While we were in Bocas del Toro, we spoke with two Canadians who told us about their experience volunteer line-handling through The Panama Canal. Their story sparked our interest and we decided this is something we had to do. They informed us that each boat was required to have 4 line-handlers to pass. Most captains end up paying the locals $75-100 per person; so we figured we could volunteer our services for an opportunity to see The Canal. We posted a sign at the Balboa Yacht Club and within a few days received our first call. We met with a captain named Charles and discussed his boat and what was expected of us. At first, he seemed like a great person minus his chain smoking). We would be sailing on a 38ft Trimaran. He purchased the boat in Mexico 2 months prior and sailed it down to Panama. When he purchased the boat it was not sea worthy and he had spend 5 weeks getting the boat ready to sail. The morning of our departure we met our other line-handlers; local Panamanian boys. Around 8am we left the dock and headed towards the first lock.
We pulled into the Miraflores lock beind a huge cargo boat with whom we were going to share the lock with. Since our boat was so small compared to the lock and the cargo ship, we tied up to a tug boat to keep us in place while the water rushed into the lock and we were raised 20-30 feet. The Miraflores is composed of two locks and we went through the first.
After the Miraflores we passed through a lake which serves as a waiting area for the boats before they pass through they next lock. The lock is called Pedro Miguel and the last of the locks going up(three up and three down).
After reaching the top of the three locks we slowly motored through a long channel and into Gatun Lake, which is an artificial lake created by a dam on the Gatun river. While on the lake one of the cushions from the boat flew off and into the water. While reversing we heard a crack and the boat stopped moving. Charles ran to the back of the boat and cursed. We all knew this was a bad sign. Upon inspection, we discovered that the motor had pulled put of the screws and rotted wood and had fallen in to the lake. Luckily the motor was tied to a rope so it was recovered after some teamwork to pull it back onboard.
What was supposed to be a one day trip was beginning to seem like it could be much longer. This was not pleasant news to us as we had plans to go to San Blas islands in the next day or two. Since night was upon us we tied to a buoy waited for the morning to decide what could be done about the motor situation. Charles assured us we would be repaired and on our way the following day. The next day passed with no progress and the moral began to fall. As tensions began to rise, we were desperate for an escape. Charles informed us that a transport to shore would cost $170. We were feeling desperate and about ready to pay until a huge catamaran pulled up next to us. We looked over at the boat full of cheer and yearned to be on it and free of Charles and our troubles. After a sleepless night of worry we rose in the morning ready to make moves. Our Panama Canal trip was turning into a prison sentence.
The catamaran was beginning to depart and we realized this was our only savior. We waved towards the boat and they unfortunately said that they had to get going and didn’t have time to take us. As our mood worsened, we saw them turning around and we frantically rushed to gather our things. Within minutes our situation did a complete 180 and we were on a luxurious 75ft catamaran. We were first greeted and helped aboard by the young pleasant crew. We thanked the captain for saving us and headed back towards Panama City.
We went back the way we came through the canal however, this time with a much more comfortable ride. The boat was beautiful with 7 cabins, a living room and a full kitchen. The captain was from Australia and very pleasant which was a welcomed change for us. After a successful transit back into the city, we talked with the captain and he offered us an opportunity of a lifetime. He is headed to Australia by way of Galapagos and Tahiti and offered us a place on his crew. After much consideration and lack of money we decided to pass on the offer.