The Deets on Our Panama Canal Transit

OK – those of you who are really, really interested in the details on our Panama Canal transit stay tuned. If you’re not, you should go to our previous post (Our Panama Canal Transit) as it’s much more fun…

We’ll start with the basics. The Panama Canal is a 100+ year old, 50-mile long canal with 6 locks that links the Pacific to the Caribbean/Atlantic. It’s virtually the only way for a large boat to get from one ocean to the other – unless you are a real die-hard and want to sail thousands of miles around Cape Horn (South America) or, even more challenging, sail through the Northwest Passage (which is extremely rare and an incredible achievement for those that have done it). Needless to say, since we prefer tropical climates and fair-weather (most of the time), we didn’t even consider the alternatives in our plan to get to the Caribbean.

Canal Map1

The canal is owned and administered by the government of Panama and with over 14,000 ships transiting per year it’s one of the country’s primary sources of income (it was actually built and administered by the US, after a failed attempt by France, but returned to Panama in 1999. If you’re interested in the history of the canal, check out The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough). The majority of those ships are container ships that pay approximately $100,000 to transit (the cheapest transit was completed by Richard Halliburton, who swam the canal in 1928 and paid a fee of just 36 cents based on his body weight).

Canal Lock View

Since it is a commercial enterprise, there are significant fees to be paid, paperwork to be completed, and criteria to be met before transiting – even for a little boat like ours. This can be handled the easy way, which is where you pay a Canal Agent anywhere from $400-$700 plus the canal fees to do all the administration and paperwork for you. Or you can do it the hard way, which is what we did and, quite frankly, didn’t turn out to be all that hard.

Container

The first step is to arrange to have your boat measured (the official term is Admeasurement) so they can determine how much you are going to pay. To do this we jumped on a 25-cent Panama city bus and went to the Admeasurer’s Office where we received all the information we needed to do the transit (they provide a 5-page summary), and completed a form with our boat and contact details to make an appointment for the Admeasurer to come to our boat (while it was at anchor i.e. we didn’t have to pay to go in a marina) the following Monday.  So far so good!!!

The following Monday the Admeasurer showed up, explained the process then measured the boat from bow to stern using a regular tape measure and me as his assistant. The best part of this, from our perspective, is that the lower threshold for the fee schedule was up to 50-feet length overall, including davits, solar panels, dinghies, anchors, sprits or any other stuff that makes your boat longer than its official document states.  In our case, Celebration is officially 47-feet and with our davits, anchors, etc. it still measured just under 50-feet, which saved us almost $500.

RJ Admeasure

The total up-front cost for Celebration including transit, admeasurement, buffer fees and damage deposit (of which $871 is returned if you do not cause any delays or damage) was just under $2,000 that had to be PAID IN CASH at the Citibank located across from the Admeasurer’s office. So, after a few trips to the ATM, we jumped back on the 25-cent city bus and paid our fees. Once this was done, we had to wait 24-hours for the bank to confirm payment with the Transit Authority after which we were able to call the Master Scheduler directly by phone to schedule our transit.

Per our previous post, Audrey’s brother John and sister-in-law Lynda from Canada, and our friends Paul and Jean Swenson from California were flying in to be “line handlers” so we called the Master Scheduler asap to see if we could schedule our preferred date and it was no problem. He didn’t give us any details. He just said, “You’re all set” then hung up.

Line Handlers1

Technically, this was the end of the administration process – at least until transit – but we knew from experience (Audrey had already helped our friends on Manaia transit) that you are supposed to call the Master Scheduler the day before your scheduled transit to ensure it hasn’t been changed, and for them to let you know what time the Transit Advisor (who is like a pilot and required to be onboard by the Canal Authority) will be at your boat. Still, so far, so good!!!

