Panama City, a crane challenge and the Panama Canal!

For some reason I’ve struggled to sit down and write about these next epic chapters in our journey. And I wasn’t sure why. I mean, each leg was incredible. It was an amazing set of experiences. It was a month full of the stuff our personal dreams are made of. But I couldn’t get myself to write the story. And then I read a great blog post by an awesome woman we met cruising. You can check out Molly’s blog here at Reading Molly’s blog gave me a sudden realization. Maybe I didn’t want to write this particular post (and the next one) because if I did, it really would be over. And I don’t want it to be over. Not. One. Bit. But, I tell myself with a curt snap-out-of-it-talking-to, cruising isn’t over. We’re still cruising, but we’re not in Mexico or Central America. We aren’t loving the challenges, the struggles and the absolute highest highs that come from living on our boat in a foreign country, engaging with other cruisers and the people of our host nations. We’re in the US, which has its benefits, and which, as I WILL write later, we are enjoying. But it is different. I find myself cranking the “Latin Pop” genre on Spotify and wiping my tears as I dance around the cockpit. Kevin has been Mr. Patient as always, reminding me of the many accurate and sound reasons that it makes sense to be in the US right now, and reassuring me that we can go back to international cruising, and hopefully Panama, one day very soon.


So, with that big ol’ disclaimer out of the way, let’s get to it. PANAMA!

When I last wrote, we had arrived in Panama City, (known locally as Panamá, pronounced differently from the country name, Panama) with its incredible skyline greeting us as we entered Marina Flamenco, located at the entrance to the Panama Canal. We had decided to come to Panama City early for a few reasons. First, we had a problem with our davit (aka our crane that lifts our dinghy). Back in Costa Rica we discovered that the steel cable that raises and lowers the 1,000 lb. dinghy was fraying. No bueno. From that moment on we ceased to utilize the big dinghy, only taking our small 8.5 foot / electric engine tender out for shorter trips. We really wanted to fix the crane so that we could use the big dinghy when our friends arrived. Plus, it simply needed to be fixed. After some chats with experts and other Nordhavn friends, Kevin had decided that we could of course do this ourselves. But we needed a bit of time and access to a rigging shop. Panamá, with its massive amount of marine traffic, both commercial and recreational, fit the bill.

Our second reason for arriving early to this spectacular city was to try to secure a specific canal transit date. Typically, once you are measured for the canal, you are assigned a first available date. We wanted to obtain a date that was slightly farther out, ensuring that our crew would have arrived and that hopefully, the crane would be fixed. Arriving early would give us extra time to try to make this happen.

Third, we wanted to enjoy Panama City – an incredible place!

Such a cool city
Skyline from the car
Cool building – love the decks

Kevin and I were so excited. We really couldn’t stand it. I don’t think I slept for the entire time we were in Panama City because I was full of anticipation about the canal transit. We were really doing this! Panama Canal Baby!

Our first few days were a mix of exploring and boat projects. We were prepping the boat not only for the canal, but also for a trip to the San Blas Islands and most importantly, the approximately 1450 nm passage from Panama to Florida that was looming. Everything had to be ready – from provisions to systems checks to fluid changes to maintenance. Oh and a crane. And a stabilizer brain. Remember that? More on the brain for my favorite boat system in a bit.

As we had not eaten out in weeks (well not really), we went a little wild. Italian, burgers, Panamanian fare, seafood, Asian food – we couldn’t get enough. In between meals, we walked miles and miles. Probably a good thing due to all of the calorie intake. Marina Flamenco sits at the end of the causeway which arches out from the heart of the city and hosts a fantastic walking trail, a super active road bike scene, restaurants, bars, playgrounds and parks. It is a vibrant morning walk, watching the city come alive. In the evening, it is full of people, biking, wandering and eating.

Max says – mas cerveza por favor!
Now that’s a burger. There’s something about cruising that just makes burgers taste better.
Burgers outdoors with Max
We figured, we’d better get a bucket of beer.
Now that chihuahua knows how to live…
Looking at the city from our walk
This appeared to be a home base for boats servicing the ships.
I’m so excited!
A view of downtown from the Causeway
The causeway walking/running/bike path
Oh hey, we’re going to do that!
Beautiful evening on the causeway with the Panama Canal in the foreground, Bridge of the Americas.
Another skyline view. So big!
Evening walking

It was on one of our morning walks that we stopped into a chandlery (we can’t pass up a boat store). The gentleman behind the counter was welcoming and chatted with us for a bit. While we didn’t make a purchase, he was incredibly friendly and so informative, offering that if we needed help with anything, anything at all, to give him a call. We took his card with a smile, enjoying our first days connecting with the people of Panamá.

