Crossing the isthmus

"El Canal esta de nosotros!!!" A huge billboard in the center of Panama City refers to the obvious pride of the Jan. 1, 2000, transfer of control of the Canal from the United States to Panama.

After many rumors about new, sky-high fees since the Panamanians gained control of their Canal, the truth is that passage is still affordable.

Though the ACP (Panama Canal Authority) works as a well-oiled organization, and the transfer of a yacht is typically managed with hardly any problems, there are a few facts that, when known beforehand, can make the preparations for the passage and the stay in the canal area a lot easier.

We entered Panama at Porvenir in the San Blas Islands, where we cleared customs and obtained our cruising permit and contrary to past procedure, these documents are now valid for all Panamanian waters. Immigration is at the yacht club, both in Balboa and Cristobal, and the port captain’s offices, where the cruising permit has to be bought, are only a short cab ride away.

To start off, the canal transit procedure requires just one phone call (Cristobal: 443-2293, Balboa: 272-4571) to make an appointment for measuring and the required inspection of your vessel.

If arriving from the Caribbean Sea and approaching the breakwaters at Colón Harbor, it is prudent to contact Cristobal Signal Station, the traffic control center, on VHF Channel 12. Cristobal is the harbor district of the bustling city of Colón. It’s a busy area with lots of traffic and ships waiting at anchor. Small, scrubby coasters; big, sleek tuna fishing boats with their high crow’s nests and their little helicopters tied-up on top of their bridges; the odd navy vessel; tankers; container vessels; and the high, square boxes of car-carriers.

We made this passage recently, aboard our 40-foot steel ketch Terra Nova. Once inside, one can head for the Flats, the little ships anchorage (free) or the Panama Canal Yacht Club ($.38/foot). Space at the PCYC docks is limited, and there is no reservation system; just take any free spot. When anchoring on the Flats, we made sure to use plenty of scope and dug the anchor in well. We took the dinghy to the yacht club and left it at the dinghy dock – at no cost.

Here we found a fuel dock, good drinking water, a bar, restaurant, laundry machines and even Internet access. The PCYC is a good place to have mail forwarded:

Your Name Yacht name c/o Panama Canal Yacht Club Apartado 5041br> Cristobal Republic of Panama

Make sure ‘Republic’ is added to the address; otherwise mail might end up somewhere in Panama City.)

Terra Nova had been through the Canal before, and when I gave our Ship’s Identification Number for making an appointment, the friendly lady at the other side of the telephone line gave me a big shock: Terra Nova was registered as 50 feet overall. I requested a re-measurement, since in the days of her first transit, the LOA was not so important.

Then, canal fees for yachts were calculated by tonnage, like it is done for commercial vessels. Now, 50 feet happens to be an arbitrary dividing line for transit fees and makes a difference of $250! (See below for specific fees.) Topping up our mizzen boom solved the problem: our new LOA became 48.55 feet.

This admeasurement is a very serious matter: it’s the length overall, measured between lead lines. It includes everything from pulpit to windvane protrusions. Before the admeasurer comes on board, be sure to have four long lines onboard, at least 125-foot (38-meter) strong lines with no knots or splices. Bear in mind that during the process of locking through, the forces on these lines can be enormous. Lines can be rented from the yacht club or from professional line handlers that offer their services at the club.

The admeasurer will look at the cleats and fairleads, but of course the prudent skipper will have long since made sure these vital parts are in good condition and well secured. See that there is ample working room for the four line handlers, including deck space to coil-up their long lines, so they will run without getting fouled. A horn has to be onboard; our admeasurer did not approve of our beautiful brass blowing horn, but somehow we came up with an aerosol horn that was acceptable. A yacht visited by another admeasurer had no problem getting their blowing horn approved.

The admeasurer will point out that it is necessary to have something to cover your solar panels. The line handlers at the locks use large monkey fists at the ends of their hauling lines. Although they are amazingly accurate line throwers, the Canal Authority does not accept responsibility for damage to yachts and their crews.The admeasurer then explains the procedure for transiting the canal:

– An advisor will be onboard during the passage. This is not usually a qualified pilot, but a pilot in training or tugboat captain. It is good to remember that the yacht’s safety is always the responsibility of the skipper! During our transit, we disagreed a couple of times with our advisor’s advice, which was hard for him because my wife Corri was mostly at the helm, and our advisor was not an enlightened feminist.

– Besides a helmsman and an advisor, a yacht needs to have four line handlers onboard, capable of managing the lines under heavy loads. It has always been a good practice between voyaging people to help each other when line handlers are needed.

Image Credit: Willem Stein
Whether you choose to transit north or south, a passage through the Canal takes roughly one day to complete.

If you can get aboard someone else’s boat before transiting your own, it makes your own transit that much more relaxed. During our 25 years of voyaging, we have noticed many changes in the camaraderie between voyaging folks, so it did not come as a big surprise to find a few yachts anchored at the flats that offered services for $50 per line handler!

