Through the Panama Canal in a yacht
Transiting through the Panama Canal in a yacht is a once in a lifetime experience. We get advice on planning this unique passage from skippers who’ve crossed recently
Romeo hops over the guardrail at sunset. Our young Panamanian advisor, here to guide us through the first three ascending locks of the Panama Canal, politely turns down a Coca Cola, and accepts a glass of warm water instead as we make our way through the Panama Canal in a yacht.
We hoist the anchor, and begin motoring across The Flats – a sweeping, artificial anchorage built around the industrial city of Colon, writes Max Campbell.
Never have I felt this nervous before a passage. The root of my fear is being dependent on Elixir’s little Volvo Penta engine, something I don’t fully understand. For some reason this terrifies me.
My parents have flown out especially for the passage. The Canal transit has been a ‘bucket list’ trip my stepdad has been itching to tick off. We reach the entrance to the first of the Agua Clara locks, and it’s completely dark. The monstrous chambers are lit by a line of aggressive orange lights, and for a moment I’m lost in the enormity of it all.
Our first challenge is to come up alongside a 50ft catamaran. I’ve always struggled with the prop walk on my S&S Swan 37 Elixir, and the stiff tradewind isn’t doing much to help. With another monohull on the far side, we combine our three vessels into one and move through the locks in a confusion of lines and fenders.
We enter the lock behind the rusting hulk of a car carrier – its great steel hull, only an arm’s reach from the concrete walls. As the door closes, it seems as if everything is towering above us. Three locks raise us to a dizzying height of 28m above sea level. Before we enter Gatun Lake, we bid farewell to Romeo. The night is spent secured to a big, yellow mooring buoy, surrounded by the demonic screams of howler monkeys.
By 0800 our new advisor, Raphael, has leapt on board and the engine won’t start. Yesterday’s solid run had shaken a few things around. Despite Raphael’s scowling from the cockpit, we find the loose grounding bolt.
Within 10 minutes we’re hurrying through the isthmus of Panama, as the morning sun casts a stain on our improvised awning. Caymans dart across the channel, and all around us lies the endless tangle of Panamanian rainforest. This is the first time I’ve been inland on Elixir, and everywhere I look are dramatic views of the surrounding landscape. Vast tracts of jungle lead to rolling curves and deep channels gouged into the countryside.
It’s mid-afternoon when we arrive at the three descending locks. Instead of forming a raft, we’re instructed to enter the lock alone. Using our four, hired mooring lines, we park Elixir under the imposing bow of a Maersk cargo carrier. Four shore-based line-handlers lead Elixir from one lock to the next. After three slow descents, the final set of gates open, and for the first time in decades, Elixir’s hull parts the Pacific.
The Panama experience
A Panama Canal crossing is a unique and significant moment. As a piece of engineering, the canal’s ambition is unrivalled, its construction representing both a remarkable achievement and a dark period of history which saw tens of thousands of workers killed by the venomous snakes, insects, and spiders which lay lurking in the Panamese jungle, as well as rife diseases including yellow fever and malaria.
The canal was finally opened in 1914, a chain of six locks covering 45 miles of waterway connecting the Caribbean Sea with the Pacific Ocean. The scale of each lock is vast: 110ft wide and 1,050ft long, and over 41ft deep.
These dimensions defined the biggest cargo vessels on the world’s oceans – Panamax ships – for over 100 years. In 2016 a significant extension was opened, with a new set of larger locks, known as the Agua Clara/Cocoli locks, over 1,400ft long, 180ft wide, and 60ft deep. The larger capacity allowed for giant NeoPanamax ships of up to 49m beam, carrying up to 20 rows of containers.
Yachts and smaller vessels continue to use the original Gatun/Miraflores locks. However, even the relatively smaller shipping which makes up the bulk of traffic in these locks can be intimidating.
We asked skippers and rally organisers who’d recently taken yachts through the Panama Canal for advice on preparing for a smooth crossing.
The first decision for cruisers planning a Panama crossing will be which approach to take. It’s widely recommended to allow some time to explore a little of the ABC (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao) islands and San Blas Islands (indigenous name Guna Yala). The Oyster World Rally fleet all opted to go via San Blas islands. Allie Smith, head of events for Oyster, reports that as the yachts declared into Panama in San Blas, it reduced the formalities when they got to Shelter Bay, Panama.
A South American mainland stopover might appeal, but Venezuela is off the list for most cruisers at the moment due to security risks, though sailing Colombia, particularly Cartegena, is a popular alternative.
Another is sailing west up the Panamanian coast to explore Bocas Del Toro. For most the timings will be driven by passage lengths in the South Pacific, particularly allowing for islands closed to visiting yachts due the pandemic, and the South Pacific cyclone season (November to April). Hence most yachts cross between January and March.
