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Canal After Hours: A Nighttime Trip Through The Panama Canal Offers A Unique Perspective

Our canal crossing from Panama City to Colon began at dusk on a windless equatorial evening. A light drizzle increased the suffocation of an already humid climate. Only minutes before, we were in the midst of one of the many rain squalls that had been keeping us company upon first arriving in Panama. We had been there only two days and had already received our clearance to cross due to our agreement with the canal authority to travel through the canal at night. Some vessels might find themselves being pushed farther down the crossing list if they are intent on traveling only during the day, as daytime lends a better view of the crossing.

I was part of the crew, and later captain, of a 64-foot Northern Marine raised pilothouse trawler on a delivery from Anacortes to Ft. Lauderdale. I joined the boat in San Diego with our first stop being Cabo San Lucas to fix several problems and to refuel. Without the replacement parts needed for a quick fix, the crew eventually flew home before continuing the delivery more than a month later.
After waiting in vain for generator parts while the boat sat in Cabo, and later Puerto Vallarta—two expensive places to sit—the crew flew back to Mexico and made the decision to depart for Panama without our generator’s power takeoff “get-home” system intact. Fortunately we had a smooth passage with the Tehuantepec winds down to 0–5 knots, and only moderate Papagayo winds in Nicaragua and Costa Rica.


When we arrived in Panama we were greeted by all the ghost ships that were either lost in immigration battles, in disrepair, or half submerged. There were also numerous working vessels anchored and awaiting transit. These images truly put the scale of the world's commercial shipping fleet into perspective for me and also showed the importance of the Panama Canal shortcut. After France had completed the Suez Canal in 1869, the French were full of gumption and set out to complete a canal through the Central and South American land bridge. Once part of Columbia, the land north of the canal became the Republic of Panama in 1903 after a rebel revolt with the backing of President Theodore Roosevelt and the U.S. Navy—a tricky move by Roosevelt to acquire the Panamanian public’s support, and in turn, control of the canal from the yellow fever and malaria-exhausted French. On August 15, 1914, only a couple of weeks after Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, SS Ancon made the first transit of the Panama Canal. The United States had control of the canal until the Torrijos-(Jimmy)Carter Treaty of 1977 came into effect on December 31, 1999 and Panama officially took control of their country’s entity.

My first canal crossing was in 2003 aboard a 32-foot Westsail sloop. I was a backpacker/surfer traveling through Panama City and looking to crew for a ride back to the United States. Unfortunately, the farthest I got was an invitation to line-handle to Colon. Although short, it was still a worthwhile trip. Returning now for a second time years later, I realized that my memories of that passage were weak. Memories of Panama City, on the other hand, were quite strong with many of the lasting impressions still fresh in my mind.

During that trip I befriended two Panamanian journalists working for the city’s main newspaper, La Prensa. They volunteered to be my personal guides throughout my month-long stay. This was a backstage pass, you might say, to some of the city’s underground history as well as current movements in politics, youth, and religion. One of the friends had bought her own apartment in the “occupation zone” that used to house our military families before the more than 80 years of U.S. occupation ended in 1999. I was amazed at how peaceful and quiet this area was compared to only a few miles away in the hustle and bustle of the city.

That first visit to Panama was only a few years after the Balboa Yacht Club had burned to the ground and the temporary watering hole where I would search for a job each day was merely a covered bar and seating area with most likely the same tanned drinkers that frequented the dilapidated, but more established Balboa Club before the fire. This club has welcomed tourists and locals for decades with many stories and memories that live beyond the fire. I visited the lookout on the Miraflores Locks in anticipation of my first canal crossing. The vantage point from the lookout is perfect for visitors to watch the canal locks and workers in action. I remember being impressed at the size of one of the vessels in the lock and how she loomed over a small sailboat that was tied up and floating helplessly in front of the steel beast ready to crush it with one throttle mishap. As I mentioned earlier, I was involved as a line-handler on my first crossing, but again my memories of that passage were not strong and therefore arriving for my second time, I was able to appreciate the rest of our crew’s anticipation and excitement of their first canal crossing.


