A mess of yachts before the Panama Canal – the causes

February 1 our fellow sailors Franz and Mareike subscribed for the transit through the Panama Canal. Their date will be Februari 14. Two weeks waiting, not bad, but normally it is 5 to 7 days.

Five (5) days later, we applied the transit for the Ya. We got the message back that our transit would be March 23 at least….. Suddenly we are planned more than 6 weeks later. As well as any yacht applying now. How come?

The Panama Canal is about 80 km long. It is surrounded by the Gatun Lake and other waters, creating an enormous water basin as a buffer for the Panama Canal.

The planning, the mess, and some causes

Why this mess? All of a sudden, more causes have come together. Firstly, there is the Carnival from 10 to 13 February. This mostly gives a delay of three to five days.

The cause is that the Panama Canal Authority lowered the number of transits. The locks were originally opened 31 times a day, but now it has brought down to 16 times. The problem lies in the lack of water in the Panamanian Lake Gatun. This immense lake provides the water to the Panama Canal, and the level is slowly falling.

When the water level drops below the 80 feet (25 meter) the canal will be to shallow for the largest ships.

Why is there a sudden water shortage?

Firstly, because the Panama Canal lies higher than the oceans. On the picture you see the profile of the canal and the oceans. It means that every time a lock opens on whatever side, the water will flow out into the ocean. Together the locks are about 26 meter higher and they can contain pretty large ships. When such a big lock is opened, there is about 15.000 m3 of water flowing out into the ocean. The Lake Gatun is also the drink water basin for Panama, and this amount is equal to the annual water use of 300 inhabitants.

Every time a lock opens, the water of the lock will flow into the ocean


Secondly, since 2016 there is a second set of locks in operation, for even bigger ships. So that doubles the loss of water. But one could question: did they not calculate beforehand if there would be sufficient water for such big extra locks? Yes, of course they did. Yes, they also took into account the smaller rainfalls in every El Nino year, bringing less water into the Gatun Lake.

But these numbers were all based on past data.

The average rainfall over the last century doesnot give any doubt about the continuity for the Panama Canals water supply.


El Nino and climate change

2023 was an El Nino year. The Eastern Pacific Ocean becomes warmer as does the air temperature in Panama. The higher the temperature, the less the condensation in the air, so smaller the rainfalll.

Older research shows that in an average El Nino year, the temperature in Panama rises about 2 degrees and the average rainfall drops 15 to 20 mm. source

What we see in this 2023 El Nino year, is an even higher rise of the temperature, so a deeper fall of the precipitation. It has never been lower since the meteorological measurements started, 143 years ago. It looks like a trend is developing of heavier El Nino years, with lesser precipitation.

Mr. Steven Paton, for 33 years the meteorological researcher on the Smithonian Institute in Panama, says: “Historically there has been a [rainfall] shortage on average once every 20 years due to major El Niño events. In the last 26 years this is the third major rainfall deficit. So it seems that something is changing our rainfall patterns.”

“The increase in frequency is consistent with climate change models,” he says, “but the climate change models have not come out saying for sure.” (source )

What now?

This is the everlasting problem with predicting climate change. Just as most of the organisations, the Panama Canal Authority responds and takes action when experiencing the consequenses. One can only accept and adapt. Such a late action costs time, money, damage.

When do you, take action?

Preparation for transiting the Panama Canal

Ya and it’s crew are getting ready to transit the Panama Canal. As with other sail boats we have filled out endless forms, decide how to accommodate 3 extra people (line handlers) for the night as well as feed them 3 meals. These preparations are all part of transiting the canal. However, Ya -a fossil free boat has a few extra preparation 

Firstly, the authorities require a minimum speed of 5 kts. Ya best speed verses use of power is 2.3 -3kts, where 300watts. To achieve a speed of 5.0kts, triple the amount of power is required, see diagram below.

Relationship of speed versus the necessary power

This increase in speed over 10-12 hrs would be a considerable drain on the power. Therefore Peter is renting a generator so we can maintain the minimum speed and keep the batteries happy.

Secondly, Ya relies on the 3 aft solar panels to provide energy. Any damage to these panels would significantly reduce our power. The line handlers on land throw lines with a monkey knot on the end of the line to handlers on the boat. If the monkey knot lands on the solar panel, we have damage .

Monkey Knot
Line Handler with a Monkey knot in his hand.

may occur. Peter has three pieces of old ply wood to cover the solar panel, preventing any possible damage to the solar panels.

We need 4 line handlers per boat excluding the captain that is 6 people on the boat including the pilot. Once the line handlers and pilot transit the canal, they are transported by taxi back to the start area approximately I hr.  In the world of sustainability, the amount of fossil fuel used to take the line handlers up and down the canal by road is considerable. Fewer line handlers would reduce the fossil footprint. Numerous boats have transited the Panama canal. Ya being fossil few has a few different considerations than most.

On the tipping point from fossil to fossil free energy – or?

2023 is a special year for the fossil free energy. The International Energy Agency has calculated that Europe’s use of energy from sun and wind, saved nearly 100 billion Euros on our energy bills (source).

