Two Yachts Transiting the Panama Canal ..... Nearly Destroyed!
March 2sd, 2001

The Friday morning transit of the Panama Canal by two cruising yachts, turned into minutes of terror, days of shock, and dreams of cruising lost. These photos were taken by folks that were on the transit ...... 

The digital photos are by John Pearlman and the two video adaptations are by Barbara Sandmeier. The vessels are Antares Royale, owned by Barbara & Ulrich Sandmeier of Swiss registry and the Nepenthe owned by John Pearlman of California, USA registry.

Comments by Barbara Sandmeier Comments by John Pearlman Transit Comments by David Wilson

The Personal Side

Entering the Gatun Locks Barbara Sandmeier
Barbara Sandmeier
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John Pearlman
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Tug Captain & Crew
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Ulrich (Ullie) Sandmeier
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Soon Come

Antares Royale

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These photos are taken from video tape. They are taken with the yachts partially under the stern of the CGM Renoir a container ship.


A Letter from Barbara on the yacht Antares Royale, of Swiss registry to a news paper in Switzerland. The Swiss press (among others) miss told the story :

Sehr geehrte Redaktion


Von Freunden haben wir erfahren, was sie am 5. März 2001 in der Ausgabe der NZZ Nr. 53 Seite 16 in Ressort „vermischte Meldungen“ ueber den Unfall im Panamakanal, geschrieben haben.

Als Eigner und Beteiligte der Unfallyacht Antars Royal  moechten wir, dass  sie in der NZZ (und allenfalls in  allen anderen falsch informierten CH-Zeitungen) ueber die wirklichen Ursachen des Unfalles berichten:

Am morgen des 2.3.01  um ca. 07.30 wurde die SY Antares Royal  vor der ersten der drei Schleusenkammern des Gatunlocks in Colon, Panama mit der amerikanischen SY Nephente  zusammengebunden. Auf jeder Yacht befand sich ein professioneller Lotse der Kanalgesellschaft. In der Schleuse wurden wir seitlich an einen bereitstehenden Schlepper der ACP, (Autoridad del canal de Panama) festgmach. Alle Leinen waren klar, die Schleusentore waren laengst zu, als die Leinenarbeiter des Schleppers  „Lider“ beim Auffuellen der Schleusenkammer ihre Heckleinen ans Land aus ungeklaerten Gruenden fallen liessen. Infolge der starken Turbulenzen des einlaufenden Wassers schwenkte das ganze Bootpaket innert weniger Minuten um 90 Grad und unsere beiden Segelyachten wurden vom Schlepper gegen das Heck, des  vor uns stehenden  ca. 250 m langen Containerfrachters   „CGM RENOIR, Monrovia“ gedrueckt.

Kurz bevor alle Masten fielen und die beiden Yachten total zusammengedrueckt wurden, konnten sich alle 12 Personen der 2 betroffenen Segelyachten auf den Schlepper  retten. Es ist ein grosses Glueck dass es keine Verletzten gab. Die nachfolgenden Untersuchungen haben ergeben, dass die Ursache des dramatischen Unfalles auf gravierende Pflichtverletzung des Schlepperkapitaens und des Linehandlers der ACP zurueckzufuehen ist. Uns trifft keine Schuld. Unsere Antares ist sehr stark beschaedigt und es ist fraglich ob sie noch repariert werden kann. Zur Zeit liegen wir in dem Pedro Miguel Boat Club am Panamakanal. Wir gruessen alle unsere Bekannten und Freunde. 

Barbara, Ueli und Christian.



The Swiss Press (Among Others) Must Tell The Story Very Honored Editorship We heard from friends what was written in the March 5, 2001 issue of the NZZ Nr. 53 page 16 in the mixed news section on the accident in the Panama Canal. As owners and participants of the accident yacht Antares Royale we would like the NZZ (and other misinformed Swiss Newspapers) to report the true facts of the accident.