We returned to the boat to dive into the crane project. It was hot, humid and beyond sweaty. I was nervous about this project. The crane, an Aritex model, which was installed on the early 55 Nordhavn models (we are hull #5) did not have much in the way of an owner’s manual. A schematic offered details, in um, Taiwanese. Not helpful. I will note that the crane is the only system on the boat that doesn’t come with superior support. But Kevin being Kevin, he was willing to tackle the project and I was to be the unskilled labor that helped to pull the several hundred pound stainless portion of the crane out of the boom. Perfect. Well, not so much. After several hours of struggling that included rigging a come-a-long to the stainless rail and a whole lot of tugging and banging, we had a broken metal hydraulic line and components that were unwilling to budge any further. We were defeated. And a cold Atlas beer didn’t make it better.

Trying to take the crane apart (it just had to come off of the boat first…)
Hmm. different strategy.
Maybe this way?

Frustration abounded. We talked about potential solutions and finally decided to go pay the nice man at the chandlery a visit. The chandlery, it turns out, was much more than a boat store. It was simply a parts store that accompanied a much larger service business called Narval Marine. And of course, they had hydraulics specialists on staff. We breathed a hesitant and tiny sigh of potential relief. With a quick series of phone calls, a tech was scheduled to visit us the next morning, on a Saturday nonetheless. Excellent news as we now had a timeline for our canal transit, the dinghy was down in the water without a way to pick it up, the crane was more broken than before and the clock was ticking.

Oh yes, we had a transit date. While we were busy eating, walking and dealing with the crane, we also were working on project #1 – getting Red Rover measured and scheduled for our Panama Canal transit. We were fortunate to be working with Eric Galvez from Centenario Consulting, who was quite simply, awesome. Eric is also the agent associated with the Panama Posse. We contacted Eric about six or so weeks prior to arriving in Panama City and sent him all of our information and paperwork, so that when we arrived, he could start to make things happen. Eric took care of everything for our passage, including scheduling our “Admeasurement,” arranging for our transit date and time, scheduling our Advisor and delivering large fenders and four 125 foot lines, that are required for the transit. If we had needed line handlers (4 are required) he would have also arranged for professional handlers for us.

Within 36 hours of arrival in Panama City, a gentleman from the Panama Canal Authority arrived at Red Rover to begin the measurement process which would define the toll payment due. This process is called Admeasurement. Kevin and I had excitedly spent the morning predicting how the boat might be measured. Would they use some sort of electronic fancy measuring system? The authority will visit boats at anchor to measure them. So, they must have something quite involved, right? Ah, no. Our visitor pulled out his big tape measure and asked Kevin to hold one end here and there. Very technical. Not so much. The inspector seemed to be a bit tired of this whole thing and it took quite a lot to get him to smile. And when I asked to take his photo? Well, he thought I was a little nuts. My generally frothy excitement seemed to overwhelm him. Ha! He sat in the salon and filled out paperwork by hand, asking us all kinds of questions, from health inquiries to questions about the amount of fuel onboard (in case we crashed I guess?), if we had a pilot plug for our AIS (no), what was our RPM at 8 knots, can we comfortably do 8 knots for the entire canal, and most importantly, will we have hot meals and cold drinks for our advisor? He stressed that the hot meals (breakfast AND lunch) were imperative. Got it. After filling all of his forms out by hand, he then called the Canal Authority on his handheld VHF and reported all of the information back to them. In English, oddly. This accomplished, he produced our Canal Ship Identification Number, and with another eyeroll at my grin that was taking over my face, he was gone.

Hold that kind of about there…
This seems about right.
Ok now hold it right around there.
He was excited about this. Not.
Signing the paperwork – this is happening!
Our ship ID! (it is now framed and hanging in the pilothouse)

Eric then confirmed that we were in the system and a few hours later his son James came to visit and collect our dollars. James was much more willing to join in our excitement and promised that he or Eric would be back to us later that afternoon with our confirmed transit date and time. WAHOOO! We had requested a specific date – April 30, for a morning transit. Generally, you are assigned the first available date and time, which, depending on the time of the year, can be anywhere from 5 days to 10 days out from Admeasurement. We wanted a specific date, and it was later than the current wait time, so we were hopeful – and successful! That evening, James and Eric confirmed that Red Rover would indeed leave the Pacific on April 30th. Crazy.

James collecting our $$.

A snapshot of our receipt is below. Note that if we had professional line handlers they would be $100/each and we would be required to feed them as well. And, should we be delayed and need to stay overnight in Lake Gatun we would need to provide them with a sheltered place to sleep onboard. Scott, Abby, Darren, Doug and Mary were easy. They just wanted food and a margarita at the end! Sold!