The crew was disappointed when it was announced that our boat would be crossing at night. But in my experience, night often heightens the level of intimacy and focus felt when moving on the water. I imagined the locks and how the lights might glow in the mist, and what shacks or dwellings we might see dimly lit on the banks of Lago Gatun. On the other hand, everything that the light of day reveals would be lost in the shadow of darkness. The photos of lush jungle creeping into the lake, possible wildlife sightings, and primarily the freshness of day travel, would fall victim to the night. I tried to convince the group that it would still be exciting and there really wasn't much to see when crossing the lake, but considering that my first memories were next to none, my encouragement was a bit false.

I began to feel my own excitement swell after the official announcement of our departure time at 1800. We hired one line-handler, a Panamanian "professional," and a pilot, both of whom eventually slept for half of the trip. We anxiously awaited their arrival and once they were both on board we dropped our mooring and motored into a heavy rain squall. It passed quickly as they usually do, but it left us soaked to the bones while we were preparing the fenders. With a quick change of clothes we were back on deck and had the lights of the locks in our sight.

The first lock system was Miraflores, which has two separate chambers to climb. By the time we arrived it was dark and as we inched our way toward the lock entrance the calm water ahead was disrupted by the oars of a small rowboat with two men aboard delivering guide lines to the bow of Tropical Morn, the 500-foot ship we were to join in the locks. The oddity and importance of the two men maneuvering about in such a small motorless craft in the presence of a massive steel ship seemed like an exhibit at the local historical museum or a reenactment of times past. However odd, the reality is that both rower and oars will never experience engine failure, and most likely will steer more accurately to their destination with much less incident than if equipped with an outboard motor, and perhaps bad eyesight.

As we met the entrance to the lock I couldn't help but notice a neon green and red arrow on our starboard side directing traffic into the correct lock. With the red and green bulbs in no particular order, the sign seemed to suggest a party ahead or possibly a dimly lit basement bar, smoke-filled and seedy. I imagined the crewmen of the Tropical Morn in front of us, still shaking off last night’s midnight marauding, lost in thought for a brief moment in the nightclub glow of the neon arrow.

The Tropical Morn secured its four working cables attached to the mules, which in modern times are merely motorized versions of their hairy predecessors. The motorized mules travel on a rail track to allow all movement to be calculated and precise. I do still love the idea that actual mules used to pull the ship ahead and I would have liked to see the tug of war that ensued between each side of the lock along their short mud track. As we entered in the wake of Tropical Morn, the shadows cast upon the wet cement walls suggested that this accurate and precise forward movement was not always the case. The impact scars upon this ancient face left behind deep crevices that even the orange glow of the canal lights could not penetrate. The mystery and omnipresence of the locks created butterflies in my stomach. I couldn't help but notice the cool casualness of the canal workers, who possessed the attitude of “just another day on the job.” But with my acknowledgment of the immense power of this working monument, I kept my own casualness to a minimum. I could only imagine the doors failing, the cables from Tropical Morn snapping, and the millions of gallons of water that would be released with us in it!

With all lines secured the iron doors eased shut with a definite conclusion and a hint of permanence. This was my first maximum-security prison experience with nowhere to run. I looked at an escape ladder to my left in which Father Time had removed half of its rungs; the rest would go if I were to attempt retreat. The smell of this old workhorse reeked of history and permeated my senses. Rain continued to fall, and the humidity continued to rise.

I was handling fenders on the stern and stood on the swim platform a foot above a witch’s brew of floating plastic, mud, and debris. If I were to fall in I would surely disintegrate in seconds. Above me was nearly 40 feet of dripping, moss-covered cement wall. Suddenly with the blast of a horn, the water level began to rise. With the incoming flood of water, the beast decided that our shiny white yacht with polished glare was too much for a midnight passage. He bucked and rolled over in his sleep and we were caught in the giant's wake. Our stern immediately swung hard to starboard, away from the wall, and when our line was stretched tight, too tight, we swung back hard. I stood ready for the impact with fender in hand. My fender flattened like a pancake and I half expected to be shot over the wall if the thing exploded. Eight arms reached out to the algae-covered walls to restrain the impact—an immediate reaction, but not the wisest one. What could human arms possibly achieve when pushing against such force except injury? Luckily, no one was hurt and the highly inflated fender paid for its highly inflated price. All three series of rises to Lago Gatun were a bit troublesome as well as exciting, but we made it through safely.

