Panama 2021 – The Panama Canal

Sänna Vista Mar Boatyard

“Returning to Vista Mar to find Sänna in such bad shape was heartbreaking. There was so much damage and internal chaos that it was difficult to know where to begin, when we’d left over eighteen months before she was never in this state. All because of a virus, not through hurricane winds or a wild raging sea, we’d done all of that and survived – this was because of something we couldn’t even see, a microscopic microbe that governments and the manic media warned us about but which never affected us physically at all until we took ourselves off to a music festival…”


Vista Mar, San Carlos and Panama City
In early October we finally found flights to Panama City through Amsterdam. The outward journey was fraught with risk – and returning to England would not be an option because Boris Johnson had decreed that, as lockdown began to ease in line with his infamous roadmap, only five countries would remain on the UK’s banned Red list – one being Panama even though the virus danger in Panama was only a fraction of that in the UK. As usual, nothing made sense as far as government decisions were concerned – and the continual flow of government ministers caught flouting their own rules went on. But we had a plan…

We needed to be back in the UK by late Christmas for an important wedding, at the moment we could only return at great expense by going into hotel quarantine for fourteen days at our own cost. If we crossed the border from Panama into Costa Rica, stayed there fourteen days then flew from Costa Rica there would be no hotel quarantine back in the UK, Costa Rica wasn’t on the UK’s Red list even though there was no difference in the virus risk in both Costa Rica and Panama. Our plan was to get to Vista Mar to see what shape Sänna was in, get any vital work done then, come early December, get ourselves over the land border to someplace nice in Costa Rica for a fortnight before flying home. We would leave Sänna in Vista Mar over Christmas before once more returning to Panama in early January, the new year. Of course, none of this worked out.

When we finally got back to Vista Mar it was total chaos. Ollie had not given us the full picture, internally Sänna was a mess from when they had thrown everything around searching for the source of the leak through the hull. They had emptied most of the bilges of their contents, partly in their frantic search for a breach in the hull then to dry everything out because the bilges had flooded. The internal disruption could easily be fixed but it was clear that we could not stay living onboard – not much was working, it would take a few days to go over everything to see what was what. We arranged with Ollie to stay at his place in nearby San Carlos, his partner Denise ran the El Capitan bunkhouse where we could rent an air conditioned room with kitchen for less than thirty bucks a night. It made sense. The only real problem was getting between San Carlos and Vista Mar, by road it was an hour or more’s walk in the humid heat, taxis were a ten dollar ride each way though not easy to find or we could walk the beach route – fifteen to twenty minutes. To take the beach route we had to descend the harbour wall then wade through a fast flowing river, the level of which changed each time due to the state of tide. Sometimes we were knee deep, sometimes well above our waist – once we were shocked to find the depth up to our chest, with the quickness of the current it was a hair-raising escapade not without its dangers. Once across the river we were then on the nighttime beach – but Panama’s emergency covid laws enforced an evening six pm curfew, we were not supposed to on the public beach after sundown at six. So we were then faced with a running hideaway trek along the beach shoreline, avoiding police with flashlights until we made the road that led to Ollie’s El Capitan bunkhouse. When inside the gate the perils were not over, Ollie’s six dogs ran free making a noisy welcome – and in the dark the pathway across the grass was usually covered in dog shit, just about every time I felt the soft squishiness between my feet and flip-flops that confirmed I had not avoided the one aspect of the journey back I most dreaded. A running cold water tap cleaned up everything before we unlocked the door to our rather useful but basic little kitchen.

Sänna - San Carlos beach
The beach route home – and the infamous river estuary

Making the journey back to the boatyard in the mornings was much easier, we would get a ride with Ollie and his boys which took around fifteen minutes by road. Eventually the evening adventure-trek got to be more pleasurable – instead of dodging the curfew-enforcing police who, it seemed, weren’t much bothered when they finally caught us one night skulking behind a palm tree without our face masks, we would take a few cold beers purchased from the small marina store, take a swim in the raging surf then dry ourselves off drinking the awful but nicely cold Balboa beer that is pretty much Panama’s national brew. But the situation onboard Sänna was not good.