In the morning of March 2, 2001 at approximately 0730 before the first of the three chambers of the Gatum locks in Colon, Panama the sailing yacht Antares Royale was tied to the American sailing yacht, Nepenthe. A professional pilot of the Canal Company was on each yacht. In the lock we were tied sideways to the Autoridad de Canal de Panama (ACP) tug Lider. All lines were clear, the lock gates were closed, and during the filling of the lock chamber for unknown reasons the line handler on the tug Lider let the line go which tied the tug to the lock wall. Due to the strong turbulence of the incoming water the entire boat raft within a few minutes swiveled 90 degrees and our two sail boats were pushed from the tug under the stern of the approximately 250 meter container ship, CGM Renoir, Monrovia. Shortly before all the masts of both sailboats came down all 12 person aboard the two involved yachts fled to the deck of the tug to rescue themselves.  We were very lucky that no one was hurt. The result of the following investigation showed that the cause of the dramatic accident was a negligence of the tug captain and the line handlers of the ACP tug. We were not at fault. Our Antares is very heavily damaged and it is questionable whether it can be repaired. 

At present we are situated in the Pedro Miguel Boat Club at the Panama Canal. We greet all our acquaintances and friends. 

Barbara, Ueli and Christian.

Do keep us posted. We fly to Switzerland on March 28th and will keep checking our email. Take Care of Each Other!

The Best to You!

Liz and Willie

Comments by John Pearlman
Owner of Nepenthe

    Strange how ones path can abruptly alter course. Of all the dangerous stretches I faced bringing Nepenthe the 3000 miles back to San Francisco, who would have dreamed the path between the seas would have been the riskiest leg?! When looking at pictures of the aftermath, w/ all the masts & debris laying strewn across the decks of the two sailboats, it's absolutely amazing no one was severely injured or killed. Let me give you a brief recap of the scene: @ 8:30am on Fri March 2nd, Nepenthe & Antares Royale, a 45' Swiss flagged ketch, were nested, ie. tied side by side. We motored into the 1st southbound chamber & Antares was then tied to a 100' tug that was tied to the side wall. The stern of a 600+' freighter was about 75' ahead. The water began to rise & all was well until we were about 10' from the top. At that pt I looked back after having taken a picture of my smiling friend Bill, & saw the stern of the tug drifting away from the wall. I muttered to Bill "I think we're in trouble". I ran to Nepenthe's engine controls & put it in reverse & applied full throttle....w/ no effect! As it became evident that impact w/ the stern of the freighter was imminent the advisors began to shout orders to run to the tug. I stayed in the cockpit until after the mast, w/ a bone chilling cracking & crunching, impacted the overhang of the freighter's transom & Nepenthe's deck & hull began to slide under the deeply beveled stern. At that point I actually had to climb 'up' to the starboard side of the boat to leap on to Antares. Thoughts of being crushed between the ship & Nepenthe wrung epinephrine from my adrenals & catapulted me past Antares & into the tug. I had no awareness of falling masts on my short heart thudding journey across the boats, & yet upon reaching the relative safety of the tug stern & looking back I could not see a clear area of deck that wasn't riddled w/ debris. After all crew members were on board the tug, the lower half of Antares main mast came crashing down not more than a foot from our advisors head & just a few inches from the arm of one of my crew. As you might imagine we were all in shock as the war-like scene lay before us.

    One of the pleasant surprises has been the gentle & caring way the Canal officials have comported themselves. Even the technicians who disconnected the rigging from the chain plates to allow the masts removal did it w/ such care- inserting each cotter pin into its clevis pin after placing it back into its turnbuckle. 

    3 days after the incident there was a formal hearing where all party's were questioned to illuminate what went wrong. To my & the crew of Antares great relief, the head of the Panama Canal Authority, Capt Rodrigues, who is heading this investigation, turned out to be a most empathetic, kind, soft spoken, good humored man. He actually apologized to us for this obvious blunder on the part of the tug crew. He said he could make a ruling now w/ what he's heard but had to follow protocol & wait.