Great discount as a part of the Panama Posse!

The other variable for pricing is length. If we were 65 feet or longer, the price would go up, and we would be required to have a pilot vs. an advisor, which is also more expensive.

But back to the black cloud hanging over our happiness – the crane. On Saturday morning, as promised, the tech, a sunny gentleman named Edgardo arrived to review the crane. He did not speak English and we didn’t have the right Spanish terminology to describe our problem, so we talked with Jean Reoul, one of the leaders at Narval Marine. With impeccable English, deep knowledge, incredible customer service skills and a kind and friendly demeanor, Jean was a pro and he put us at ease. Edgardo understood what was needed within minutes, and Jean translated for us. A friendly smile later, Edgardo departed and within an hour and a half Kevin had a quote in his inbox. He looked at me after he opened it and said, “Do you think we’ll look desperate if I give them the go ahead right now?” Maybe. But we were desperate. And thankfully, happy about the price which was a fraction of what it would have been in the United States. Go, go, go!

Monday morning came bright and early and hot and humid and Edgardo and two assistants arrived as promised to begin dismantling the crane. We then fired up the engine and moved the boat over to Marina La Playita where high tide would allow us to back into a tight little spot between pilot boats. We rafted onto our neighbor pilot boat and managed to get the boat deck right under a big land mounted crane. The boat was rolling in the surge and the whole thing didn’t seem like it was going to be easy… but… these guys knew what they were doing. Everyone, from the crane operator to Edgardo to Jean (who met us there) were quick, professional and fun to be around. A stressful situation went smoothly and the crane was gone!

Backing in and rafting up with the pilot boats.
Pilot boats
Getting the crane ready.
The guys prepping the crane for removal.
Is this really ok? (it totally was)
The directors! Jean and the crane management.
Undoing the hydraulic hoses.
There she goes!
Bye crane!


Later that day, we were given instructions on what we needed to find for our steel cable replacement (we had volunteered to do this to help speed the process). Jean and Edgardo confirmed that we had the correct rigging shop in mind and we hopped in our rental car to brave the insanity of driving in Panamá! Seriously, the best preparation for sitting behind the wheel of a car in Panamá would be experience as a NASCAR driver. It’s a wild ride! The rigging shop understood what we needed and we left feeling like things were going to actually work out!

Discussing the cable.
Now that’s some line!
They just made commercial goods look cool.

We were so confident that smooth sailing lay ahead, that we took ourselves on a sightseeing trip to Casco Antiguo, also known as Casco Viejo, or the old quarter of Panama City. Stunning. Rich with history and layered textures, smells, sounds and sights, Casco Antiguo is amazing. We wandered the narrow streets and my phone camera worked on overtime. I’ll let the photos do the talking here.

Historic streets
So lovely
Love the balconies
Great signage. 🙂
So much to see!
I think I would sit on one of those balconies and just watch the world go by.
My wandering partner
More great balconies.
I would like to stay here!
Looking over at the “new” part of town from the “old” part of town.
Stunning municipal buildings
The tide gets so low
Such a cool old neighborhood
A monument for the French who worked on the canal
De Lesseps, who really was the champion of the canal in the early days
Silly boy
And he gets sillier
Rum bar!
Dinner out!
Love this man
Cool little spot
Now THAT’S charcuterie!
Night comes in softly
Panama colors!
Park dining
A charming street scene
So many new developments try to capture this essence.

The next day we started to tackle provisioning for the coming four to six weeks. This is usually a pretty easy thing for us, but in this case, we were going to have three more people with us for 10 days and then two of those people for weeks longer. That’s a lot of food. Cancel that. That’s a lot of beer and rum!

Two cart PriceSmart shop!
Starter limes.
Working on the freezer additions.


Grocery store visit.
Just keep piling the stuff in the boat…
Fill up the car!
Fill up the basement too!

After hitting up PriceSmart (the Central American arm of Costco) and a bunch of other stores, we went back to pick up our stainless cable, congratulating ourselves on how we were managing to make this all work. Perhaps a little too soon. Oops. The thimble, that attaches the cable to the crane, was too big. It wasn’t going to fit. We were sweating and it wasn’t because of the temperature. But we were in Central America where people are solution-oriented. They simply make shit happen. Over, and over again. The project manager at the rigging shop took Kevin back into the workshop where they talked with the techs and looked at options, while face-timing Jean and Edgardo at Narval Marine. Max and I were imagining the worst, but Kevin re-emerged with a plan and several addresses of shops that might have the size thimble we were seeking. We ran around Panama City, with my limited Spanish trying to explain what we needed. I am pretty sure I sound like a 6-year-old! But the Panamanian people are kind and everyone tried to help us. No love though. Back to the rigging shop we went and another idea surfaced. They would basically “squish” the thimble to make it work. Looking more closely at the old thimble, it seems that somewhere, sometime in its life, it was squished once before! With our squished thimble and attached new shiny stainless cable in hand, we returned to Narval Marine to deliver the goods. Excellent! They would be able to rebuild the crane and in 36 hours we’d be able to reinstall the davit. Just in time too, as our friends were about to arrive!

