Transit the Panama Canal

As a Panamanian, crossing the Panama Canal is something I had always wanted to do. I called Canal & Bay Tours to coordinate my transit and I was able to fulfill this dream.

Partial or full transit

There are two options for doing a transit through the Panama Canal: partial and complete. Most people choose to do the partial that goes from La Playita in the Calzada de Amador to Gamboa. This transit lasts four and a half hours, while the full transit takes eight and reaches the Atlantic in Colon.

In high season partial crossings are almost daily, while in the low season (May to November) they leave about twice a week. However, full transits are only done once or twice a month, usually on the first Saturday.

Depending on the position of the boat, you are likely to start the crossing at Gamboa, and not from La Playita. In that case, you should still go to La Playita and they will take you to Gamboa by bus. We started at La Playita, so we took the bus back. It took us almost an hour because there was traffic, but usually it takes between 30-40 minutes.

A commitment to tourism

Canal & Bay Tours began operations in 2003, shortly after the Americans delivered the Canal to Panama. In those times, tourism was an industry that was just beginning and it was not possible to go through the canal as a tourist. Today, they offer transits through the Panama Canal to some 600 people a month in the low season and more than 1,000 in the high season.

More than 230 cruise ships crossed the Panama Canal in 2016 and the number is still growing. Other cruises stop on the Pacific or Atlantic side of Panama and do not make the crossing. Canal & Bay Tours offers its services to passengers of cruise lines such as Carnival, Princess Cruiseline, Royal Caribbean, Holland American and Cunnard.

The boats that transit through the Panama Canal are inspected frequently to comply with all safety regulations imposed by the Panama Canal. Regular boats like the Tuira (our boat) are checked once a year. Of course, they have to have all the necessary equipment for rescue, communication, lifeboats, vests, and so on. Additionally, they have to check if the windlass has the appropriate speed, the mooring lines are whole, etc.

The trip costs $95 for nationals and residents; and $150 for foreigners. In low season you can find better prices, even promotions.

I almost did not arrive on time

I told Luis, a friend who is a photographer to accompany me in the transit through the Panama Canal. As summer was starting, I changed the date and time several times to have better weather. In the end I did not understand the departure time and we arrived just as the ship was about to leave. The entrance to the Amador Causeway gets a lot of traffic in the morning and I was stressed that the ship was going to leave us. I was driving very fast while my phone kept ringing with calls from the manager asking where I was. When we finally arrived, we parked the car and ran to board the Tuira.

It is very important to arrive on time as they explained that everything is programmed with very strict schedules and if you arrive late you will lose your transit through the Panama Canal.

I was starting to get hungry, so I stop by the breakfast buffet that is included. There is a room inside the boat with some tables to eat, but the best view is outside. When leaving the city you can see the Biomuseum, Ancon Hill, the hotel Country Inn & Suites Panama Canal and the skyscrapers of the city in the background. Visitors will recognize their favorite buildings including the Hard Rock Hotel Panama and the famous screw.

To enter the Panama Canal, you must go under the Bridge of the Americas that is the place to take the best photos. Throughout the tour there is a guide who tells you about what you see on the way. But I was lucky to find an even better guide, Alejandro Pinzon, captain of the boat.

Best source of information

When Alejandro learned that I was the slow one he almost killed me, but soon after he forgave me and gave me interesting information about our journey. The small boats continue to pass through the old locks, while the new ones are exclusive for the Neo-Panamax ships. As the Tuira only has 121 feet, we were put with other boats; this is called tandem.

Sea Cloud, our companion, is a beautiful and luxurious passenger sailboat. This sailboat is 360 feet long and 188 feet high, therefore it is a boat that must be programmed. Its mast is so high that it can hit the Bridge of the Americas, which is only 220 feet tall. When special ships pass, the Canal has to pre-schedule its transit to coincide with low tide.

The locks room is 1000 feet long by 110 wide but space must be left for the boats to do their work. Therefore, the combined maximum capacity is 880 feet.

The transit through the Panama Canal begins

We reached Miraflores, which is the first of three locks that the Panama Canal has. In this lock you must go up two steps and then one more in Pedro Miguel to reach 85 feet above sea level. When you arrive at Gatun in Colon you will go down the three steps to return to sea level. The new locks are two and they make the three steps together in each ocean.

Gatun Lake is on top of everything else and the water drops by gravity to fill the locks. That is the force that is used to raise the ships, no bombs are used. The mechanics of the Panama Canal is impressive. Each old door weighs more than 500 tons and as they are so well balanced, two small engines of 25 horses are enough to open them.

The logistics to cross

The ships enter the locks with their own machine to navigate but they have to give up rudder and ship. They are carried by locomotives in the central and lateral (left) wall. The locomotives 1 are in front and the 2 behind. Each cable of the locomotive can pull 58,000 pounds. It usually is very smooth.

The captain is the one who gives the orders to release or pull the cable to keep the boats in the center of the chamber. Soon you realize they have their own language “2’s release and hold … 1’s tow”; between the two they see themselves and they estimate. All orders in the Canal are in English. Alejandro says “it’s like a science and an art” there are specific orders for things and each pilot does as he feels the situation, some are fast and others are slow.

Ships speak by radio frequency to coordinate transits. 100 years ago everything was with pennants and arrows that signaled which side the ship had to pass. In those times, it was only operated during the day. The radios before did not work so well. Nowadays they are they are an essential tool since the radio is something that never gets damaged. If there are obstructions, it serves to communicate with the references so that ships meetings take place in the appropriate place.

The life of a captain

I asked Alejandro why the boats had to use a canal captain and he replied “it takes many years to know the canal and understand it”. A pilot has to learn 28 coordinates to know where another ship is.

Everything in the canal is planned. Each morning the pilots receive a list of all the ships that will cross during the day. Being captain of the Canal may be Panama’s most sought-after job. Alejandro told me that in order to apply you must have at least 10 years of experience and then you must go through a training that can last 12 years. The captains have a scale of 1 to 11 depending on their experience and capabilities. There is no retirement age and there are captains who are over 70 years old.

When he applied there were 300 interested people, then they narrowed it to 35 and chose 8. Currently there are 280 captains and they work with rotating schedules. They must have 14 hours of rest to be put back on the assignment list. Unlike other jobs, the concept of holidays does not apply, since “the Canal is a machine that does not stop”.

Large ships start super early.  North 1 (first ship going north) starts at 1 a.m. If you visit the Miraflores Visitor Center between 8-10 a.m. you will see the last norths. In the afternoon you see the ones that are arriving.

The idea is that large ships can transit without problems in Culebra Cut which is very narrow. Using these schedules boats cross each other north of Gamboa. At night they put small boats.

The canal spends a lot of time coordinating everything. Each person has a very specific job, where one fails there must be a plan B.

Historic route

Follow the steps of the conquistadores in your transit through the Panama Canal. Most of the route was the old ‘Camino de Cruces’ that was used by the Spaniards about 500 years ago. Gamboa was previously known as the ‘Camino de Venta’. This route to cross the isthmus was made partly in water and partly in mule.

It does not matter if you are a Panamanian or a tourist, it is worth living this experience of crossing one of the wonders of engineering in the world.

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