    So what did go wrong? It seems the answer comes in two parts. 

1) the boatswaine handling the stern line, through inattention, allowed the required five wraps on the wench capstan to come undone & before he was able to refasten it the tug had swung so far away from the wall that the distance exceeded the length of the line & it fell into the water.

2) the tug captain, if he had been behind the controls & properly operating this mighty 3,000 horsepower twin engine egg-beater ship, considered to be perhaps the most maneuverable water craft on earth, should have had no problem pulling the stern back to the why didn't it happen? The tug capt maintains that if he had applied enough power to pull the tug back to the wall he would have torn the lines from the sailboats...huh? So the alternative was to do nothing & let them crash into the freighter? He then stated that the sailboats keels impeded his tugs propulsion & he was therefore unable to maneuver back to the wall. Upon some pointed questioning by Captain Rodrigues, who is himself a qualified tug captain, this version did not make much sense- the tugs turbines are 17' deep w/ 10' blades from the bottom up & they are placed in front of the steering house. The sailboats were tied so their bows were aft of the steering house & the drafts of each were 5 1/2 feet & 7 feet. It seemed obvious to all present at the hearing that one of three scenerios occured regarding the conduct of the tug captain: A) he was not in the wheel house. B) he was asleep in the wheel house. C) he panicked & failed to operate the tug properly.

    I'm now at Pedro Miguel, a marina in the middle of the canal, living among the ruins of my boat- quite depressing. The next step is to get a survey & submit it to the canal authority & then await their ruling as to compensation. Ah, to be among the islands again.

John Pearlman


Comments by David Wilson, 
author of "Transiting the Panama Canal Small Vessel"

Accident in the Panama Canal

   March 2 was a typical summer day in Panama; the yachts Nepenthe, an Islander 37 owned by John Pearlman from Sausalito, CA and Antares Royale, a 45 ft. Dufour 1200 ketch owned by Ulrich and Barbara Sandmeier of Switzerland, started their transit of the Panama Canal from the Caribbean to the Pacific. Barbara was on deck with her movie camera capturing every moment of this exciting part of their adventure. Their line handlers, and Autoridad de Canal de Panama (ACP) supplied transit Advisors, had come aboard before sunrise to assist them.

   Rafted together, (nested in Canal terms) they entered the lower chamber of Gatun locks to tie alongside the 95-foot, 300-ton PCA tug Lider. The Lider was tied bow and stern about 75 feet behind the 650-foot container ship CGM Renoir. Once the nest was securely tied with breasts and springs to the tug, the gates closed behind them and they were ready to let the water fill the chamber and lift them to the next level. What happened next was like a slow motion .

   As the chamber filled, the stern of the tug pulled away from the wall; the bosun on the aft deck of the tug had lost control of the stern line. He tried to signal the tug captain to make him aware of the problem without success. The two transit advisers, both fully qualified tug drivers, expected the tug captain to take the controls of the 3000 horsepower omni directional tug and maneuver them away from the ship and back alongside the wall. As they were about to hit the ship, John, the captain of Nepenthe, ran aft and, in a desperate effort to save his and the other yacht, applied full reverse power; but 25 horsepower doesn’t do much to move a 300-ton tug.

   There were nine people on the decks of the two yachts. The advisor aboard the Nepenthe seeing that nothing was being done by the tug to save the yachts, and that the rigs of the two boats were about to come crashing down, called for everyone to ABANDON SHIP and board the tug.

    Unknown to all, one of the crew of Nepenthe was sleeping below. The base of the mast came out of the step and started sweeping around inside the cabin destroying all in its’ path. Awakened by all the commotion the crew member scrambled up the companionway, screaming for her life. A brave sole ran from the tug onto the stricken yacht and jerked her to safety.