Upon entering Lago Gatun we followed our directional lights and only had to wake up the pilot a few times to confirm our accurate heading. My romantic ideas of little glowing huts along the shoreline, as if in some southern crocodile-infested bayou, were soon lost as the red and green lights and an occasional ship passing too close were all we had to see. At one point while crossing the lake I couldn't find the line-handler anywhere and was convinced he had fallen overboard to join the statistics of men found floating with their zippers still down. At last he was discovered earning his keep under the comfort of our aft settee Sunbrella cover. I asked him if he needed any water, received a polite "no gracias," then I covered him back up until waking him again at the Gatun Locks. Returning to sea level with a much calmer descent allowed us to take in the real beauty and marvel of the superstructure we had just passed.


By the time we reached our pilot’s drop-off location, we were all ready for sleep. After a smooth people-transfer we headed to Shelter Bay Marina to find our “reserved” slip. Trying to locate this marina was a bit of a challenge as our paper and electronic charts were arguing with each other, and the mist of the night was heavy and limited our sight. We did safely find our way to the marina entrance after dodging an unlit hazard marker and overcoming a loss of steering. Finally, after 30 minutes in the marina looking for our reserved slip, we took over a T-head designated for a larger vessel. We all reserved just enough energy to indulge in a celebratory drink, and then hit our pillows. We awoke in the morning still filled with the previous evening’s excitement and the memory of our passage through that great working maritime monument.


A ship can be as big as man can make it because the ocean will always float it. And with the accountants of the world crunching endless profit figures, the bigger the ship, the more cargo that can be transported. The only restrictions become docking facilities, depth of water, and of course, the ability to utilize the two main shortcuts on the globe. While waiting for our transit and zipping about town in various taxis, the topic of conversation continually went to the construction of the new Panama Canal. The canal is currently undergoing a serious makeover to accommodate crossings of post-Panamax ships.

Panamax ships have been titled as such since the opening of the canal and have been the biggest ships to be able to transit. Post-Panamax ships are up to 1,200 feet long and 160 feet wide and will soon be able to cross through the canal instead of traveling their original Cape Horn route. This shortcut will increase efficiency of shipping and reduce costs of transport for many companies worldwide. The new access will also shift many long-standing shipping routes. Asian traffic to the major West Coast U.S. ports with cargo directed for the Eastern Seaboard will decrease unless transcontinental rail shipping can prove cost effective. Many East and West Coast ports of the United States are beefing up infrastructure to accommodate and appeal to these new mega ships.

In 2006 Panamanian voters approved $5.25 billion dollars for the project, with scheduled completion on the 100-year anniversary of the canal in 2014. A majority of this estimate has already been granted to various multi-national contracting companies with construction under way since 2008. The new system will have two new sets of locks and each lock will have three chambers that will rise and fall from the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean into the existing Gatun Lake. The chambers will increase in size by approximately 50 percent from their predecessors to be 1,400 feet long, 180 feet wide, and 60 feet deep. New technologies will allow for more efficient water use and easier repair capabilities, but the fact of the matter is that a lot of earth, water, and wildlife must first be displaced and the amount of water being transferred each day is colossal. Several environmental and anthropological agencies are involved in animal relocation and historical preservation, including the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and Panama-based ANCON.

Throughout this new construction and after its completion the original lock systems will continue to be used, leaving the new locks primarily for post-Panamax ships, which may improve the fluidity and punctuality of our yacht crossings. Any excess shipping pressure can be released into the new locks and allow more room for cruisers to cross in groups. Although we may see a spike in transit costs in order to help support this mega-project, there shouldn't be many other obstacles in the way during and after construction besides the dredging operations of the existing navigation channels. We may also see an influx of cruise ships since many of the most recently built vessels are too big for the current Panama Canal.

With an undertaking of this magnitude figures and estimates of completion and cost will most likely go above and beyond their original numbers. As it stands completion is still confirmed by the Panama Canal Authority for 2014, and much of the construction can be seen by the general public (and should be) if visiting Panama.

Throughout our crossing we had relatively little traffic in our path. At times I would imagine these Post-Panamax giants coming through the lake channel and wonder how they could possibly squeeze by oncoming traffic. I hope the pilots are training and ready to step up their responsibilities and safety expectations with these new ships. Wherever my maritime career takes me, I look forward to many future crossings and further examination of the inner workings of the Panama Canal.