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March, 2014

​Passage Note #60: Through the Panama Canal as Line Handlers

After a month in Las Perlas Islands we were back on a mooring at Balboa Yacht Club when the next morning our “nautical phone” rang.  “Jacaranda Jacaranda this is Tica, Tica” crackled the VHF radio.  It was Bill and Joann, our friends on a nearby mooring who we had known from Mexico, with an offer.  “We are going through the Canal on March 20 and need two line-handlers - are you interested?”  It was something on our bucket list so we jumped at the chance!


When we first arrived in Panama City last November we had signed up on the Panama Line Handler website and announced our availability as line- handlers on the morning VHF radio net but to no avail.  This would be sweet to transit with friends!  We would be staying overnight on Tica, a Cabo Rico 40,  for the two day transit and then getting a taxi ride back to Jacaranda. 

Panama Canal Transit Facts


The Panama Canal is a 48 mile man-made cut through the Isthmus of Panama that connects the Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic (through the Caribbean Sea). It is one of the Seven Man-Made Wonders of the World -  one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken.  It had a tremendous impact of worldwide shipping.  Before the Canal existed, ships had to go around Cape Horn, a treacherous and lengthy route at the southernmost tip of South America.  A ship sailing from NY to San Francisco via the canal travels 6000 miles compared to the 14,000 mile route around Cape Horn.

There are two lanes of locks in three locations (Miraflores, Pedro Miguel, and Gatun) - three lock chambers up and three down per transit.  From sea level on each end, a ship is lifted up to Lake Gatun, an artificial lake 85 feet above sea level, and then back down the other side.  Rather than building the Canal at sea level, the Lake was created as a strategy to reduce the amount of excavation needed.  Already excavation at the Culebra Cut (Galliard Cut) through the continental divide was a demon project that cost a lot of money, time, effort and lives (luckily French artist Paul Gaugin survived it ).


The transit time averages between 20 - 30 hours.  Most small boats spend one night tied up to a buoy (called “the mushroom”) in Lake Gatun before completing the second half of the transit.


Friends and family can watch you transit live on the Canal website and Joann arranged for a video to be taken so her Dad could see it.  Viewers can even email the camera operator and request a change of camera angle for a better view.

What is a line-handler? 


When in a lock, boats are tossed around by roiling water turbulence and share the chamber with freighters and other small boats.  To avoid damage by hitting the walls or each other, they are kept in place by lines which run from the boat to the walls of the Canal.  


The big boy freighters are guided by “mules”  -  metal locomotive cars on a rail system which parallel the lock.  A small yacht like Tica, however, is guided by men who are Canal employees (line throwers) stationed on the wall who coordinate with the four mandatory line-handlers aboard the boat - two on the stern and two on the bow.  Line-throwers hurl a throw-line with a monkey fist (large weighted knot on the end) which is then tied to a mooring line aboard the boat by the line-handlers.  The line-throwers shepherd the boat into place as they walk along the Canal wall, give the signal to the line handlers on the boat to let them pull the mooring lines up and then place the mooring lines over a bollard just before the lock begins to empty or fill. In order to hold the boat in position,   line handlers ease the lines or bring them in, adjusting for the changing height of the water level. The whole process is supervised by a Canal Advisor aboard who oversees the transit and advises the skipper, determining how the boat will be brought through - individually or rafted with another, and what position it will take - near the wall, in the middle, etc.


Downlocking (descending) is calmer than uplocking because there is less turbulence in the water; we would be ahead of a freighter rather than behind so would not have to deal with prop wash. But it requires more attention on the part of the line-handlers as the boat descends 35 feet - it is critical to feed the mooring lines out gently and evenly as the boat drops slowly.  We had heard about mishaps which left a boat dangling in the air and we were determined not to be in that club.



Bill and Joann had done all their paperwork, been measured by the Admeasure, and were scheduled for their transit on March 20.  Their fee amounted to about $1000 (a big freighter may spend $250,000).  Reservations were made at Shelter Bay Marina, their destination on the Atlantic side.  They prepared the boat by renting lines and tires (for fenders) and arranging for their return (and ours) to Panama City.  Joann had precooked some meals and made sure she had plenty of drinks and snacks and lunch for the Advisors (hot lunch is required if they request it).  


Early that Thursday morning, we arrived on Tica at 8 a.m., a few moorings away from us at Balboa Yacht Club, and waited anxiously for the Advisor to arrive.  We had already met Kris, Bill and Joann’s son who had flown in from Canada to be the fourth line-handler (Joann was the third). Nefty, our advisor, was dropped off by a launch and away we went.