    Nepenthe, decks awash, was completely under the low stern of the ship with Antares Royale squashed on top of her pinned between the tug and the ship. Finally the tug captain started to gradually bring the wreckage back away from the ship. Pulling away the three masts crashed to the deck. Rigging covered almost every square foot of the decks of the two yachts and some of the tug. Nepenthe, engine left screaming at full throttle when the call to abandon ship came, was enveloped in a cloud of steam and smoke as the engine died. Unbelievably, no one suffered more than a few bruises. 

    The immediate danger passed, the ACP sprang into action to stabilize the situation and to protect life and property. The ACP’s Colón Canal Port Captain arrived taking control of the situation and documenting the accident. The yachts were taken the rest of the way through the Gatun Locks and into Gatun Lake. The destroyed rigging was carefully lifted off by an ACP crane and laid alongside one of their docks. Released from the tug, Nepenthe and Antares Royale were moved to the Gatun Yacht Club where Nepenthe was tied to a buoy and Antares Royale anchored. (Gatun YC now serves not as a yacht club but as a recreational area for ACP employees and cruise line ships.)

     The Board of Local Inspectors (BLI) of the ACP held a fact finding hearing on Monday afternoon to determine the cause of accident. Chairman, Captain Miguel F. Rodríguez, conducted the meeting in English with a translator provided by the ACP for the Sandmeiers, of the Antares Royale, as they are German speakers. Carefully and patiently questioning the tug Captain, the bosun, the advisors and finally the yacht owners, the chairman brought forth the facts surrounding the cause of the accident.

    The BLI will make its findings of responsibility for, and cause of, the accident. The transcript and findings will then be distributed to the parties involved and the yacht owners will submit their claims for damages to the ACP legal department. Then the ACP, if they have been found responsible for the accident, will make an offer of settlement. If the settlement is not satisfactory the next resort is the Maritime Tribunal here in Panama.

     Since the hearing the PCA has made every effort assist the disabled Nepenthe and Antares Royale by moving them to the safety of the Pedro Miguel Boat Club. The many world cruisers there greeted and comforted them.

    Most yachts pass though Panama without any problem. The transit method used by Nepenthe and Antares Royale, tying alongside a tug, is and remains a safe (usually) and easy way to pass through the Canal locks. Incidents, caused by the water turbulence in the locks during the filling of the chambers or by the wash from a ship ahead are limited to bent stanchions, damaged rub rails and the like. With careful seamanship most accidents can be avoided.

    This whole episode was captured on videotape, complete with running narration in Swiss- German by Barbara Sandmeier. The frustration, disbelief, and above all anguish, are obvious without having to understand a word of German.

     All of us have very strong bonds with our boat/homes, watching this video left me deeply affected. My heart goes out to Barbara, Ullie, John, and to all involved who saw their boats and their dreams dashed before their eyes.

 Dave Wilson
Panama, Republic of Panama

 David Wilson is the author of A Captain’s Guide to Transiting the Panama Canal in a Small Vessel.

The Personal Side
David Wilson tells the Sandmeiers Story

    It all ended with horrible slow motion destruction, crunching, grinding and then the rig crashed to the deck ending their cruising dream.  The Sandmeiers were well prepared for their adventure, Ueli a Civil engineer and Barbara a nurse thought that they would be able to take care of each other and their boat in any situation.  In Switzerland they had obtained their license to operate their boat in the open ocean.

    Ulrich and Barbara Sandmeier flew to Florida from Switzerland to find the boat that would be their vessel for carrying out their dream of sailing around the world. They found the Antares Royale, a 45-foot Dufour 1200 ketch, at a good price and it seemed strong enough to meet the demands of the open ocean but needed quite a few repairs. Over the next year they completely resealed the teak decks and chased down all the other little problems commonly found in older boats. Adding the endless little bits and pieces that it takes to turn a weekender into an ocean cruiser, they poured their labor, lucre and love into their dream. Finally provisioned and fueled they were ready for the real adventure to begin.