New thimble. Smaller old thimble. Uh oh.
Crane in the shop, waiting for its new cable.
Not the right size.
Crane hydraulic cylinder.
Cable pullies.
Crane with the new cable.

The following afternoon, we picked up Scott and Abby at the Panama City Airport. In 2019, Scott and Abby came down from Seattle to Puerto Vallarta with us – we were the original two members of the Nordhavn Taco Run. At the time they had N47 Epoch but somewhere along the way they decided that they wanted a N55 (we might be a bad influence), which they later found on the east coast of the US. Scott and Abby left their boat, Orenda, in Georgia and hopped on a plane to Panama to join us and of course, to be our sherpas. Anyone who visits us gets to play sherpa. And Scott and Abby were most excellent sherpas, bringing us the new brain (aka servo control box) for our stabilizers. Of course, they were going on a long and very exposed offshore ride with us so they probably had a personal interest in the stabilizers working! In order to ensure that the brain made it to Panama, they carried it on the plane, much to the confusion of the TSA officer. Check out his face!

Is this…. a bomb?
The servo control box is in the house! (boat) Thanks Scott and Abby!
Cheers to friends who fly to Panama!

The next morning, Darren arrived while Kevin, Scott and Abby were at the fuel dock and I was off having my hair cut (yaay for the first time in over 6 months!). Darren runs Kevin’s company in Seattle and is an awesome fellow-liveaboard, excellent human. And, of course, he too was a good sherpa, bringing our new Dishy (Starlink) to Panamá! The crazy things our friends do for us! With the boat full of diesel and crew, we returned to Marina Playita and re-enacted the pilot boat rafting process to have the crane reinstalled. WHEW.

And now Darren is here! Let the games begin!
Welcome, Dishy, you game changer you.
Life is about to be less complicated.
Crew photo!
Getting the crane out of the truck with the big red crane.
Bringing the crane back to Red Rover!
Crane operator moving carefully.
Here she comes!
Bringing her down.
Settling onto the base.
Jean looks on.
These guys are awesome. We are so thankful.


We had a working crane, a new servo control box for the stabilizers and our friends had successfully arrived in town. It was time to party! First stop – Casco Antiguo for rum drinks (of course) and dinner with the two remaining crew members, our buddies Doug and Mary from N46 One Life. Doug and Mary would be transiting the canal a few weeks after we did, so coming along meant a great opportunity for a dry (well still wet though) run for them. Plus, we love them, so having them with us on this epic experience meant the world to us.

I did have a good laugh looking around the table at dinner. I mean, what were we thinking with four captains on board? Chaos was certain!

Thanks for doing this with us friends! What an adventure!
Two for good measure.

A little Italian food gets us ready for the transit!

Fun people, fun week!
Abby did a little dance while we waited for the car to come back!

There is something about being a boat captain that makes you a little, well, shall we say, competitive. And if you are a power boat captain, by default, you are a motorhead. You can’t help it, it seems. In our wanderings in the previous week we had noticed a high speed go kart race track, located just across from Marina Playita. I casually mentioned that it might be fun and the boys were ON IT. The resulting race was hilarious as I didn’t realize it was a race, Abby didn’t care that it was a race, and Scott, Kevin and Darren were ripping up the course trying to outdo each other. Being Panama, these go karts weren’t limited in any way, and the boys were flying! Kevin emerged victorious, Go Kart Champion for a day. So proud. Ha!

We had to wear these hair net things – scrubs, I guess? Just made it more hilarious!
Ready to rumble!
I can win….
The racers post race! Those who knew it was a race…and those who did not!
Always good to end the night with a little fun with the Panama sign!
Yeah, Darren!

The following day we put on our tourist hats. Literally! Abby added to the fun and bought us all Panama hats! We were in Panamá afterall! Must have hats. We strolled the streets of Casco Antiguo, celebrated with drinks at a rooftop bar, and visited the Panama Canal Museum. Kevin and I both had read “The Path Between the Seas,” a gargantuan book by David McCullough about the history of the canal. The museum brought the experience of the historic neighborhood, the canal, and the story of the city’s past together beautifully for us.