Our Transit Sequence


Here’s the sequence of our transit:


(1)  By 9 a.m. we were motoring under the Bridge of the Americas, past the cranes and container facilities, aiming toward the path indicated by the giant bright arrow that pointed the way to the first Miraflores lock chamber.  The huge steel doors were wide open against the walls, welcoming us in. 

 (2)  In the first lock chamber at Miraflores, we went through solo, positioned in the middle. We needed all 4 line-handlers to control the boat.  Ahead of us was a large freighter, and then a tourist boat called Isla Morada tied to a tug. The Isla Morada is a historical luxury megayacht built of wood in 1912 for Boston millionaires, once owned by Al Capone.


We line-handlers ducked the monkey fists thrown down from high up above our heads, running to retrieve them from the deck (good throw!), attached the mooring lines and sent them back up to the line-throwers so they could be placed on the bollards. 


The Black Gates of Mordor closed behind us and the water swirled all around Tica as the chamber filled with water, lifting us up, up from the depths of lock netherworld to the color and noise of the spectator crowd above.  We worked as a team and deftly adjusted the lines as needed.  Twenty minutes was all it took!

(3)  In the second lock chamber at Miraflores, we rafted up next to the Isla Morada. Only two line-handlers were needed for the port side. Our virgin anxiety faded; we were seasoned veterans now!  Once through the lock, we untied and motored a short distance to the next lock at Pedro Miguel.


(4)  At the Pedro Miguel lock  (third and last uplock) we rafted again to Isla Morada.  Third time’s a charm!  “Pan cocido” (piece of cake)

(5)  By 2 p.m. we were through the locks, untied from Isla Morada, and puttering toward Lake Gatun where we would tie up to a big buoy (called a “mushroom”) and spend the night. Nefty took us through the Banana Cut shortcut which we had heard was not usually done - but it sure made the trip faster than the long way around in the normal shipping channel. Tree stumps litter the bottom of the Lake so Bill had to stay alert using his fish-finder to  help maneuver and watch the bottom configuration for hazards.


(6) By 5 p.m. we were tied to the mushroom and swimming in the cool FRESH water.  The last time we had swam in fresh water was probably at San Ignacio lagoon in Baja, Mexico several years ago. We said goodbye to Nefty who was  picked up by a launch.

(7)  Over a delicious dinner, we relaxed and recapped the successful events of the day.  Bill, a jazz percussionist, introduced us to some great new music. At 8 pm, another sailboat called Hippo’s Camp, transiting from the other direction,  tied up to the mushroom.  Turns out Chuck knew them from his earlier years in the South Pacific - what a small world!!   It rained off and on so the night was hot and muggy but we were comfortable sleeping on the settees in the salon.  


(8)  On Friday, we were awakened by howler monkeys and awaited a scheduled appearance from our next Advisor at noon; he didn’t arrive until 2 p.m. Yesterday we had completed our uplocking.  Today we would be downlocking  At 3:00 pm we had moved off the mushroom and were waiting in position outside the Gatun Lock for another sailboat to catch up to us so we could side tie with them.  They had left Balboa early that morning and were transiting the canal all in one day.  When they arrived, we scrambled to get our lines secured to each other, making sure fenders were properly positioned and the spreaders on the two masts were offset. Again we would only need two port-side line-handlers.

(9)  We entered the Gatun Lock at 4 p.m., with a large freighter pulling in astern of us.  


(10)  By the time we finished downlocking through the chambers, it was 7 p.m.  and getting dark so instead of going into Shelter Bay Marina as planned we spent the night anchored outside the locks in what is known as “The Flats”.

(11)  Saturday morning we were up early and motored into Tica’s slip at Shelter Bay Marina.  After offloading all the rented mooring lines and tire fenders, Kris treated us all to a nice breakfast at the Marina restaurant.  We were not leaving until 3 pm by taxi so we had plenty of time to walk the docks of the Marina, go for a swim in the pool, and visit with some old friends we knew from Mexico.

Thanks Bill, Joann and Kris for a superb experience through the Panama Canal and the opportunity to cross another item off our bucket list!!!

Resources about transiting the Panama Canal 

Here are two good websites for skippers and line handlers:

Panama Line Handler

svBrio's Lessons and Tips


MORE PHOTOS: In the "Photo Gallery" for Passage Note #60


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