Two Oceans, a Canal and Ladybug


By Stacy Cohen


Ladybug in Colón, Panama, adorned with automobile tires in preparation for canal transit. The tires will protect her fragile fiberglass hull from the tall, solid cement walls of the canal chambers.

Growing up in Wisconsin, I never dreamed that I would have the opportunity to transit the Panama Canal 7 times in my life, never mind in one month of my life.  In fact I never even thought much about Panama or the world famous canal until about 3 months ago when I arrived in the San Blas Islands (a set of 365+ beautiful and friendly islands off the Caribbean coast of Panama). But here I am in Panama at the age of 32, and I will transit the Canal for the 7th time in just a few days.

My sailing education started on a friend’s boat in Lake Mendota about 8 years ago. My memories of sailing aboard Greg’s 25 foot Catalina include taking the helm for the first time and immediately rotating the boat not once, but twice, in a full 360-degree circle. It was immediately clear that I had a lot to learn, but it was in my nature to learn and love every outdoor sport I have ever tried.  About 5 years ago, my boyfriend (now husband) bought us a 23-foot South Coast Seacraft.  Sandpiper was a real beauty. We spent as much time improving her looks and making her stronger, as we did sailing her. We loved every minute of the work and sailing.  After a few charters on the Great Lakes, we decided it was time to go cruising.

Offshore cruising that is!!

My husband, Dave, and I have now been living, sailing, and working on our 37 foot Catamaran for the last 11 months with our partner Jo.  We purchased Ladybug on Tortola, British Virgin Islands and sailed down the Caribbean chain to spend hurricane season (June 1st to December 1st) south of the hurricane zone in Trinidad and Tobago.  We then sailed along the northern coast of Venezuela to the Netherlands Antilles (Bonaire and Curaçao) and Aruba. After Aruba we enjoyed cruising the San Blas Islands and learning about the Kuna Indian culture for 2 months before arriving in Colón, Panama. Colón is the entrance to the canal from the Atlantic side.

There are two very large misconceptions about Panama. The first misconception is that the country of Panama runs north to south and the canal makes a horizontal cut through the country. When in actuality the major land mass of Panama runs west to east, and the canal makes more of a vertical cut through the country.  This misconception is because the canal is a corridor between the Atlantic and the Pacific; therefore it should be an east – west transit. But it’s not! The canal lies between Colón and Panama City, so if you draw a line between these two cities on the map you will see what I mean. The second misconception is the location of Panama.  Panama is further east than most people think. Panama lies directly south of Florida, not California.

Traveling from the Atlantic to the Pacific the vessel first encounters the Gatun Locks. The Gatun Locks consist of three chambers that lift the boat 85 feet to the level of Gatun Lake. Each chamber is 1000 feet long, and 110 feet wide. After the first set of chambers the vessel must travel for 23.5 miles to the north end of the Gaillard Cut.  The cut is 8 miles long and is basically an enormous man made ditch chiseled through the continental divide, which is comprised of rock and shale. Finally the vessel must be lowered 31 feet in the Pedro Miguel Locks, which consists of one chamber, to a small body of water called Miraflores Lake.  After traveling one mile through the lake the vessel will encounter the Miraflores Locks, which consist of 2 chambers that lower the vessel the final distance to the Pacific.

The average vessel pays $45,000 in tolls to transit the canal. Ladybug will only pay $500 in tolls to transit. Needless to say small sailboats like ours are not the main stay of the Panama Canal economy. One to three Sailboats will lock with one ship. The most common is a ship holding containers, or a car carrier. So us little guys are at the mercy of the schedule for the big ships.  

Each sailboat is required to have 1 captain, 1 advisor, and 4 line handlers. The captain is the official pilot of the boat. The advisor is supplied by the canal authorities and is responsible for radio communication with the canal during transit and general advisement throughout the transit. The line handlers are responsible for the lines that tie the boat to the concrete walls in the chamber or to another boat within each chamber. The whole trip can take one to two days depending on the elusive ship schedule.  If the trip takes two days then the night is spent at Gatun Lake. The night on the lake is always lovely. Usually a freshwater swim, a nap and a nice dinner with wine are in order. Every transit is different and exciting in its own sense depending on the dynamics of the boat and it’s crew.

During our time in San Blas Islands we were very fortunate to meet a Senior Pilot from the canal. Mr. Pat Oneill informed us “You need to do at least three transits to gain the necessary experience in the canal before attempting the transit with Ladybug”. So we listened to this advice and we have been very busy helping other sailboats transit in the capacity of line handlers. This has proven an effective way to learn about the canal and make new friends. I have quickly overshot the goal of three transits in order to help friends and make new friends.

Friends are the hardest part of cruising. We are meeting new people almost everyday. Meeting new people is great, but we must also say goodbye to new friends as quickly as we meet them.  Sailing schedules are never parallel in time or direction. Fortunately our sailing plans are taking us in the same general direction at approximately the same time as about 30 or more other sailboats. The winds dictate that the sailors who want to move from the Caribbean to the South Pacific should be leaving Panama for the Galapagos within the next couple of weeks. From the Galapagos, we will head to Marquesas, Tahiti, Tonga. Our ambition is to sail around the world.  For more information on us, our boat, and our plans please visit



Wednesday March 14th, 2001

            We have arrived safely in the Pacific Ocean today, and Ladybug has found her first Pacific anchorage! The canal transit was fun and uneventful, just what we had hoped for. The transit took one full day. Our advisor was on board at 5:30 AM, and we passed under the Bridge of Americas at 5 PM. Everything went as planned, thanks to a super crew (Jo, Dave, Guy, Jiin and myself), a super guest crew (Rick and Mary from sailing vessel Tranquillity), and the best advisor one could hope for (Gisele).

Ladybug went through the Gatun locks “center chamber” (in the center of the chamber with 4 lines to the sides of the canal, the other options are tied to a tug or rafted up with other yachts) with a freighter in front of us. The “down” locks went almost as smoothly as the “up” locks. There were a couple interesting moments when the current played tricks with us, but Jo's expert boat handling kept it from becoming a crisis. We went through “center chamber” again with a 260 foot mega sailboat behind us in the locks.

Upon arrival in the Pacific we watched a beautiful sunset and had a spontaneous party on the boat with champagne to celebrate. This was a huge step in our goal to circumnavigating. Now there is a lot of sailing ahead of us in the South Pacific, and we are very excited about that. -SLC