Mmm. Rooftop cold beer on a very, very hot day.
Rooftop fun with panama hats!
Street wandering
Mi amor!
Good people in Panama hats. Thanks Abby!
Beautiful spires.
So pretty.
Gorgeous city.
Kevin and Abby checking out the historical sites.
Walking the sidewalks in the rain.
So charming.
I wish we had more time to spend here.
So lovely.
No Kevin, you can’t go in there.
In the museum.
Hey we’re doing that tomorrow!
Tropical Journeyings – that’s what we’ve been doing.
Rations on a Panama bound ship
The elevation challenge.
Illustration of the time (museum).
Panama – original flag.

With our “Educational Experience” complete, we returned to the boat to prep for our canal transit the next morning. While we were out, our lines and fenders arrived, filling the cockpit! The gentlemen got to work on preparing the boat and Abby and I focused in the galley. As noted, one of the requirements of the canal is that you feed your advisor a hot breakfast and lunch. As we figured (quite correctly) that it was going to be a busy, exhausting, yet exhilarating day, we had planned to prepare the meals in advance. We would be serving tasty homemade breakfast burritos and homemade lasagna. Yum! The boys focused on getting the lines ready and the fenders secured. Cold drinks and ice filled the YETI on the boat deck. We were ready.

Scott had to climb over all of that to get into the cockpit!
Cookin’ show.

A quick email from Eric got us all excited: “Present indication transit advisor joining at 04:00am tomorrow 30th April at the La Playita anchorage away from the other boats towards channel buoy no, 6 completing passage at 6:30pm. Please maintain/improve speed given to canal inspector. Please stand by vhf channel 12 Flamenco signal station for updates and report your position in the morning.”


<<A quick note. As I looked back through the photos of this day, and wrote this story, it all came back and I had goosebumps and of course had a good old cry. It was a big deal for us. Writing about it doesn’t seem to convey the experience, but I hope at least a little bit of the scale of the day comes through!>>

At 3:15 am Red Rover departed the dock at Marina Flamenco and scooted around the peninsula to Marina Playita for a quick dock-side Doug and Mary pick-up. At 3:50 am we were floating by the buoy, with lightning streaking across the sky and a brisk wind blowing. I called the Canal Authority on the VHF as directed and Kevin and I smiled at each other in the red lights of the darkened pilothouse as they responded, “Good morning Red Rover, we’ve been expecting you.”

Red Rover arrives to pick up Doug and Mary
Red Light District – excited people!
The waiting game begins!
Darren chose the flybridge for his waiting game!
Doug and Scott checking on the Portuguese bridge
Abby checked on all of us!

We circled in the anchorage for about an hour, with burritos heating in the oven and a festive atmosphere on board. At just after 5 am, a pilot boat approached. We were prepared to take the advisor on board through our side gate, but the wind had whipped up the water and the pilot boat was quite large and steel. Our advisor leapt off the bow of the pilot boat, and landed gracefully (how did he do that??) on the swim step where we welcomed him aboard. Guillermo, or “Memo” had a huge friendly smile and a relaxed, casual, but definitely in charge approach. He was fantastic and fun.

Memo’s chariot. The pilot boat.
Kevin and Memo in the pilothouse

After greeting everyone, Memo got down to business, holding a meeting in the pilothouse where he described in detail what our roles would be, and what he and Kevin would be doing. We learned that we would have a sailboat rafted to us, and that Kevin would be in charge of their propulsion in addition to ours. We had requested and received a “center lock” transit, which meant that our two rafted boats would sit in the middle of the lock, with two lines coming from Red Rover and two lines from our partner boat. Memo suggested that having two people on each line would be beneficial, and with that Doug and Scott took the bow and Darren and I were assigned to the stern. Mary and Abby were to be runners, grabbing whatever was needed be it a line, a fender, headset batteries, etc. They were also in charge of the day’s food and drinks and a particularly important transit duty: Max Watch – ensuring that he would not get out of the boat interior unaccompanied. The thought of Max going overboard in the locks was more than we could handle. Kevin and I would wear our headsets and be able to communicate, whereas he could easily talk to Scott and Doug on the bow from his perch on the flybridge.

Pilothouse meeting with Memo.
And Kevin drives on…

With the assignments clear, we were underway, heading under the Bridge of the Americas and toward the shining lights of the Miraflores Locks, the first of six locks that we would experience in the day ahead.