Nick Bubb transited the canal with his family in their Nautitech 40 in March this year. “To maximise our time in the Pacific we were keen to transit the canal by at least mid-March and were ‘on a schedule’ since leaving the Canaries at the end of November. Happily it all worked out and, after several wonderful months in the Caribbean, we had a fantastic time in Bonaire and ended up staying there an extra week to ensure we got a good weather window to head to the San Blas Islands.
“We’d considered stopping off in Cartagena, Colombia, but it was just too windy. The weather off the Peninsula De La Guajira is notoriously bad and, despite waiting for a window, we still had over 30 knots and 3-4m seas at times.
“If you were organised and prepared to potentially sail upwind a little you could head direct to Shelter Bay Marina, get measured and then pick a date (within a two month window after measurement) and head off to San Blas before returning to transit the canal on your chosen date. This would certainly help if you have friends coming out to join you.”
The next stage is getting measured, and booking a transit date. This will vary depending on the time of year you want to cross. Bubb explains: “For a regular cruising boat that’s not part of a rally, it’s not really possible to book a transit date until the boat has been measured by the canal authorities. Like most people, we arranged this in Shelter Bay Marina, which is just a few miles from the canal entrance on the Caribbean side.
“Prior to our arrival in Panama, we were in contact with our agent (Erick at Centurion) trying to arrange a measurement date, however you can’t get this until you arrive and it’s not usually possible to be measured over public holidays, or on weekends, so if you’re keen to limit your waiting time, try to avoid these! We were given a transit date 12 days after being measured, which seemed pretty typical for a fairly busy time of year. We took care to arrive just after the Oyster World Rally and the World Odyssey 500 fleets had gone through, in order to avoid additional delays.”
Max Campbell, who crossed slightly earlier on his Swan 37 Elixir, experienced a similar time frame. “Three days after our arrival in Shelter Bay, a member of the Canal Authority came to measure Elixir, and issue our Ship Identification Number. I requested a transit date eight days later, in order to allow the line handlers to arrive. We arrived in a particularly busy time, alongside the Oyster World Rally and the World ARC. The longest time I heard of anyone waiting was three weeks.”
It’s a different experience if crossing with a rally. Allie Smith says she booked the week-long time slot that the 23 Oysters on the World Rally would transit the canal some 20 months in advance, and has already booked the crossing for the 2024 rally, although even for a large group of yachts precise dates and timings won’t be confirmed until the last minute. Yachts that had arrived in Shelter Bay before the Oyster fleet had a two- to three-week wait for their transit.
The measurement process involves the yacht being physically measured to include davits etc. For yachts around 65ft LOA any additional length can nudge you up a price bracket, increasing the costs considerably. “We had more boats in the bigger category than we expected, even after we’d sent in all the measurements of the boats,” explains Allie Smith. The measurer may also check mooring lines, holding tank facilities, and ask about engine speed and manoeuvrability.
Agents and advisors
For yachts not crossing as part of a rally, most owners pay for an agent to smooth the process. Bubb explains: “We’d recommend using an agent, especially in this Covid era, we didn’t meet many boats who hadn’t. Agent fees are $350 and made life a lot easier. They arranged all our paperwork and measurement certificates, plus booked the transit and generally saved a lot of faff and stress! The rules and regs seem to be always changing, so it can be a bit of a minefield. Erick also arranged things like fumigation, which is a requirement prior to departure for the Galapagos, along with the immigration and customs formalities.”
Max Campbell also recommends taking an agent. “You can save yourself $200-300 by doing the work yourself, but personally I feel it’s well worth it. If you join the Panama Cruisers, you receive a discount for the transit, which is worth more than the price of joining, making you a saving!
There are also security risks to not taking an agent, Campbell explains: “With an agent, you can pay for the whole lot (canal fee, cruising permit, lines and fenders) with a bank transfer. They also usually cover the buffer fee, which is a deposit of $1,000 that is returned after the transit. If you don’t use an agent, it’s only possible to pay for your transit directly to the Canal Authority in the city of Colon.
“The Canal authority requires payment in cash, and the nearest cash machine is a few blocks away, in the middle of a city not known for its security.”
While an agent is optional, taking a canal advisor is not. An ACP Canal Advisor will be on board throughout the transit, usually a different one on each day. Advisors instruct skippers on how to navigate the locks, but skippers remain in charge of their own vessels. The advisors have thorough knowledge of the unusual currents in the canal, and may give instructions that seem counter-intuitive. They may also have varying experience of yacht handling.
