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Being a Line Handler in the Panama Canal

  • Transiting the impressive Panama Canal is a dream of many people, water based or land based. Going from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean via this short cut takes about 12 hours and the cost depends on the length of the vessel and the urgency to go through. All boat things considered it is not that expensive for a 40’ sailboat to do the transit. If you don’t use an agent, the fee is well under $1000. The best news about transiting the Canal is that anybody can do it. You don’t need to go on your own boat. As a matter of fact, it is way less stressful if you don’t.

    The monkey fist is attached and returned ashore          © Liesbet Collaert

    All year long, pleasure craft (and massive cargo ships) transit the Panama Canal. March is the busiest period for cruising boats to go “west”, because it coincides with the best period to cross the Pacific Ocean and explore the many idyllic islands on the way to New Zealand or Southeast Asia. Every boat going through is required to have four line handlers, in addition to the captain. Most crew on sailboats consist of two people, so owners of sailboats are constantly looking for extra hands, and notices are found on bulletin boards of marinas, hostels, supermarkets, restaurants and bars near the Canal facilities on both sides. If you would like to be a line handler, it is not hard to make it happen, especially if you are already traveling in Panama.

    Mark pulls slack in while going up in Gatun Locks          © Liesbet Collaert

    Being a line handler does not cost you anything. Your hosts will pay back all transportation costs (in Panama) to the departure point of the vessel and back to your boat or hotel at the end of the transit. All meals and drinks are included and in most cases you are expected to spend at least one night on the boat. The arrangement is mutually beneficial: the sailboat owners don’t have to pay an extra $120 per hired line handler and you receive an experience of a lifetime for free. You see how the Panama Canal operates, you come as close as possible to the massive Panamax container ships, you have plenty of opportunities to shoot fantastic pictures, you sail or motor through Gatun Lake, you rise and fall in the locks and you witness boat life first hand.

    One of the mega Panamamax ships is pushed by a tug  © Liesbet Collaert

    How exactly does it work to be a line handler? After contacting the owners of the boat and confirming the date and time of departure, you make your way over to their marina in Colon or Panama City by bus or taxi. You are introduced to the vessel and the crew and soon thereafter, you will leave. On the southeast bound passage, the boat motors to the Flats anchorage in late afternoon - where an advisor arrives - and continues to the Gatun Locks. There are three chambers and all four line handlers are in charge of “their” long, blue polypropylene line.

    Panamanian line handlers ashore on Gatun Locks          © Liesbet Collaert

    A Panamanian canal employee will throw a small line with a monkey fist at the end to the boat. The line handlers grab that line and tie it to a big loop in the blue line with a bowline knot. When that is finished, the guys ashore will pull the line (and your line) back and attach it to a massive cleat. When the water rises, you pull in the slack so the line stays tight. You do this three times in Gatun and in between the chambers you retrieve the long line while the men on shore walk the helper lines to the next slot, where the process starts over again.

    Approaching Pedro Miguel Lock amongst the giants       © Liesbet Collaert

    The night is spent aboard in Gatun Lake and the following day a long motor trip through the lake with a new advisor follows. There is relaxation and lunch and it isn’t until four hours later that the line handlers have to get back to work, first in the Pedro Miguel Lock and then in the two Miraflores Locks. The same process is repeated, but this time, you will let the line out while the boat slowly drops back to sea level. Once on the Pacific side, your task is done and you are one extraordinary experience richer!

     Letting out line, going down in the Miraflores Locks      © Liesbet Collaert