The repair & maintenance list was horrendous. The electric toilet heads were seized – eighteen months unused in the sweltering confines of the boat had rendered the impellers beyond help, they burned the motors out as soon as we tried the toilet. None of our older Raymarine ST60 instruments and plotter would fire up, our radar was totally seized and useless. Luckily our newer instruments and display plotters worked ok. The fridge powered up then immediately died, numerous LED lights did not switch on – a testament to their cheap Chinese not-fit-for-purpose manufacture which is a common problem for any marine part made in China. Our propane safety monitors did not work, neither did our cockpit lighting, battery monitors, most of our onboard fans, bilge pumps and our engine and generator starter batteries were dead – even our bronze ornamental maritime clock was not working and two of our bank of four huge service batteries did not look good. Being out of the water we could not check our essential watermaker, generator and Yanmar engine but one quick check of the watermaker showed that it was completely dry – meaning the osmosis membranes would be unusable and the extensive pipework more than likely blocked by mould and growth. It had been in prime working order when we left it over eighteen months before, I’d left it pickled and maintained which is usually good for a maximum six months but not much more. Several thru-hull fittings had seized and would need to be replaced. Checking the propellor shaft stern gland and cutlass bearings revealed both to be bone dry, they would certainly leak as soon as we put Sänna back into the water. Our cockpit bimini cover fell apart when we tried to unzip it, most of its stitching was rotten from sitting all day in the hot sun and the wet season torrential rain.

The Vista Mar boatyard & barrier seawall

There was much more… our hand-held VHF radio was gone, so too our state-of-the-art self-focusing binoculars and our expensive foul-weather clothing and boots. Clearly they had been stolen. Ollie’s Panamanian boys had obviously been in to open hatches to keep the boat aired as best they could – except they’d obviously been left open during a period of heavy rain. The navigation lift-up desk was full of rainwater with all our charts, cruising guides and manuals ruined, our main cabin table had suffered rainwater lying on it for god knows how long – the teak laminate was damaged, it was lifting and curling which would require a complete new expensive table top. We couldn’t blame Ollie too much, he had done a tremendous job saving our boat and the virus pandemic wasn’t his fault. There was minimal internal mould though – and we would certainly need Ollie and his two South African boys to get Sänna anywhere near shipshape.

After nearly two weeks of hard work we were both done in, nothing could be described as complete. I myself began to suffer my usual nemesis, anxiety and low spirits descended upon me when I began to lose heart. Marie, in that marvellous way she has, suggested we work only weekdays and the weekends we took off for a break. She took it upon herself to book a long weekend in an AirB&B in Panama City’s historic Old Town. It worked, I got a much needed lift. While there Marie suggested we made a more definite plan. I was dead set on getting done what we could, taking ourselves up to Costa Rica then leaving for the UK leaving Sänna on hard standing, out of the water in the boatyard. We could return in January, continue the work and then get Sänna back into the water. This had been our plan since arrival, but now Marie suggested otherwise. Marie declared that we needed something more to keep us going, to drive ourselves without deteriorating into something like insane. We talked – perhaps we should concentrate on work to get Sänna back into the water, which meant we could again live onboard, meaning that we would not have to trek to the El Capitan bunkhouse each night – our days would be much easier in the marina. Marie even suggested that we patch Sänna up enough to get ourselves through the Panama Canal – a plan that I myself thought ludicrous and well beyond our present capabilities.

Henry, Maries son, then voiced his plan to join us onboard in Panama, he had found a flight from the UK through Madrid for only seventy-five quid – it was a no-brainer, just the incentive we needed. We got Ollie and his son Wikus, widely known as the ’engine whisperer’, an outstanding all-round marine engineer, to swap out the seized thru-hull valves, change the prop-shaft stern gland and complete the under-hull antifouling meaning that we could conceivably launch – but the trailer launching would be a complicated precarious operation because of the oversize of our vessel. In fact the launch went ok – but it was a hair-raising four hour experience wrought with anxious worries that our engine might not start once into the water. Luckily – our highly reliable yanmar burst into life first time. Once tied into our mooring berth we were able to swap out electric toilets for manual ones, borrow a portable fridge and complete temporary repairs that might, just might, get us through the Panama Canal.

Sänna Panama Canal - Miraflores Locks

The Panama Canal
For a sailboat there are two ways to transit the canal – either by using an agent to arrange the payment of fees, secure the permits, get the boat measured, complete the paperwork and sort out the transit date that includes the boarding of the compulsory canal pilot. Aside from this there are special mooring lines required as well as the larger than life fenders required for the canal locks – and there is a specific requirement for a minimum of four line handlers per vessel in addition to the helmsman and the pilot. The alternative to using an agent to arrange all this is to organise and hire everything yourself – which is perfectly doable though time consuming and a good test of your logistical skills. It was our original intention to tackle the Panama Canal using our own endeavours – agents are usually expensive and sometimes difficult to deal with, we avoid them like the plague. But that was eighteen months ago before the pandemic – we had been heading for the canal when covid suddenly hit and we ended up pulling into Vista Mar. Everything had now changed, now we were a compromised patched-up vessel thinking of transiting the canal, which legally requires a vessel to be seaworthy and sound under international maritime law. The canal authorities do not want a small insignificant privately owned sailing boat malfunctioning and blocking the world’s busiest commercial seaway, one that generates over thirty-eight percent of Panama’s GDP. The financial penalties are severe.

