Panama Canal Transit (as of 2012) - Atlantic to Pacific
Just completed an East to West transit of the Panama Canal
on January 22nd and 23rd. Below are the procedures to check in through customs
and immigration and the Canal Authority. I have included waypoints for anchorages
, locations for the various officials, and telephone numbers for agents and taxi drivers. In Colon and Crystobal the taxi driver is the best source of information for the cruiser.
There are two channels through the breakwall into the canal area on the Atlantic side. It is advisable to enter through the East channel as it avoids the majority of the large ships which use the main or West channel. Large ships also use the East channel but there is less traffic here.
Inside the breakwall there are three locations for the cruiser to stop; Club Nautico in Colon (n9 21.8 w79.5), Shelter Bay Marina on the West side of the entrance (n9 22.1 w79 56.9), or The Flats near Crystobal (n9 20.6 w79 54.8). The anchorage near Club Nautico is the better of the three as it is close to the marina dock
and costs only $5US per day for the dingy. It is also close to the supermarket and has water
and diesel fuel
available. They have dock
space but it is very limited and used by commercial
boats. The anchorage on The Flats is free but has no nearby dock. The marina in Shelter Bay is distant from the supermarket and costs $1.20 per foot per day with a minimum charge of $50US if you are under 40 feet in length.
I anchored near Club Nautico because I entered the East channel near sundown and simply looked for masts with the binoculars. I headed toward the first ones I saw and anchored along with three other boats just outside the main channel. The anchorage is tight and gets turbulent periodically when large cruise
ships use the nearby turning basin to spin 180 degrees allowing them to back into the cruise ship
terminal just South of the anchorage. I was there 10 days and saw about 6 cruise
ships enter, however only two caused turbulence in the anchorage. The boats here are reasonably safe and there was always other cruisers nearby. The fewest number of boats with me there were 3 and the maximum was 16.
The information below regarding customs
and immigration are based on a landing at Club Nautico in Colon. It may be different if you land at one of the other 2 locations.
When you make landfall at Club Nautico you must first see the Port Captain
to receive a Declaration. Check with the office to find him as he is not always there. The office is where you pay for your dingy dockage and is near the main gate on the left just past the Arricefes Restaurant. The grounds are gated with a security
guard so ask him for assistance if you have difficulty. My Spanish is limited to please and thank you, hello and good bye, so anyone can negotiate the language barrier. Just be polite. The Port Captain
will require a copy of passports for all persons onboard, a copy of your vessels registry, a clearance form from your last port especially if coming from the US, and a copy of the crew list. The crew list needs the following information; vessel name and country of registry, name of each crew member
, birth date, nationality, and passport number. It is best to print the crew list before arrival and have at least 10 copies on hand as well as 10 copies of all passports and 10 copies of the vessels registry. If you do not things take substantially longer. I did not have the clearance form from my departure in Miami
but since I did not have a passport stamp from the US I was able to convince the Port Captain that I came direct from Canada
and ony stopped in Miami
With your Customs Declaration in hand, as well as copies of the documents mentioned above and all crew members, you then head
to the Port Authority at the 'Port of Colon'. It is a large warehouse type building near the cruise ship
terminal and is visible to the South of the anchorage. Exit the main gate of the Club Nautico marina and go left. It is about a 5 to 10 minute walk and is dinstinctly marked with 'Port of Colon' above the main entrance. Simply show your passport to the gate guard and point at the building and he will escort you to the right location. Here you will have your passports stamped and the process is very smooth as long as you have the Declaration and document copies mentioned above.
From here you need to go the the immigration office in downtown Colon. Take a taxi for a fee of $1US as directions are difficult and walking the streets of Colon is not recommended. At this office you will again need to present copies of all documents as well as passports. You will get your passports stamped with a visa. The fee for this is $10US and I believe that is for each visa. I am a solo sailor so am making educated speculation here.
You then must register with the Canal Authority to prepare for the transit. Take a taxi to the 'Crystobal signal Tower' as it is not possible to walk there. Here you must present the ever required copies mentioned above and they register your vessel for a transit. They then give you a phone
number to call when you are ready to transit as someone from the 'Admeasures Office' must come aboard to inspect your vessel. There is no fee here and you should get the taxi to wait for you as this building is beyond the docklands and is secluded.
In order to transit you must have 4 line handlers besides the helmsman, 4 lines a minimum of 125 feet in length and 7/8 inch in diameter, as well as adequate fenders. It is recommended that for fenders you use tires which when rented, come wrapped in plastic to prevents marking your hull
. The lines can be rented at a cost of $20US each, the line handlers can be anyone able bodied. If you do not have sufficient crew you can solicit crew from other vessels or hire local line handlers in the area at a cost of $90US to $110US each. There are several taxi drivers and freelancers in the area to call upon for these items and line handlers. I have listed some below including phone numbers. You may also acquire the services of an agent who will do most of the paperwork on your behalf and will supply the lines and tires as part of his fee. He will also provide line handlers at the lowest cost mentioned above.
