Panama Canal chief sees future for sailboats

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In late October, the administrator of the Panama Canal Authority, Alberto Aleman Zubieta, attended a dinner in his honor in Washington, D.C. The 10 guests in attendance were all involved in international shipping interests — and one of them was a voyaging sailor. Bill Clark, who operates a freight-shipment consulting business in Washington and owns a vintage 34-foot Columbia sloop. Clark asked Zubieta about how the Canal Authority will respond to the interests of the operators of small sailboats. Following is a selection of his responses:

The Canal is operating at close to capacity and has invested heavily in recent years to achieve the level of operation now achieved by its infrastructure. If capacity (of merchant shipping) is going to increase, improvements will need to be made in water depth, including recycling of water, widening of the canal and new locks. (Panamax vessels currently have just two feet of clearance on either side when they are locked in, and many containerships being built today are too large to fit in the current Canal configuration.)

The Canal Authority wants to continue to accommodate yachts. Panama is building more marinas to accommodate the small-boat industry. According to Zubieta, small yachts (less than 100 feet) have to be transited when there is available capacity, which typically is during darkness and in rafts of other small vessels. (Transit fees for ships are about $10,000, and they get the daylight slots.) Transit fees for yachts, in U.S. dollars, are: $500 (under 50 feet); $750 for yachts between 50 and 80 feet; and $1,000 for vessels between 80 feet and 110 feet. No further fee increases are expected.

By Ocean Navigator