We costed out the two alternatives, the agent fees were around three-hundred dollars including a special Panama Posse discount – the Posse is a sort of discount club for sailboat and motorboat cruisers making their way through central America, the Posse has negotiated discounted rates in most of the marinas (which are often extortionate, but which most Americans are happy to pay) for a one-time annual fee – it’s a no brainer that easily recovers the initial outlay. The Panama Posse describes itself as a rally which it is not, we would never under any circumstances join an organised sailing rally. Furthermore, the agent fees included all mooring lines & fenders. The alternative to arranging the canal crossing ourselves, including finding and hiring lines & fenders saved about fifty quid, it just wasn’t worth it. Through the Posse recommendation list we found two agents, negotiated with both and settled on Rogellio – it turned out to a wise and inspired choice, eventually in more ways than one.

By now Henry had joined us in Vista Mar via his seventy-five quid flight. We were now a crew of three but to transit the canal we needed a minimum crew of five excluding the compulsory canal pilot. The three of us talked, we decided to leave Vista Mar to head southwards to the canal, I figured we were seaworthy enough to conform with the authority’s legal requirements providing nothing onboard failed in the meantime, we could complete all outstanding maintenance work in the Shelter Bay boatyard located in Colon on the Caribbean side of the canal – but to transit the canal we needed to find two additional line handlers…

There are always lots of travellers and other sailors looking to advertise their willingness to be line handlers – it’s a good way of experiencing the incredible technological wonder that is the Panama Canal, a mind-blowing engineering feat that changed the world forever when it was completed at great human cost in 1914. The story of the Panama Canal is well worth reading, if nothing more to appreciate how exceptional it is for a small vessel like Sänna to share enormous sea-going locks with gigantic cargo vessels, container ships and oil tankers. It is not hard to appreciate why the authorities insist on a minimum of four line-handlers to take and tie lines to manoeuvre safely through these locks right alongside huge commercial vessels. Marie took on the task of finding two more line handlers to join us at the La Playita anchorage located right at the pacific entrance to the canal. Marie decided upon two elderly Americans living in Panama City, who had once owned and sailed their own motor vessel on the Caribbean side of central America but who had never been through the canal. They had contacted us and were eager to join us, they were experienced mariners – or so we thought.

We left Vista Mar after over eighteen months there, it was a slightly emotional departure but, in truth, we were glad to be gone from the pacific swell-ridden marina that was not an easy place to be. We never planned to be there other than a two or three day stopover to buy diesel. Our forty-odd mile voyage to the canal La Playita anchorage was smooth and completely uneventful – until we came to drop anchor on the designated side of the canal marker buoys. Marie and Henry signalled hurriedly, the anchor windlass was jamming – even though we had fully checked it back in Vista Mar. We tried several times to anchor without success, this was a real problem for two reasons – first we needed to anchor to wait for our designated transit time, we also had to wait to be measured by the canal authorities to ascertain our exact vessel dimensions plus we needed to be safe overnight beside one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes… and if our windlass wasn’t working as it should then we contravened a fundamental seaworthiness requirement to be able to transit the canal lawfully. The first problem we solved relatively easily – Marie called up the La Playita Harbour Marina on the VHF radio, a rat and fly-infested tie-up located just ahead of us. The marina charged extortionate rates per night, not unlike the overnight rates of a four-star hotel. We had little choice, we tied up alongside a decrepit floating pontoon slip to assess our situation.

Sänna - Panama Canal
Seagoing vessels are carefully manoeuvred through the locks

Rogelio, our agent, confirmed that our canal authority measurer could come to the marina, so too could our hired mooring lines & fenders. Rogelio could meet us there to rearrange everything, to process the paperwork, the permits and two-and-half-thousand dollar fees that included a returnable deposit should everything with our proposed transit proceed as planned. There remained the legal declaration by myself, the vessel skipper, that our vessel was in a strict seaworthy condition which included a specific entry tick box relating to our anchor windlass. I checked with Rogelio, would we need our anchor during the two day transit, he confirmed that normally we would tie to special allocated mooring buoys in the Gatun Lake, where we would make our overnight stay before completing our transit the following day. Technically, we would not need to use our anchor except in an emergency. I’d already checked our windlass, it was now working in a fashion but needed new parts only available from the UK – although later I found that we had the parts onboard. But, for now, it was touch and go whether the windlass worked or not. Nevertheless, I checked the windlass good working order tick box on the authority form, we were good to go…

