Krogen 55′ Expedition “Choisi” recently completed her year-long journey from Alaska to Maine via the Panama Canal. Her owners, Peter and Sara Gebhard, recorded their fantastic voyage while “home” schooling their two daughters on board. What an educational experience for those young ladies! What follows is Sara’s personal account of their day transiting the Panama Canal.
As part of our 12,149 nautical mile adventure from Alaska to Maine in 425 days, we transited the Panama Canal on January 4, 2015. When we initially planned our trip that we would embark aboard our Krogen 55′ Expedition named “Choisi”, the prospect of going through this incredible body of water under “our own steam” was one of the highlights we were looking forward to the most. While many people are able to experience a trip through the Panama Canal by water, there are not too many who can say they did it on their own bottom in just one day!
Needless to say, there was an incredible amount of thought and planning before we even left the East Coast and flew to Juneau, Alaska, to begin our odyssey. One large component was planning for the Canal transit. After a lot of research, we opted to hire Panama Canal agent Tina McBride to follow her transit advice. This decision was one of the best we made all year. Tina has a system that handles the hundreds of issues and questions that are involved with making the passage. It’s a business and she treats it as such, so there aren’t too many things up for discussion. This is a good thing.
Underway, we were assigned to Moises, who ran the show but never touched the helm. That was Peter’s job. Moises coordinated everything from the arrival of the line handlers (our choice) and when we got into position to enter the Canal, to when lines were connected and released and when the line handlers took breaks and what kind of food and drink to supply the crew. He was incredibly helpful and having him aboard allowed us to thoroughly enjoy the passage and not worry about Choisi getting damaged as we transited from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean.
I had read several articles about the angst boat owners have experienced preparing for the passage, and the anxiety of providing the “right” food for their assigned agent and boat crew. Even horror stories of having to buy new food and pay $500 to have someone go ashore and get it! In the end, we only had 36 hours to prepare for the actual passage, so what we had on the boat was all we had. When I talked to Moises about what the line handlers would like to eat, he was very gracious and said that whatever we served them would be greatly appreciated. In the morning, I put out fruit and bagels, coffee, tea and water. Lunch was just sandwiches, chips and Oreos, and a late afternoon snack consisted of more fruit and cookies. We completed our passage in one day and were tied up at Shelter Bay Marina by nightfall. Our line handlers went home immediately after getting paid at the dock.
Since most boats are not able to make the complete passage in one day, we’re not sure how overnight accommodations and meals are handled in other situations. For instance, do line handlers sleep onboard? Do they come and go? We didn’t ask Tina those questions, but would have been good to know just in case there was a delay!
On Friday, January 2, 2015, we were informed that the Canal Authority had space for our transit first thing Sunday morning. We had only just arrived in Panama City from the Perlas Islands, and had expected to wait several days or even a week to be assigned to make the passage. So, the 36-hour notification took us a little by surprise. Pleasure boats are at the whim of the Canal Authority’s scheduling, and when they say, “Go”, you have to make it happen.
The four line handlers and our friends from the United States, Emily and Charlie, arrived at La Playita Marina (a great marina for while you are waiting for your turn) on the Causeway at 6 a.m., and from there we went to the anchorage to wait for Moises to be brought to us by a pilot boat. We were scheduled to be rafted with two other pleasure boats but only one showed up, so Moises arranged for the catamaran to be rafted off our port side. The catamaran had an advisor aboard but they didn’t have any paid line handlers. It was a little iffy getting the sailboat secure, but Moises and the other agent got the lines all set.
We were scheduled to enter the Pacific Entrance Lock at 0916, but it was closer to 1120 before we entered the first chamber.
Fortunately, the brother of one of our line handlers worked at Shelter Bay Marina, so he was able to guide us into the marina after dark. It would have been very tricky without local knowledge (and anchoring is not allowed in the bay)–you have to make it into the marina. The channel is marked but not lit and it is a narrow entrance so we really lucked out having him aboard. Once we were secure, Peter paid each line handler in cash. This payment is separate from what is paid directly to the agent, so be prepared! We also tipped the guys which was greatly appreciated.
Overall, it was a very long, but incredibly beautiful and fascinating day. What stands out the most about the Canal is the fact that after 150 years, it still works exactly the same way it did on Day One–and without fault. The locks are absolutely incredible: An amazing feat of technology, perseverance and determination to make the Canal a reality.
Definitely a recommended “bucket list” item.