The real benefit of using an agent is that you do not have to pay the security deposit in order to transit. The Canal Authority requires you to pay a refundable fee of (in my case) $800US which is used in the event of an emergency
so that your vessel does not impede the canal operation. That is, if you have engine
failure, you are towed at considerable cost to yourself. This fee is refunded to you via a bank account or by cheque in three weeks of transiting.
If you plan to cruise the area while in Panama
you will require a cruising permit
at a cost of $193US. It is acquired at the Port Authority in Crystobal. I was told by the Port Captain that this was required to transit the canal as I would need to present it when completing the later paperwork. However I was never asked to provide it and was told by a canal adviser that it was not necessary for a simple transit. Oddly enough the Port Captain drove me to the office in his own vehicle so that I could purchase
one. Perhaps he received a fee. I would recommend that anyone simply doing a transit and continuing on their journey save themselves the $193US. You will however require a ZARPE before transiting. This is your clearance document and must be obtained at the Port Authority in Crystobal. The fees add up to under $20US.
When you are ready to transit call the Admeasures Office and they will tell you when someone will come to The Flats to inspect your boat. You must go at the appointed time and anchor
in the area demarked by large yellow buoys to await the inspection
. The inspector is brought onboard and measures your length and beam. He also inspects your toilet, galley
, and confirms that you have a working horn. He advises you that you are required to provide meals
and bottled water for the mandatory pilot or 'canal adviser' that will accompany you through the canal. After filling out some forms, you sign them and he departs after telling you to call the office the following day to obtain your transit time. There is no fee charged here but is payable at the bank. You must pay the transit fees at the Citi Bank, which is near the Port Authority in Crystobal, before a transit time is scheduled.
On you day of transit you must again be anchored in The Flats with your required lines, fenders, and line handlers aboard by about 3pm. You then contact the 'Crystobal Signal Tower' on VHF
channel 12 and inform them that you are awaiting your pilot. They will let you know when he is due to come onboard which will be that evening.
Pleasure craft are now transited in stages over two days. The upbound portion is completed at night on the first day and you must anchor
on Gatun Lake overnight and make the 30 mile run to the downbound locks the next day. The new pilot arrives between 6:30am and 7:30am and you then head
to the downbound locks. The transit of these locks is done around noon. There are three locks upbound and they are consecutive. There are also three locks downbound but there is a one mile lake between locks one and two.
The literature indicates three methods of transit. A vessel can be center chamber with the 4 - 7/8 inch lines holding you in position, against the wall, or tied to a tug that transits along with the merchant vessel that will likely be in the lock with you. Currently however the second and third method are not used. Yachts are almost always rafted together in groups of three and transit center chamber with the 4 - 7/8 inch lines holding them in position. The raft is maintained intact for the duration of the three locks and only separated once the final lock is cleared. This is also the case for the downbound locks and the raft proceeds through the one mile lake separating downbound locks one and two intact.
Upon clearing the locks in Gatun Lake on the first night the pilot directs you to an anchorage (n9 15.6 w79 55.0) and is picked up by a pilot boat. Any local line handlers you have hired must remain onboard for the duration of the transit. They are not allowed to disembark. After clearing the downbound locks the pilot departs just before the Bridge of The Americas.
Th buoyage changes at the downbound locks as the red and green reverse according to IALA rules.
The fees for transiting for a vessel under 50 feet are currently $500Us for the transit and $54US for the inspection. The transit fee for vessels over 50 feet is $750US. I am uncertain of the upper length of this bracket.
Everyone who does paperwork for you expects a $10US tip to have things go smoothly. In a town where taxi drivers charge $1US per ride I felt in unconscionable to pay this tip when someone was simply doing their job. I did not pay these tips but was always extremely polite so my delays were not significant.
There is a free anchorage with free dock usage on the Pacific side just near Isla Perico on the East side of the breakwall (n8 55.0 w79 31.8).
Contacts (some numbers have 7 digits and some 8)
Admeasures Office (Laura) - 443 2298
Citi Bank - 441-6303
Taxi drivers for lines, bumpers, and line handlers:
Rudy - 674 37241
Joseph (works with Rudy) - 679 21969
Tito (famous in the business) - 646 35009 firstname.lastname@example.org
Centenario Consultant Agency - Erick Galvez - (507)6676 1376 or (507)232 7534 email@example.com
or firstname.lastname@example.org Centenario & Co., S.A.