For the Netherlands it is 2.5 billion each year. Three years after each other. This is not a single year, this is continuous. Without any subsidies or any other extra profits. The new reality is that renewable energy has become cheaper.

This graphic shows the change in competitiveness of solar and wind by country based on global weighted average LCOE, 2010-2022. All sun and wind generated energy beat the competition with fossils now. (source)

Now, if we consume from sun and wind only, it is 16 cent cheaper than our consumption from fossil and other unsustainable fuels (like nucleair energy) (before taxes). So the renewables have beaten the fossil energy sources by competition. From now, we only need the non-renewable energy sources when there is no wind or sun.

The beauty of it is, that everybody takes a profit of it. OK, the private people with fixed contracts take the least and the bigger users with variable contracts, especially the companies, take the biggest profit. But in general the economical outcome is clear, sustainable energy is a joy in everyone’s wallet.


The big bucks

Sorry, not for everyone. Especially not in the Netherlands. In 2015, the Netherlands signed the Paris Treaty to cut on fossil fuels and convert to renewables. One year later a Member of Parliament asked the Dutch government if the fossil fuel companies like Shell, Exxon-Mobile, Q8 and others, still get subisidies and tax exemptions.

No answer came. After one year of pushing and pulling, the State came up with the number of 4.5 billion. But later, an investigation showed a number double as high: more than 30 billion of tax payers money would go to the big fossil companies. The government didnot give an answer or any accountability.

The differences got worse. In 2023 it became clear that the oil companies made a great year. For example, Shell realized a profit of 34 billion Euros. Still the flow of tax exemptions and subsidies continued. This also happens in many other European states.

Now, nearly nine years after the Paris treaty The Ministry of Economic and Climate Affairs published an appraisal of 39 to 46 billion of subsidies and tax exemptions flowing annually to fossil fuel companies. About 70% of the Dutchmen want to stop this money drain. The discussion is polarizing. The protest group Extinction Rebellion demands clear answer from the State: Why is all this money flowing to fossils, despite the Paris treaty? They organized a series of highway blockades on the road going into the Hague (between the Ministery of Economic and Climate Affairs and the Parliament building). Every time they are supported by a growing number of people.

The police tries to blow the peaceful blockade of Extinction Rebellion away with water canons. The remaining people has the chance to be arrested. They accept it, they want their answer to their question why so much tax money is flowing to the fossil industry. On the viaduct there are supporters.

2.500 Euro for every Dutchman each year

So can we not economize this and make it sustainable as well? Yes! Here is the example if you do that in Holland, with its 18 million inhabitants.

If we give solar and wind energy equal opportunity to fossil energy, 42,5 billion is saved. Plus 2.5 billion we gain already. This equates to 45 billion for 18 million Dutchmen. Or alternatively 2.500 Euro per inhabitant each year.

What about cruising in the air?

An English company made a Hybrid Air Vehicle. It is like the old Hindenburg, but then filled with Helium, so it cannot explode. The double body makes its nickname, the ‘flying bum’.

The airship lands and lifts off ‘sur place’. That saves a lot of space, compared to an airplane. Also the aire and noise pollution is incomparably much less than an airjet.

You think it is slow? Well it is not fast, but only the two propellors can create a speed of 145 km/hr. It needs relatively such a little energy that this airship is hybrid-electriccally driven. Taken into account that on the right height it floats with the wind, a speed of 250 km on longer ranges is possible.

The one shown here can take 10,000 kilograms on load and make about 4000 miles. It can stay four to five days in the air. But this desigh can change significantly with its purposes.

This airship is developed for mid ranges. You could go from Paris to Vienna or, what the company is arranging now: making luxury cruises from Saint Tropez to a Mediterranian island.

Different cruising

The current jets try to transport as much people as they can, and as fast as you can. We are packed like sardines, under a permanent noise. On a current short or medium range trip, you spend most of the time on the arrival and departure procedures. What about an easy cruise to take a rest from that? Why not wine and dine while you fly? This looks possible with such an airship. It also saves a lot on fuels, because the propeller is way more efficient than the jet. Also, the airship takes more profit from the winds on the different altitudes, because it cruises a longer time on the heights with the following winds. It is a bit like sailing: the winds will bring you to your destination.

This Airlander could also be designed for the long ranges. Then it will be like the old fashioned cruises on cruise ships at sea. You step on board, you lift off, and after a day or so you land in -let’s say- Amsterdam. From there you go to Reykjavik. And from there you go in two or three days to New York. Slow, but comfortable.

a look into the future, check this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZjBgEkbnX2I

Sue’s first impressions

Hello, I am Sue Smith and the newest crew member on S/V Ya – of Fossilfree around the world. My sailing career started when I asked a solo sailor what it was like to do an ocean passage. A few months later I was invited to sail with him in the Canary Islands for three weeks. We didn’t do an ocean passage, but I was hooked on sailing. My first ocean passage was in Patagonia no less, several years later!! I loved it. After that trip I bought my own boat and lived on it in Bermuda. I became a boat owner and all that entailed. But most of all I just loved sitting in the cockpit and feeling the motion of the ocean underneath me. Over the next 20 years, I went on several sailing adventures in different parts of the world. The most notable was on the tall ship “Europa” to the Antarctic and a few neighboring islands. It was the most fascinating trip, the wildlife was amazing, seeing the icebergs and glaciers from the rigging was spectacular. I didn’t think that trip could be surpassed until I met Peter.