The Line-Handlers From Hell
Marie, even today, takes full responsibility for the hiring of our two geriatric line-handlers. We received our transit date from the canal authorities – the 5th November. We were instructed to contact the La Playita Control Station on VHF channel 12 at 0530 am, the canal pilot would board us at the number five green buoy at 0615, in the meantime we made plans not to drop anchor. Marie arranged with our two line handlers that they would arrive at the marina at 0500am, which they agreed. Marie would meet them at the marina’s gated entrance to let them in. Floss & Flo (names changed to the names we now refer to when we recall them, also to protect their identities out of courtesy) made their way down the slipway with Marie leading them, I held my breath in alarm – they were surely in their early eighties – the guy was huge – well over six and a half feet and seemed to walk with some difficulty. She was slight in build, quite dainty in fact, I couldn’t imagine her throwing or handling a hefty mooring line. We untied our slip lines to head out to meet the canal pilot.

With dawn hanging in the air the pilot boat came alongside and the pilot climbed aboard. Clearly we had a problem, both our new line handlers had taken themselves off to bed, Floss was fast asleep in our cabin with Flo laid out on the table sofas. The pilot confirmed our details then gave us a heading to take us to the Bridge of the Americas and the Port of Balboa that mark the beginning of actual the canal, the first Miraflores locks are a short distance beyond the bridge. The pilot did not say much, except that we would be centre tie in the locks meaning that we would be central in the waterway with four lines heaved ashore from each quarter of the boat, two from the bows and two from the stern. Marie and Henry could easily handle the bow lines but where were our two line handlers for the stern? I called them both up, they climbed the companionway steps still half asleep and the pilot stared at me aghast. He didn’t say anything to me, we were approaching the gates of the first lock, following a large freighter as instructed. The pilot called on his VHF radio, in Spanish, then told me to wait. I slowed Sänna down to a crawl, then spied a tugboat heading speedily in our direction. The pilot, an experienced canal veteran who knew his stuff, had quickly deduced our problem – our two line handlers were not up to it, the pilot had crucially changed our planned centre-tie procedure for the locks, we would now take the much easier option of tying alongside the tugboat which would then draw us through. The pilot smiled, he had recognised our problem, I smiled back sheepishly then thanked him. Our two handlers played no further part, they slept their way through much of the transit except when using our toilet heads – with our holding tank blocked by Floss misusing it by over-filling it with seawater – his personal urine-bag also burst, spilling its contents into the sink and, in the last Gatun lock, he flushed the entire contents of his toilet overboard…

Sänna Panama Canal - approaching the Atlantic Bridge
Approaching the Atlantic Bridge, Caribbean Panama Canal

Henry hurried from the bows to warn me. The tug master had been informed by one of his crew that toilet sewage had been emptied from our vessel, fasces and toilet tissue were floating in the maelstrom water flooding through the gates. Floss had not used the by now full holding tank, he’d just emptied the toilet overboard without any thought to the ten-thousand dollar environmental fine levied by the canal authorities. I ran ahead to the bows and Henry was right, just when the tugboat master came to see for himself the lock gates opened flushing a gazillion gallons of seawater through the open gates – there was now nothing for the tugboat master to see. He looked at me and glared – he knew the score and that, somehow, we had gotten away with it. I then heard Marie arguing with Flo, Marie had asked Flo to help cook the hot meal the pilot was asking for, which is part of the transit agreement that all pilots are provided with hot meals during their time onboard. Marie was already super busy along with Henry, both by now doing the jobs of two line handlers, Marie had suggested to Flo that she take over the food preparation on the basis they were both supposedly experienced boat handlers – Flo refused, asking if Henry could fry the eggs & bacon instead. During all of this, Floss himself had once more retired back to our master cabin and was fast asleep.

The canal pilots are helpful & friendly

Overnight we had tied to a buoy in the enormous Gatun Lake. This was largely uneventful and a welcome break from the drudge of manually steering the boat for hour after hour. We had followed our accompanying freighter for a while but he swiftly left us behind once through the first sets of locks. A new, different pilot came onboard while we were moored overnight in the lake, he would take us through the final set of locks before releasing us from the canal authority. Once through, we called the Christobell Station located on the Atlantic Caribbean side of the canal who instructed us to head across the traffic lanes into the secure and welcome facilities of Shelter Bay. We had completed our transit of the canal, leaving a farewell to over ten years making our way south to north across the pacific.

We were still not done, we had many repairs to complete in Shelter Bay – probably the best marina and boatyard facilities that exist in Panama. There were further adventures ahead though, Henry had been promised a crew deckhand position on the motor cruiser Stand Down, they were waiting for him in Shelter Bay.

Little did we know the crisis that lay ahead for Henry, Stand Down and ourselves onboard Sänna, one that we would recall for many years ahead…

Next page – Bocas Del Torro, Henry, Morgan Stanley Bank