    Setting off into the Caribbean they began to put themselves and their rebuilt ketch to the test. Beating day after day into 25-knot winds and choppy seas they found every leak that they had missed and gradually developed the confidence that they and their Antares Royale were up to whatever their travels by sea might bring them. Barbara didn’t enjoy that bash down the Thorny Path to the Caribbean but she warmed slowly to the sea as the warm winds carried them into the crystal blue waters and beautiful anchorages on their way south and east to Trinidad. The Virgin Islands, Saint Martin, St. Lucia, Antigua and finally Granada the Sandmeiers had gotten a lot of experience and now like so many other cruisers they took time in Trinidad to repair the wear and tear from their bash to windward and add more cruising goodies like a watermaker before heading off on the next leg along the northern coast of South America.

    With four years of good experience under their belts and their boat just the way they wanted it, Ueli and Barbara were in full cruise mode. Adding close friend Christian to the crew and making all the customary stops in Venezuela and the ABC’s, they continued to prepare themselves for the real jump off in their adventure - heading off into the South Pacific. Their brief experience in the beautiful San Blas Islands gave them a hint of the pleasures to come. It was refreshed from the San Blas and with stars in their eyes for the bright future that they arrived with all the other cruisers at the Panama Canal.

    A Canal transit to schedule, tons of provisions to bring aboard, excitement and anticipation building, they didn’t see the dark cloud on the horizon. Using up a bit more of the cruising kitty, the Sandmeiers decided to replace their galley stove and ordered a new Force Ten and a dive compressor from the States. Line handlers and Panama Canal Advisor aboard, they were ready to cross the isthmus of Panama in that famous ditch that has benefited commercial shipping as well as cruisers like Ueli and Barbara since it was completed August 15, 1914.

    Operation of the Canal has not changed much since the United States completed the turnover to the Panamanians December 31, 1999. Working hard to make sure to instill confidence in Panama’s one big customer, world shipping, the Panamanians have made every effort to “do it right”. That wasn’t to be the case that day.

    The Sandmeiers rafted up to fellow cruiser Nepenthe, an Islander 37, and entered the first chamber of the huge Gatun Locks. To get an idea of the size of this structure, they poured 3000 cubic yards of concrete every day for two and one half YEARS to build this part of the canal! In the chamber the nest of two yachts tied up alongside a 300-ton Panama Canal tug that was tied to the lock wall about 75 feet behind a 650-foot container ship, all the while Barbara was video taping the process with a running commentary in her obviously excited Swiss-German. A few more miles and they would be ready to jump off to the South Pacific with all the other cruisers of this season. However, it was not to be.  As Barbara recorded the scene her voice turned from excitement to concern, then fright, terror and then finally as their dreams were literally crushed, her voice turned to acute anguish.

    The lock gates closed behind them, inexplicably, as the chamber began to fill the stern of the Panama Canal tug started to swing away from the wall. Slowly and inexorably the tug swung until the two yachts were caught between the massive tug and the even more massive ship. There was no escape from the impending disaster. The Advisor aboard Nepenthe called for all to save their lives and abandon ship and scramble aboard the tug that was now crushing them into, and then under, the ship. Finally the tug captain seemed to gain control of the tug and slowly and gently brought the wreckage away from the ship for all to see how completely their dreams had been destroyed in the Panama Canal.

    Thankfully there were no serious physical injuries. The damage done to both yachts renders them likely unrepairable.  The Panama Canal Authority (PCA) has done everything it could to help, including moving the boats to the safety and friendly comfort of the Pedro Miguel Boat Club.  A hearing was held the Monday following the accident to determine who is responsible for causing the accident. To all who saw what happened and attended the hearing it seems certain that the PCA will accept full responsibility. The process will take time and Sandmeiers and John Pearlman, the owner of Nepenthe, face a period of waiting for the final chapter of this episode to be written. Meanwhile, the new stove and compressor are waiting to be picked up in customs.

David W. Wilson lives in Panama and has written The Captain’s Guide to Transiting the Panama Canal in a Small Vessel.