The Panama Canal, a bucket list tick for many sailors, is one of the most famous waterways in the world. For the intrepid Clipper Race crew sailing on Leg 7 of the circumnavigation, transiting the Panama Canal is a highlight of the adventure, as the fleet crosses from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean and returns to its home waters.

Image: Entering the Panama Canal

Undoubtedly one of the world’s most incredible feats of engineering, the waterway which links the Pacific and Atlantic oceans is something to behold. Vessels of all sizes, from cruising yachts to container ships, and of course the eleven Clipper 70s, pass from ocean to ocean through a series of locks that raise each vessel 85 feet above sea level, with expert pilots taking control of each ship to bring it safely through each of the different stages of the canal.

Arranging a fleet of eleven 70ft yachts to pass through the canal is no easy feat and takes months of planning and preparation, with close liaison with the Panama Canal Authority.

Image: Qingdao making preparations to transit the canal

Dale Smyth, Deputy Race Director said: “We are very fortunate to work with an amazing agent, Alex, from Associated Yacht Services, and we have had a long relationship with him. We work with him weeks and weeks ahead of the fleet arriving here and he starts working with the authorities to book slots for us. As the fleet gets closer to this stage of the race, the slots become more and more defined.”

Alex Risi Operations Manager at Associated Yacht Services added: “About one year prior to the Clipper Race’s arrival, I start direct contact with the Panama Canal and marinas. Mainly the canal is the one that we need to keep closely informed as they need to make proper coordination and find the number of slots and transits per day so we can transit all eleven boats ASAP.

“For example, this year, with the canal facing less transits because of the low water levels in the lake as a result of El Niño, the Panama Canal managed to get all boats from Pacific to Atlantic within four days of transits.

Image: Race Crew preparing to tick off Panama Canal transit from their bucket list

“We advise all skippers one day before the transit time, so they are anchored and ready to receive the canal pilot for transit. We make sure they have all requirements ready, such as lines, fenders, proper accommodations for the canal pilot, boarding facilities and all navigational equipment working in good order. The key to all is to make sure all boats meet the Canal requirements and that they do not face any issues during their transit from the Pacific to Atlantic.

“We love to receive all of the eleven Clipper Race boats in Panama. They arrive on out of the canal entrance and stop in Flamenco Marina. They are able to spend a few days in town, get some rest and prepare the boats to transit the Canal and continue the Race to the Atlantic side.

“We then start working with the Clipper Race Office for the next race (2 years’ time) from the moment the boats depart Panama.”

On this occasion, the teams transited through the canal in batches across four days, with the first group of Qingdao and Ha Long Bay, Viet Nam leaving the Pacific Ocean behind and heading for the Atlantic on 2 June.

Image: Qingdao and Ha Long Bay, Viet Nam rafted to begin the canal transit

Giorgio Talamanga, crew on board Qingdao, one of the first boats to transit through the canal, said: “It was a great transit! The Panama Canal is an amazing piece of engineering. It was a long ride, setting off early in the morning, but it was worth it. We are on the Atlantic side now, we see palm trees and we had a lovely welcome of friends and family, so I’m very happy.”

Tian Feng (Richard), Qingdao Ambassador for Leg 7 added: “The first time I saw the Panama Bay from the boat was when we finished Race 11 and we were approaching the marina, I think most of the crew who have never been here and were shocked or surprised by the skyline. As we have all heard, the Panama Canal is a big project of engineering magic, and when you see the gate close and water level go up, and you move to another gate, it’s such a unique experience. I’ve been to the Panama Canal Museum and learnt more about the canal’s history. It’s magic to connect the two oceans. I wonder what the people at the beginning of this project were thinking, to connect these two oceans. It’s a fantastic experience to transit the canal.”

The following day (3 June) saw PSP Logistics, Perseverance and Zhuhai head through the canal. Race Crew on board PSP Logistics, Maya Vorah, explained how the transit was one of the key reasons for choosing Leg 7. She said: “For me, this is definitely one of the major reasons for signing up to Leg 7. It’s such an iconic thing going through the Panama Canal, and I have lots of engineers in my family. I’m excited to go through, see what it’s like, see the sights, and take it all in.”

As he guided PSP Logistics through the Miraflores Locks, one of the expert pilots explained from on boardhow transiting the canal works: “At this moment, the water has been filling up 18,000 gallons, so we are rising about 7 meters from sea level. We need to go to the next chamber to rise another 7 meters. Then we will be at the level of the lake, which is about 81 feet. So, we rise with fresh water from the lake, and the level of the ships, and that’s how we transit the canal.”

For Skippers, AQPs and circumnavigators in particular, waving goodbye to the Pacific and entering the Atlantic certainly feels like the start of the home stretch, as they return to the Atlantic for the first time since November 2023, and with just three races left before the fleet returns to Portsmouth.

Image: The gates to the Atlantic Ocean

Zhuhai Skipper James Finney reported from the Gatun Lake, the final stop before the gates opened for the Atlantic: “These are the last locks before the Atlantic, so a very special moment for us! We will be able to see our home ocean, as it were. It’s really exciting, it’s been a long time coming.”

Yacht Club Punta del Este, UNICEF and Dare To Lead transited the canal yesterday, arriving in Shelter Bay Marina on the Atlantic side late on 4 June, with the last of the fleet, Our Isles and Oceans, Bekezela and Washington, DC, - which is bound for its home port on Race 12 - transiting today (5 June).

AQP Charlie Warhurst on board Dare To Lead said: “The Panama Canal is such a historic thing. We are currently transiting through the original locks, which is over a 100 year old technology. Not many people get to do this, especially not on boats like this, so it’s really special.”

Yacht Club Punta del Este Race Crew member Victor Guerrero who hails from Spain added: “The transit was so interesting, so amazing to see how the locks work. It is so beautiful all around. Incredible to see the cargo hulls going past in the middle of the canal, it’s something so different and really exciting.”

Image: Stunning views along the way

Eight Clipper Race yachts will slip lines from Shelter Bay Marina on 5 June at 1600 Local Time, with the final three teams clearing the Panama Canal and joining the fleet that evening. Race 12: Come Sea DC Cup will get underway by a Le Mans start on 7 June at 1200 Local Time/1700 UTC.

Watch all the action unfold over on the Race Viewer.

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