ways to go through the locks and you
have the opportunity to request the type you want
although it is not guaranteed.
  • Center chamber where the boat is alone in the
    middle of the chamber and held in place by four
    lines. The boat is moved forward by Canal line
  • Sidewall where the boat is tied against the side of
    the lock wall.
  • Rafted to another boat or boats or a tugboat  
    which is called “nested”.

Sailing yachts are “extra baggage” for the Canal. We
can only transit in a lock which is already occupied by a
“BIG” boat which is rather daunting.
We transited the Gatun Locks as a center chamber
vessel all by ourselves with the huge Greek cargo ship,
“St. Nicholas” in front of us in the lock. How could you
go wrong traveling with Santa Claus?
We transited Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks rafted
to a large catamaran. We handled lines on one side of
the Canal and the cat crew handled the lines on the other.
The locks were built in pairs to allow
ships to pass through in both directions
at the same time.  Each lock has a
usable length of 1,000' (300m), a width
of 110' (34 m), and a depth of about
70' (21m). Lock walls are about 7'
thick. Lock chambers fill when 4’
diameter wheels in the floor admit water
under great pressure, flooding the
chambers in less than 15 minutes.
We entered the Gatun Locks at sea level and
were raised about 85 feet to the lake level in
three separate chambers. This is called
A Canal linehandler gets ready to throw the
“monkey fist”. We attach it to our lines and he
hauls our line in so he can attach it to a bollard
to secure us during each lock transit.
Linehandlers are used for smaller craft, but for
large vessels these locomotives called “mules”
are used…up to four of them…to guide the
vessels to the next lock chamber.
Canal Trivia...
Did you know that more than four and half million cubic yards of concrete went into the construction of
the Panama Canal's locks and dams?  That if the material originally excavated to build the Canal were
put on a train of flat cars, it would encircle the earth four times?
Because of the reclining "S" shape of the
Isthmus of Panama, the sun rises from
the Pacific and sets in the Atlantic.
The first ship to transit from the Atlantic
to the Pacific  through the Canal was the
S.S. Ancon on August 25, 1914.
The most dramatic scenery was passing
through the Gaillard Cut (aka Culebra Cut).
It is the point at which the Canal had to cut
through the Continental Divide and huge
terraced cuts are visible on approach.
Since the Gatun Lake is manmade, tops of trees are
still visible as are little islands which used to be
hilltops.  We saw a caiman lazing in the sun along the
banks in one spot. On another little island, a
Wounaan thatched hut on stilts  was visible.

The time across the Gatun Lake is long and hot.
There is all the initial flurry of activity in Colon as we
welcomed everyone aboard and hauled anchor.
Within an hour we were in sight of the Gatun Locks
and the adrenaline was flowing as we headed into the
first set. Then, after the locks, I cooked and served
breakfast, cleaned up and there was still hours left in
making the 28 mile motor trip across the locks. We
chatted, some slept, David maintained the helm
through the whole trip. To the right, Marcie enjoyed
the view and some relaxation.
Watching the heavy lock gates of the Pedro Miguel Lock open is amazing. This emptied us into the Miraflores Lake…only one more set to go!
From Gatun Lake, we rafted up with a
catamaran  to travel through Pedro Miguel
Locks and the Miraflores Locks. The catamaran
handled the starboard lines and we handled the
port lines and Donna got to take pictures.
Snuggled up to a catamaran for the transit through the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks made it
easy on our captain since the cat was the larger vessel, it was required to steer and propel us
through the Pedro Miguel Locks, the mile between and  through  the Miraflores Locks and cast us
free once we were in the Pacific. Photos above are the actual "live" Pan-Can Cam  which our
friends, the Grimms, captured for us and later sent.
From our perspective, the Miraflores Locks were the best. First of all, there’s a reviewing stand
there and I’m not sure who took more photos…them of us or us of them! We waved, hooted and
howled as we passed by and the audience loved it. Most importantly, the Miraflores Locks (two
chambers) are the final descent to sea level and the Pacific Ocean.
Our first view of the Pacific
Just beyond the bridge to the left is the
Balboa Yacht Club. We radioed ahead and
a launch met us to direct us to a mooring.
We gratefully accepted the mooring lines,
bid our crew adieu, tidied the boat and
slept our first night in the Pacific!
David & Marcie above with the Bridge of the
Americas (Puente de la Americas) in the
Marcie pays tribute to Neptune as we
pass under the bridge, thanking him for
protecting ship and crew in the Atlantic
and asking for his continued protection
in the Pacific.
Oh...but there's more! Come on along as
we explore
the Pacific side of Panama
and then head west or south or...well, you'll
just have to come along to find out.
Return to Home Page
Return to Panama page
Sitting high on a ragged bluff, a fort, Castillo
de San Lorenzo, guards the river's entrance
and provides a good landmark for
negotiating a route between a reef and a
sand spit which also mark the entry.
Return to Panama Intro Page
Recommended reading:
The Path Between the Seas by David
McCullough...the definitive book on the
history and building of the Panama Canal.