Besides fees and paperwork, the other requirements are you have to have 4 strong lines (ropes) that are at least 125-feet long and at least 6 very durable fenders (to prevent boat damage), and your boat must be able to motor at least 5 knots (this allows a small boat to transit in 2 days but if you can motor faster you may be able to do it in one). We didn’t have 125-foot lines so we arranged to rent lines and tires (to supplement our fenders) for $60 from “Tito”. He’s based in Colon and delivers to Panama City but we were able to get his tires and lines from a boat that had just transited southbound from the Caribbean and was in the same anchorage as us. All I had to do was dinghy over and pile all the stuff in.

RJ Tires Lines

OK, so we’ve been measured, we paid our fees, we have a scheduled date, and we have lines, tires and line handlers (John, Lynda, Paul and Jean). Is this was people are paying $400-$700 for? Did we miss something?

The day before our transit, we called the Master Scheduler and he confirmed that we were still on and that our Transit Advisor was scheduled to arrive at 7:00 am. He also said we should call Flamenco Signal Station on the VHF in the morning to ensure there were no changes. The next morning we all woke “raring to go” and though our Transit Advisor Freddie was postponed until 8:00 am, we were under way by 8:30 am and passing under the Bridge of the Americas by 9:00 am. I guess we didn’t miss anything and we saved quite a lot of money with DIY.

Auds Control Bridge of Americas2

Now, in defense of Agents, if you are on a schedule and need to transit quickly it is best to use an agent because DIY does take time AND, we are told, agents are familiar with the schedulers and administrators and more likely to get your preferred date. They also assist with Customs and Immigration, locating line handlers, and getting lines and tires. It’s also a matter of your own “comfort zone” with foreign officials and whether you speak a little Spanish. Our advice is if you have the time and are comfortable with following “official” procedures, which you almost have to be with this lifestyle (e.g. customs, immigration, port captains, etc), do it yourself. It was relatively easy, the Canal officials were very nice and all of them spoke some English. Plus, of course, the savings can buy a lot of boat goodies…

So, we now have Freddie and The Linehandlers (it’s a new band) onboard and we’re motoring to the Miraflores locks, the first 3 of 6 in the Panama Canal system. At this point, Freddie tells us that we are going in the locks with a cruise ship (a small one) and a 62-foot catamaran that we are going to raft (tie-up) against.  He also tells us that if we can get through the Miraflores locks then get through the canal and Gatun Lake and be at Gatun locks by 5:00 pm we should be able to complete our transit in one day (most small boat transits take 2-days, especially those heading southbound), which is good news.

Celebration Canal1Raft1

The other good news is the owner/captain of the 62-foot catamaran is none other than Eric Bauhaus, author of The Panama Cruising Guide, which is the best boating guide on Panama and the one we use. And, since we are rafted together and he has the larger boat, he is in control of the raft and has to drive during lock entry, operation and exit. This makes our locking a lot easier as we are happy to know that our partner has transited many times and knows what he’s doing, and that all we need to do is handle our lines in the locks, stay alert at all times, and keep our engine running in neutral – just in case.

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Still, there were a couple of tense moments at the beginning. First, we had to tie the two boats together to form the raft just before entering the lock, which requires a great deal of coordination with boats of difference size, wind and current in the canal, and two different crews who all have different experiences rafting. But, after some maneuvering we managed to form a raft and were prepared to be “buddy boats” for the day.

Raft2

Then, we had to quickly master the infamous Panama Canal Monkey Fists. These are long lines with a weighted ball (Monkey Fist) on the end that the lock employees throw from the wall to your boat  in order to transfer the 125-foot lines from our boat to the lock wall. You catch the line/ball (before it can hit you in the head or worse your solar panels) then tie it around the loop in your 125-foot line so they can pull it up to secure it to the bollards/cleats on the wall. Once they are secured and the lock is operating the line handlers either release the slack or take up the slack depending upon whether you are locking up (as we did in on the Pacific side) or down (as we did on the Caribbean side). It sounds easy but there is so much turbulence in the lock that you and the other boat(s) on the raft have to work together to ensure the whole raft stays in the center. If you don’t something very ugly could happen, hence the tires strapped to the side of our boat.