The ‘professional’ line handlers are usually cab drivers. If you need one in Cristobal, we can highly recommend our friend Rudy – we never learned his last name. We saw him and his friend at work on the boat we were rafted to when going through the locks; he knew what he was doing and stayed alert. Another possibility for getting line handlers is to invite a couple of backpackers. Lots of young people traveling through Central America stop in Panama and are eager to make a canal passage. Of course, they don’t all have boating experience. There are a couple of hostels in Panama City, and a notice on the board there quickly scares up a handful of capable hands.The admeasurer continued:

– There are three different types of locking available:

1. Alongside the lock-wall. This technique is not recommended unless the yacht is quite large. The walls are made of rough concrete, and at times the turbulence will push a yacht hard against the wall. The rigging could also hit the wall and become entangled.

2. Alongside a commission tug. This is by far the easiest way of locking. Just tie up to a tug after it has been moored in the lock chamber. No need to keep the lines tight when the level rises or falls. The only problem is that there are not always tugs going through the locks.

3. The most commonly used locking technique is ‘center chamber’ mooring. A yacht can do this either alone or rafted up with one or more yachts.

The admeasurer explained the ins and outs of these techniques; the skipper is given the option.

After signing a couple forms, including, of course, an indemnifying form, the transit fee and buffer have to be paid. (See sidebar on fees.) The buffer is used in case additional charges are incurred during the transit and is refunded in most cases. Payment has to be done at the Citibank either in Cristobal or Balboa. This payment can be done in cash or by Visa credit card. No checks or other credit cards are accepted.

Image Credit: Willem Stein
The admeasurer comes aboard Terra Nova to inspect dimensions.

If paid in cash, the buffer will eventually be refunded with a Citibank check sent to your postal address. This can take months! With a Visa card, the card-slip, pay-order form will just be destroyed if there was no need for the commission to use the buffer fee.

Our Visa card has a maximum allowance of $500 per day, and it took us a while to convince the Citibank employee that all could be solved if we paid the transit fee in cash and the buffer in two days by Visa card.

Once the financial part has been arranged, the Traffic Schedule Center can be contacted (272-4202) to obtain the date of the transit. One day prior to the transit, it is prudent to call again to find out what time the advisor will come onboard.

Normally, the start is early in the morning, and if no delays arise, the transit will mostly be made in one day. However, one should be prepared for passage to take two days. In that case, there is an overnight anchoring stop at Gamboa, just about halfway if you are heading for the Pacific. Going north, the overnight stop is close to the Gatún Locks. No one is allowed to leave their boat at the anchorages except the advisor. He goes home for the night and shows up next morning.

Since most yachts don’t have enough fenders onboard to cover both sides from bow to stern, lots of old car tires are available. Ready to use, wrapped in plastic, they can be bought in either town. It is best to check with the cab drivers at the yacht clubs. We went into Colón and got as many tires as we wanted from a big garage opposite the Cable and Wireless building.

Image Credit: Willem Stein
Used car tires, available at either end of the Canal, make sturdy fenders. Be sure to wrap them in plastic.

Having been at anchor at the Flats, we decided to go into the PCYC marina for the last night, so we did not have to clean the anchor chain in the early (dark) hours of the transit day. And cleaning had to be done indeed: the bottom at The Flats consists of a thick layer of heavy mud.

It is a good idea to call Cristobal Signal Station on Channel 12 after 2200 on the evening before your transit to ask for a confirmation, since sometimes the plan changes, in which case you can inform your line handlers.

You can also check on VHF very early in the morning to confirm the time again. The advisor will come onboard at the Flats, so have the VHF on standby, in case there are some last minute alterations.From the Pacific

On the Pacific side, there is a good and relatively sheltered anchorage behind Flamingo Island (08° 55′ N, 079° 31.5′ W). Landing the dinghy here was a bit of a hassle, due to the big tidal difference, up to about 20 feet. Flamingo Island has hourly bus service to Panama City. Close to the dinghy landing near the two restaurants is a garbage container where westbound voyagers leave their tire-fenders after their transit. The admeasurer, however, does not come to this anchorage. If you’re eastbound, you have to anchor on the west side of Flamingo Island, or take a mooring at the Balboa Yacht Club. The Balboa Yacht Club moorings have a few drawbacks:

– At $.50/foot/night, the club is expensive. This includes the 24-hour launch service. Dinghies cannot be left at the dock. Besides the mooring fee, there is a one-time membership fee of $25.

– The mooring area is subject to heavy swells, especially when the pilot launches are passing at high speeds.

– The mooring floats are densely grown with sharp barnacles. Due to strong tidal currents and sometimes opposite winds, it is difficult to stay clear of these scrapers. One yacht reported heavy damage of the gel-coat below the waterline!

A new marina will be opened soon between Flamingo Island and Perico Island. Two new breakwaters created a sheltered bay. In June 2001, the travel lift was already in operation and a fuel dock was available. The prices for a haulout are at ‘Florida level’ and we expect the mooring fees are comparable. For the latest information you might check their website: The yacht clubs at both sides of the canal have marine railways where small to moderate-sized boats can be hauled out.