Bridge of the Americas! Here we go!
Underway for an amazing day!
Heading under the bridge before dawn
Our sailboat partner runs in front of some ships (and us)!
Boy they are close. We got more used to that…
Tug working hard
And close! The tugs make a ton of turbulence.
Just another view….
Getting ready! Extra lines for rafting.
Scott’s all smiles.

Just short of the locks, with container ships passing us at very close range, we stopped to allow the sailboat to raft onto us. The sailboat, Caractere, was a Kid Boat with a couple from Quebec and their three girls on board. They were returning to Quebec after years of cruising in the South Pacific. Pretty cool.

Getting the sailboat rafted onto Red Rover
I think she seems a little nervous. I sure would be if I had no control over my boat!
Getting ready with the sailboat
The sailboat’s advisor and Memo chatting
Doug is ready!
Focus on the flybridge
Mary is thinking…and we are going to do this again in a few weeks? She’s smiling!

The first three locks which consist of Miraflores (two lock chambers) and Pedro Miguel locks raised us up from the Pacific, a total of 85 feet. When going up, a commercial ship sat in front of us. And while the commercial ship is attached with steel cables to trains, called “mules,” the mules only function to keep the ship in the middle of the locks and stable. They do not pull it. The ship has to move through the locks under its own power. And we were not terribly far behind that ship. All of the turbulence coming off of the ship in addition to the water rushing into the locks to raise us, all created incredible water movement and current. So, keeping the boat centered was a focused effort.

Following our “buddy boat”
Getting into the lock
It’s amazing the age of all of this – and how it just keeps rolling

The locks have a tremendous amount of current and getting into the lock and situated is not easy, but Kevin, with Memo standing next to him on the flybridge, and a second 6.5 foot keel strapped onto our boat, mastered the process. As we entered the locks, Memo talked to the lock shoreside team via VHF, and the lock attendants at the top of the concrete walls alongside the lock threw the leader lines down to us, each with a “monkeyfist” at the end of the line. I went to the bow to catch our stern line, and walked it back to Darren who was waiting to quickly tie the monkeyfist to the loop in the line and send the line out to the shoreside line handlers, who stood far above us. At the same time, Scott and Doug executed the same process, as did the professional line handlers on the sailboat.

Scott and Doug securing Red Rover
Getting Red Rover ready. Boy that ship is close.

Line handler on shore, way up above us.As the water level came up, we line handlers needed to haul in the lines and secure them quickly, and then as slack occurred, do it over and over again. This took a huge amount of work, with Kevin working the throttle and the thrusters to help us. Darren and I decided that the best way to tackle the stern alignment was to work as a team, pulling together on a count of three with all of our strength. We were sweaty yetis!

Darren is all smiles – birthday boy!
Line handler extraordinaire!
We got this!
Kevin and Memo
Waiting for the next move – lots of waiting in this process!
One, two, three!

When we reached the top of the locks, we tied the boat down and waited while the lock doors opened and the container ship and all of its “wake” moved forward. On Memo’s signal, we began to move forward as well, with the sailboat remaining rafted to us. The line handlers on land kept a hand on our lines, and we held them in turn on our side. Together we all moved forward to the second chamber of the Miraflores locks following our friend Equinox Dream, the commercial ship.

Up at the top!
Red Rover, Kevin and Memo – ready for anything!

After our first chamber, we were all getting a little more comfortable with this process and a little bit of the nerves calmed down. I guess I should say, probably more for the line handlers vs. the captain! Really, for Kevin, this was an incredibly focused day. As he says, “everyone wants to be the captain until it’s time to do captain shit.” This was definitely one of those days. I remain amazed by the skill and calm, patient approach that he showed throughout our transit.

Here’s the captain…
….doing captain shit!

The second chamber also has the fun element of being where the first canal webcam is located. As we pulled into the chamber, all seven of us had phones that began pinging! We had an audience all over the world, with friends, family, Nordhavn Dreamers and other cruisers we had met along the way watching us transit from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Kevin and I had smiles that just couldn’t get bigger. What a moment!

Screenshots coming in hot!
A little wider perspective
We are sooooo tiny!

With our personal world watching, we repeated the process of keeping the boats centered in the lock as the water rushed in, once again creating a turbulent environment. Darren and I had our “one, two, three  – PULL!” strategy down by now and while the resistance from the turbulence was tremendous, we were more successful in this second lock. When we reached the top of the lock, we tied down and waited for direction. The lock doors opened and Equinox Dream lumbered out of the lock, but not without leaving some swirling waves in her wake. As there was a slightly longer distance to the third chamber, the process changed a bit with the completion of the second chamber. The on-shore line handlers released the lines and we hurriedly pulled them onboard from the water, as Kevin moved forward to the next chamber.