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With that, we started our trip through one of mankind’s great marvels of engineering. Our raft entered the Miraflores locks around 10:00 am and, with an audience of snap-happy tourists at the visitor’s center, we waved goodbye to the Pacific Ocean as the gigantic lock gates closed. Two and a half hours later with our stress level considerably lower, we were through the first three locks and 100 feet above the Pacific Ocean.

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Then, with smiles on our faces, we carefully untied the raft and began our 27-mile motor through the scenic canal and Gatun Lake. This, of course, was the easiest and most enjoyable part of the transit. We started with a wonderful lunch then all took turns driving (staying on our side of the marked channel to avoid the huge tankers and container ships coming the other way) while the rest of the crew took pictures, rested, sunbathed, or napped.

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As planned, we arrived at the Gatun locks at 4:30 pm and even managed to tie onto one of the canal mooring balls to relax for a while before our locking time, which had been pushed back to 5:30 pm. But, as our appointment time approached, there was a hubbub between the two advisors (ours and the one on the catamaran) and the Cristobal Control Station because Control wanted a third boat to join our raft but our advisors said it would make the raft too wide and we’d end up on the wall, which we definitely did not want. Eventually they agreed that the third boat would go solo along the wall then our raft would go in behind them and we would be followed by a commercial vessel.

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Of course, by the time this was all arranged the “little” cruise ship that we had transited the first three locks with had already gone and we ended up with a massive Panamax oil tanker that looked to us like it was going to crush us. It had what appeared to be inches of clearance on each side and ended up stopping just 30 feet or so behind us (each lock is 110 feet wide and 1,000 feet long). This may sound like lots of room but when they are that big they can’t stop on a dime. Fortunately, the canal uses “mules” (small locomotives) to control these behemoths while they are in the locks and, once we knew we could all fit, the three consecutive locks down from Gatun Lake to the Caribbean went without a hitch and we were motoring our way to “The Flats” anchorage in Colon by 8:00 pm.

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Needless to say, we were a very happy crew when we finally dropped the hook and popped the champagne. We had successfully transited the Panama Canal from the Pacific to the Caribbean in one day and aside from an “incident” with our cleat we did it uneventfully, which is just what we hoped for.

The “incident” occurred when we had to re-form the raft before Gatun locks and the port stern cleat on Celebration appeared to bend or flex under the load after we were hit by a wave from a container ship, which definitely isn’t supposed to happen. In fact, it flexed so much that it cracked our wooden toerail and we ended up securing the raft to one of our primary winches — just in case (maybe a new backing plate! Oh well, another “fix-it” project to add to our to-do list).

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Transiting the Panama Canal on our own boat was most likely (never say never) a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us and definitely an item that we can cross of our Bucket List. Besides the overall experience, which will stay with all of us forever, highlights included seeing the construction of the new canal lanes (bigger, wider, longer, more fees) that are being built; motoring past General Noriega’s prison; the girl in the bikini on the 62-foot catamaran that caused the lock worker to completely miss our boat when throwing the monkey fist (not that any of us guys noticed her…); motoring across Gatun Lake with the wind howling at 25-30 knots; being amazed by the sheer magnitude of the canal system and all its logistics involved (including tugs, ports, maintenance) as well as the fact that it was built over 100 years ago; and being able to share this amazing experience with John, Lynda, Paul, Jean and, through this blog, with all of our family and friends.

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Transiting the Panama Cana may not be for everyone but if you are at all interested, we highly recommend a cruise, a local (Panama) tour or, better yet, volunteer to be a “line handler” on someone else’s boat – it’s much cheaper than taking your own..:-)

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4 thoughts on “The Deets on Our Panama Canal Transit

  1. Excellent report from the front. It sounds like the kind of story you’ll be boring people with for decades.

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