I was introduced to Peter Hoefnagels through a mutual friend. I was curious how he could be complete fossil free on a sailboat. I did my research and indeed he had already circumnavigated the world. An amazing accomplishment in it’s self but to have done it fossil free was an added achievement. After several emails and zoom chats, Peter offer me a chance to crew on “Ya’. I jumped at the opportunity. I thought this would be a fantastic way to see and experience sustainable sailing. These are my first impressions after a week on Ya.

When I arrived in Panamarina I was taken out to the boat in a kayak. So the sustainable sailing extends to the transport to and from the boat, not just the sailboat. My upper body strength is definitely going to get a workout on this boat! Even in the dark that first night, I could tell this was special boat. The cockpit is laid out differently than most. The solar panels provide the shade, instead of a canvas Bimini. There was ample space for people to stand in the cockpit. The seating is non conventional arrangement in that that there are two levels of narrow seating. The companionway is wide and low just three steps to the interior, which is spacious and well thought out.

I have the job of cooking onboard. I am familiar with a regular propane and electric stoves. However, Ya has an induction cooker which is far more efficient to heat cookware directly instead of indirectly. Induction is able to deliver roughly 80% to 90% of the electromagnetic energy to food in the pan. Compared to gas which converts a mere 30% to 40%. A pressure cooker is used a lot on board in conjunction with a insulation box. This method takes longer to cook but saves about 20% of energy. As I understand it, the pressure cooker is brought up to pressure for a few minutes then transferred to a insulation box for the rest of the cooking. What I am figuring out is how long the remaining cooking time is in the insulation box! Also there is a bread making machine and a microwave. My first attempt at bread making was not very successful, due impart to the old yeast and unusual sugar substance. I found some newer yeast and different sugar so hopefully my next loaf of bread will be better.

I have had a tour of the boat outside. However until we actually sail I am not in a position to comment. I do know that it is going to be different in some ways from other boats I have been on. So stay tuned.

2023 of Ya in 5 minutes

Sailed a regatta in Bocas, did repairs, cleaned the bottom with the fishes, kayaked against Tomas’ original Ngobe canoe (and lost), Andre joined, Kathryn joined, Genaro joined, did maintenance, did the Bocas sailing regatta, wrote the book ‘Duurzaam Varen’, Inge joined, met fossilfree soulmate Jack of SV Alcazar, maintenance, sailed with an original San Blas sailing canoe, went in the Tatacoa desert, been screwed by DHL, was blocked at roadblocks, did maintenance and repairs again, and much more, In this movie the images of 2023 on and around ‘Ya’.

SY Alcazar converting into a fossil free catamaran

About one year ago Jack called me. He is skipper of the Alcazar, a catamaran sailing with individual people, forming a collective.

Jack thoroughly studied the website fossilfreearoundtheworld.org and asked some specific questions. The answers made him decide to convert the Alcazar into a fossil free catamaran. Here Jack shows us the ship in the middle of the conversion process.

The tide brings nature into the city

This is the Keilehaven, a part of a canal in an old industrial area in Rotterdam. Once the cargo ships were coming in and out for loading and unloading, but the industries went to larger scale places. Now, the trucks do that last bit of transport, driving on the road from where the picture is taken.

There are pavements, but nobody uses them. Well, nobody – in the night you can find hookers who are chased away from the neighourhood. And once a month you can see some workers of County of Rotterdam to ‘clean it up’, by using chemical weed killers.

The ecosystem consists of tiles, grass and water. That’s it.

Now we give nature a change….

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Orientation: check the yellow puppet; that’s from where the picture is taken. See the inset to check the positioning in Rotterdam and surroundings, till the sea.

In the picture above you see that these old harbours are all connected to the Nieuwe Maas, the big river going through Rotterdam, and is connected to the sea. Every day the tide comes in and goes out. This is a great environment to bring nature back here. The water is mostly brackish. Or better: this water will vary in its salination; it will be fresh at the dead ends of the harbours, to near sea water closer to the sea. This great variation can create a very diverse eco system.

So if you would do nothing, you give nature a chance.

…or even help nature a bit

The County of Rotterdam set out a tender to get ideas of landscaping this area. The Urbanists (Dutch: Urbanisten) are now developing nature. Or better, they are going to let the ecosystem do its work.

From there they help nature a bit, by making terraces on different heights, creating different depths of water. It brings even more variation in the ecosystem, so a larger diversity of flora and fauna.

Source: Urbanisten.nl

By giving it some scale, there is room for paths to walk, and for leisuring. Hence, it will end up in a park, nice to live by. The area will be converted from a creepy shabby place to a park where you want to walk in, and live close to.

Source: Urbanisten.nl

In the city of Rotterdam will be not a regular park, but a living one, a tidal park.

Such a specialty, would it be not more expensive than a regular park? No, it is cheaper to maintain.

It will be there, just because nature gets all chances.