The gates are simply enormous.
Memo in his new Red Rover cap
Abby on Max Watch!
Mary on Max Watch!

The sailboat however, remained rafted to us for the transit to the next chamber, the Pedro Miguel lock. All was going well until we got close to the lock. There was a tugboat sitting by the entrance of the lock, creating significant current in one direction, and Equinox Dream in front of us, creating massive current in a different direction. All of that conflicting current grabbed the two keels of our rafted boats and started to push us toward the concrete sides of the locks. Kevin yelled “fender” and Doug and Scott sprang into action, just in case. But it wasn’t needed. Kevin had determined that it was better to let the current take us in a 360 degree circle and then start again. So that’s what we did, much to the shocked looks on the faces of the sailboat owners. We didn’t hit anything and all was well in the end. It was just a bit of a hair-raising moment!


Once we were settled back in the center of the lock, we repeated the monkeyfist dodging (that hurts if it hits you), line tying process and worked together to keep the boat centered and the lines tight as we moved up the lock. Whew. We had made it to the top. Now it was time for a little cruise with a whole bunch of giant commercial ships on a rather slim waterway. Not exactly relaxing but certainly not as stressful! We stopped briefly for the sailboat to disconnect from our side and gathered in the flybridge to watch the spectacular scenery go by.

Hi friends! So glad you were with us. Doug and Mary during a waiting time in the locks.

It is about 26 miles from the end of the Pedro Miguel lock to the first of the Gatun locks, on the Caribbean side of the canal. The winding pathway begins with a trip through the famous Culebra (Gaillard) Cut where so many workers lost their lives trying to build the cut through not only the earth, but the mountains above, which kept sliding during construction. From there, we entered the Chagres River and beautiful Lake Gatun. The scenery was stunning. And we were amazed to see small pangas holding tourists wandering through the lake as well, waving at the boats as they went by. Memo, who has 15 years of experience as an advisor, was our personal tour guide throughout the trip, telling us stories of the construction, of mishaps and happy adventures and of the changes that the canal has seen over the years. As a myriad of giant ships passed us in both directions, we learned that 40-45 commercial ships transit the canal each day and only (on average) three personal vessels make the trip daily.

Culebra Cut
A little relaxed cruising. Kinda.
So beautiful. We’re so fortunate to have been able to see this.
Here comes Big Bertha, rounding the clubhouse turn!
Lots of cool commercial boats in the canal

We sat on the flybridge, eating our lasagna lunch, watching the gorgeous scenery and navigating in a sea of container ships. Memo told us again how he loved the flybridge with its excellent visibility. He also loved our breakfast, lunch and snacks! Winning!

Look at this crew!
Scott’s happy for a break – with his GoPro strapped to his chest!
Headset off for the lake – having a great day!

On our way to the other side, we were ahead of schedule. We were given the option to enter the Atlantic side locks earlier, partnered with a different commercial ship. The kicker – we would be on the wall, which we had previously declined. Our sailboat partner had already agreed to the wall, Memo told us. We could wait for the ability to continue to be center locked by ourselves, but it would be several hours. The canal, it seemed, was impacted by COVID. The Authority didn’t have enough line handlers at work on this shift for us to go through in center lock formation.

So, Kevin and I discussed it with Memo. We would need to sign a waiver that released liability if the boat was damaged in the process of locking down on the wall. At first Memo said we could sign the liability agreement after we went through the locks, which of course Kevin pounced on! I think it was a wording problem, not an actual intention! So after much joking with Memo, and conversation between us, we decided to sign the document and agree to a wall tie. Our reasoning was that this wouldn’t be much different from being tied to the wall in the Chittenden Locks in Seattle. The drop was bigger in Panama, but the idea was the same. Going down is much less turbulent. The container ship would be behind us, not in front of us, taking away the impact of their wash. The water would be leaving the locks, not rushing into it. We were much less likely to have a problem!

With all of that decided, we still had to wait a bit. We tied up to a waiting “dock” and the sailboat rafted onto us, chatting about their adventures in the South Pacific. When the locks were ready, the sailboat untied from us and waited as we moved into the locks and slowly approached the concrete wall, giving the lines to the attendant who placed the line loop over the bollards at the top of the locks. The sailboat once again came over and tied up to our side. When the lock doors closed and the water started to drop, we played out the lines, keeping Red Rover, and our rafted sailboat friend snug against the wall. This time, the sailboat crew was able to sit back and watch as we did the work.

We had a little thruster issue for about 30 seconds. No worries. Doug to the rescue!
We came a long way down – check out that blue line…
Our rafting mates.

Nice and close.