After investigating both possibilities, we chose Balboa, mainly because of the more reasonably priced services. A disadvantage of the rail at Balboa is that it cannot be used for keelboats around a neap tide. Three days of hard work, sometimes brusquely interrupted by heavy rain showers (June is within the rainy season), made Terra Nova ready to go south.

Nothing but positive reports reached us about Pedro Miguel Boat Club (PMBC) and its marina, situated in the canal between Pedro Miguel Locks and Miraflores Locks, close to Panama City. It’s a good place to work on the boat or tie up to do some inland exploring. Some people stay there for months. The only drawback is the fact that some of the dock spaces are close to the entrance of the Pedro Miguel Locks and the surge of the passing traffic can be tremendous.

It is also possible to haul out there, but sailboat crews have to take their masts down. The canal authorities have to be notified beforehand for a stop there, and it is only allowed if you have made a reservation at the PMBC. To do so, call 232-4160, 232-4509 or 232-4985.Some facts about the Canal

For hundreds of years people explored, to various lengths, the possibility of building a canal that connected the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. After building a railway across the isthmus during the 1860s, some thought the next step would be to build a heavy rail system that could haul commercial vessels to the other side! Before the Canal site was selected, several different routes were studied, including: one in the south of Mexico, two through Nicaragua and Costa Rica, two in Panama, which by then was a part of Colombia, and one through present-day Colombia.

The French had a lot of experience after building the Suez Canal, and so it was a French company that started to dig the Panama Canal in 1881.

After 20 years of struggling with tropical disease and financial difficulty, they abandoned the job, having finished approximately one-third of the project. In 1904, the U.S. government obtained the rights to finish the Canal, and on Jan. 7, 1914, the first ship passed through.

The length of the Canal, from the Gatún Locks at the Caribbean side to the Miraflores Locks at the Pacific side, is 32 miles. At both ends, three lock chambers raise the ships to the highest point of the Canal, at 85 feet above sea level. The sizes of the lock chambers are 1,000 by 110 feet, allowing ships of 965 feet in length and 106 feet in beam to pass through. All of the 40 pairs of lock miter gates date back to the Canal construction days.

If voyaging people think the canal fees are high, consider this fact: the Ro-Ro cargo vessel Sisler has paid the highest dues so far. In January 2000, the fee was $184,114.80 to make the transit!

All these facts and much more can be found in the Museo del Canal Interoceanico in Casco Viejo, the old part of Panama City.

Image Credit: Willem Stein
‘Locking up’ astern of a merchant vessel. Even though locomotives move the ships, heavy turbulence from the propeller is generated when ships exit the locks. Similarly, when lock doors open and close, currents are severe.

Interesting information about the Panama Canal can be found at their website: They even have a web cam pointed at the Miraflores Locks. When Terra Nova passed these locks, a lot of friends back home watched us. After an email request from one of them (to, the camera was even zoomed-in on us!Provisioning

Especially if you are heading for the islands in the South Pacific, Panama is the place to stock up. Cristobal is the most convenient place to do bulk shopping. There are a couple of supermarkets in the center of Colón and a few big ones a couple of miles out of town. If you intend to buy much or go together with other cruising people, give Super 99 a call, and they will pick you up at the yacht club with their old school bus. There are lots of hardware stores in Colón, but for yachting equipment you have to go into Panama City. And even there, the choices are very limited.

Image Credit: Willem Stein
Rudy, a professional line handler hired on the Caribbean side, poses during an idle moment while vessels are rafted up in a lock.

Colón’s Free Zone, a holdover from the days of the U.S.-controlled Canal Zone, is a couple square miles filled with tax-free shops, most of them only sell larger quantities – and no food. A company called Motta (433-2000) sells alcoholic beverages by the box and audio and video equipment by item. It only pays if you go together with other yachties, since there is a fee of $50 to get the goods out of the zone and have it delivered to the yacht club. Just see one of the long-time residents at the yacht club.Safety

Panama and Colón are notorious for robberies. If you don’t show your wealth and if you stay on the busy main roads, the chances of encountering problems are small. The road from the yacht club premises into the town used to be a dangerous stretch, even during daylight. Ever since the bushes were taken down and high fences built along this road, it has been quite safe to walk into town. If you don’t feel secure, there are always taxis available at the club that take two people anywhere into the center of Colón for $1.25.

Once through the locks, we spent a few days outfitting Terra Nova for the next leap, the Galapagos. We spent so many days rushing around the cities and arranging paperwork; it was a thrill to think of the journey ahead. The wide Pacific beckoned.

Corri and Willem Stein traveled to Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador, for the next step of their journey aboard Terra Nova, then on to the Galapagos.Panama Canal FeesBoat sizeTransit feeBufferUnder 50 feet$500$80050 to 79 feet$750$65080 to 99 feet$1,000$700100 feet and above$1,500$900

By Ocean Navigator