Bubb reports: “It’s important to remember that you have canal advisors on board, not pilots. They don’t take on any actual responsibility, don’t know how your boat will respond when manoeuvring, and we found they often went missing at key times. You are the skipper and you need to remember that.”
Yachts over 65ft have to pay a higher rate for what is referred to as a ‘pilot’ rather than an advisor, though this only demarks seniority, not a change of role. “There’s no difference at all apart from the fact that the pilot is automatically in charge, for example, if one of the rafts has two boats with advisors and one boat with the pilot. But they do exactly the same job,” explains Smith.
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In addition, each boat is required to have four line handlers (who must be over 16). It’s possible to recruit paid handlers via an agent, or find volunteers among other yacht crew in Shelter Bay wanting to gain experience before making their own transit. But there are advantages to taking known and trusted crew if possible.
Nick Bubb explains: “We opted to take three friends with us. A lot of people advise paying experienced locals to join you but I felt having strong guys who spoke perfect English was probably more useful. There are so many videos online that even if you haven’t been through before, you can really build up a lot of knowledge before you do it for real!”
You must have four lock lines (minimum 125ft long), plus springs for rafting, and plenty of robust fenders: usually a combination of the boat’s own fenders and rented black plastic-wrapped car tyres. Decks should be kept as clear as possible, and it’s advisable to cover solar panels with plywood or seat cushions to protect from the monkey fist knots on the end of lines thrown by the shore handlers. Allie Smith noted that some yachts experienced water coming up through hull seacocks, such as fridge drains, due to the water pressure as the locks fill.
There are a number of scenarios for transiting the canal, including being a raft of up to three yachts abreast in the middle of the channel (known as centre chamber lockage); rafting onto a tug boat or small commercial vessel, such as a tourist boat; or tying onto the lock walls (the least preferable due to the risk of rig damage). Line handlers on the outside vessels manage the lines ashore.
If in a raft alongside other yachts the advisor on board the centre yacht will take the lead control. Nick Bubb explains: “The biggest boat by combination of length and horsepower will go in the middle of your raft, assuming you end up in the typical three-boat raft.
“A catamaran (assuming two engines) is very easy to manoeuvre under engine, but you’re slightly at the mercy of the central boat in the raft and really only there to help keep it straight.”
Bubb advises: “It’s definitely worth having a good chat to the other skippers in your raft as soon as you can, so you build up a good rapport. With a bit of insider knowledge from your agent, you might be able to figure out who you’re going to raft with the day before, so this makes things a bit easier.
He adds: “The load on your mooring cleats can be enormous so make sure they are in good shape with big backing plates etc. As we left the last Gatun lock, the ship ahead of us (they go ahead on the way up and behind on the way down) went full throttle and with the ensuing turbulence, we got thrown about all over the place. At one point all three boats were hanging off our stern cleat and the loads were huge.”
Allie Smith also recommends getting to know who you’ll be rafting with. As all the crew on the Oyster World Rally were known to each other, they rearranged boats and crew where necessary to ensure yachts with the most confident skippers were in the centre of the raft, while the most experienced line handlers replaced less experienced guests on the outside boats. “The boat in the middle has four spare crew that weren’t needed to do the lines, so we swapped them in and out so that we had people who knew what to do on the lines because, believe me, the pressure on the lines at some point will be pretty huge.”
Otherwise, Bubb’s main advice is to be thoroughly prepared. “Getting everything possible sorted in advance is a bonus. Aside from what’s going on with the boat, having lots of snacks and drinks is useful, with the extra line handlers, just feeding everyone is a full-on job! There is really good provisioning in Colon – Shelter Bay Marina offers a free shuttle bus into town and if you spend over $600 in the supermarket they give you a free ride back to the marina. Having all our supplies sorted prior to transiting minimised our time around Panama City.”
Overall, Bubb says, “it was fairly straightforward, super-interesting and quite a lot of fun! It was also a lot easier than sailing around Cape Horn!”
Panama Canal in a yacht costs
Fees for smaller vessels transiting the canal were raised in January 2020, meaning that post-pandemic costs for yachts which have delayed their entry to the South Pacific can be double those who crossed before 2020.
There is a jump in costs for yachts over 65ft, with the transit toll increasing from $1,600 to $2,400.
For yachts under 65ft which crossed in 2022 total costs were around $2,500.
Typical costs included:
Canal Transit fee $1,600
Transit inspection $75
Transit Security fee $165
(Electronic Data Collection
System, transit booking form) $75
Agent fees $200-$350
Fenders & line rental $75-$200
Line handlers (if required) $100 each
Cruising permit $235
Marina fees $300
Bank charges $60
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