Snuggling with the wall

The process was successful and we repeated it again as we moved between locks. At one point, the Authority determined that too many of the “mules” (aka trains holding the container ship in place) were stacked together, and more were needed at the beginning of the Gatun lock system. So, what did they do? The container ship dropped huge lines down to the lock attendants who secured them to the sides of the lock, after which they undid the huge steel cables that connected the ship to the mules, dropping them in the water with a giant splash! In the meantime, the ship pulled on its rope lines which made horrible creaking noises, giving the impression that they were about to snap and we’d have a container ship in our cockpit! CRAZY. And terrifying! I was so relieved when they reconnected the ship to a new set of mules and we began to drop again with the commercial vessel secured. Memo told us that there have been instances of the mules dropping into the locks. That would also be terrifying!

Howdy Mule Driver!
Reorganizing the mules
Please don’t come over to our cockpit.
Hola, wall!
Um excuse me, I think this thing has a leak!
Part way down the wall.
Mary surveys the scene
Doug keeps an eye on the bow line
Scott waiting for the locks to begin to drop
Waiting to go down
Gatun Locks


Line handling down
Watching the wall go by

The locking down was uneventful otherwise, and when we were secured in the last lock, Darren took over the line handling alone so that I could stand with Kevin on the flybridge as we saw the Caribbean for the first time. It was a pretty emotional moment for us. What a journey!

Bye sailboat friends! See you at Shelter Bay.
What’s that out there?
I think this is almost over!

As we left the locks, our sailboat friend was ahead of us and snapped some awesome photos which they later sent to us. So cool!

Red Rover entering the Caribbean!

Once clear of the locks we began to clean up the lines and fenders and Kevin did what any good captain would do. He turned it up to 11! Van Halen’s Panama rang out on all four zones of the stereo for everyone within miles to hear. We did it! I’m sure Memo thought we were absolutely nuts, but he just grinned at us, assuring us that no, no one had ever done that before. Hmm. Weird.

Another pilot boat came to greet us shortly thereafter and Memo jumped down from our upper side gate, but not before we stocked him up with an extra breakfast burrito and some snacks for his drive back to Panama City. He truly made our experience special. What an amazing gentleman.

As the sun set, we approached Shelter Bay Marina, and heard a friendly voice on the VHF congratulating Red Rover on a successful canal transit, and welcoming us to Shelter Bay. The team at Shelter Bay is so great! And we were so tired, but exhilarated! It was 6:30 pm, and more than 15 hours had passed since we left our slip in the Pacific. It was time for a Victory Drink! Kevin whooped up a big batch of margaritas and we congratulated each other on our big day. That is, all of us except Darren, who was actually celebrating his birthday with a trip through the canal…and now had a terrible stomach ache. So Darren was sleeping. We missed him in our celebration.

Margaritas all around! Good friends, an incredible day (we missed you in the photo Darren!)
Shelter Bay Marina

We said a tearful goodbye to Doug and Mary that evening. After months of bungee-boating together, we were going our separate ways. They would head through the canal and to Colombia, and we were headed to the US. We still miss them. Scott, Abby, Kevin and I wandered up to the marina restaurant, had big plates of food, another drink and then we all returned to the boat to head to bed. We were exhausted, but proud, thinking back through our day. We were in the Caribbean! We did it.

NEXT UP: A very, very cool chapter of our story – the San Blas Islands, Linton Bay, Panama and a 1450 mile passage to North Palm Beach, Florida via Isla Mujeres, Mexico.


16 thoughts on “Panama City, a crane challenge and the Panama Canal!

  1. Wow, the best description of going trough the Panama canal I have ever read and seen. The accompanying photos were awesome. You guys are AWESOME!!!
    S.v. Baraka Bashad.

    1. Ah Rita – you are too sweet! Thanks so much for the great note – you gave me a giant smile! Hope you guys are well!

  2. Fascinating and exciting to read, great pictures!! What a journey…. Thanks for sharing!
    And: congrats to your first step towards our meeting in the Med😃😉 – Looking forward to it!
    Thomas, Petra and Nils
    (w/ Princess 50 SAORSA – currently moored in Bahia de Roses, Northern Spain)

    1. Aww! Thanks so much guys!! We are getting closer! Maybe a couple of years out. Hope all is well with you!

  3. Sounds like a fantastic adventure and always best when shared with friends! We have added it to the “dream” list

  4. Wow, what an Adventure. So well documented. I know it is a ton of work to do this however know how much we all enjoy it, I do appreciate all your story’s and this one was exceptional.

  5. What a great story, Alison, you bring everyone along on your adventures! I too am looking forward to this experience at the end of March 2023, with both excitement and a wee bit of trepidation well!

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