Thought I'd post our Panama Canal
experience, since it's hard to find information on Pacific to Atlantic transits, and especially how to do it without an agent! Overall I feel very lucky that we had such a great experience, so I hope this might be useful to somebody out there!
A quick summary:
- We heard it would be really complicated to do the paperwork without an agent. This is a crock. NOT using an agent saved us $300-$800, depending on who you ask, and a whole bunch of headache
- Getting lines organized was maybe the hardest part of the logistics
- We transitted 7 days after first ever contacting the Panama Canal folks -- the exact same amount of time that folks using agents were getting
- We started the process from Bahia Benao, where we emailed in our information
- We did NOT hire line handlers, and we had no issues in the locks
- We were centre-chamber (alone) for all 6 locks, despite everyone saying this never happens!
Here's what we did...
Tuesday, March 25th:
Using the instructions and PDF form found on noonsite (Transiting the Panama Canal without an Agent: Cruisers' Report â€” Noonsite
), we emailed form 4405.pdf to the Panama Canal
) from Bahia
Benao (just before Punta Mala)
: I didn't know that we needed to email
a copy of the boat's registration
and the Captain's passport with this form.***
Wednesday, March 26th:
Having arrived in Panama
City, I called the admeasurement office to confirm they'd received our form. They asked me to send the registration
& passport scans. I sent those in, and then called back. At this point the office said they could send the admeasurer that morning, or the next day if we liked. We thought we were ready, but then the admeasurer's office asked if we had all lines and tires/fenders ready to show the admeasurer. We did not!
: I didn't know we needed to have lines & tires on the boat
ready for the Admeasurer to inspect. This set us back 1 day and probably should have been the first thing we tried to organize. I asked on the local VHF
net for advice
on how to get lines / tires.
: There are lots of tires behind the garbage dumpster at La Playita (and they were already wrapped in garbage bags which was great! just make sure you spray them with roach spray before you bring them out to the boat
so you don't have any unwanted visitors!). We rented lines from Rogelio, a local taxi driver with great English
& knowledge (507-6717-6745 or firstname.lastname@example.org
: This is also a good time to start taking out cash. If you're like me, your bank will only let you take out a certain amount per day ($500 in my case), and you need to have $1875 cash ($891 of which is a 'buffer' that you get back) to give to the bank once you're measured, if you're under 50' overall.
Thursday, March 27th:
We had confirmed that Rogelio would rent us lines, but we didn't actually have them in-hand yet. Being quite motivated to not lose any time, I called the admeasurers office and said we would have everything organized if they could come that day. They said they'd be at the boat at 11:00. Since we were already in the La Playita anchorage, we did not have to move anywhere. We borrowed somebody else's lines, strung up the tires we'd scavenged from the dumpster (cruising is so classy), and were in the middle of cleaning
up the boat when the Admeasurer arrived (on his small pilot boat) at 10:00 am. One hour early!
The Admeasurer was incredibly nice, taking great joy in telling us about his true passion, his BBQ restaurant (go find the "BBQ Love Club", behind Plaza Centennial in downtown Panama -- you won't regret it!). He was onboard for less than an hour, and then his pilot boat picked him up again. He left us with 3 sets of forms, including a bank form to get your deposit back, that we took with us to the bank.
By 12:30 we were at the Citybank in Niko's Plaza. The faster you pay your transit fees
, the faster you can get a transit date. I didn't know how far it was from La Playita, so we overpaid the taxi (it should be around $3 -- it's closer than Albrook Mall). 12:30 is a bad time to arrive at the bank though -- the only person who was capable of taking our paperwork was on lunch.
: Have a coffee at Niko's Cafe beside the bank. It was the most delicious espresso we had in all of Panama! There is also an ATM inside the cafe, so you can take out the remainder of any cash you might still need.
We went back to the Citybank at 1:15 and our guy was there. We handed over the $1875 and watched as he counted the money
.... and counted it again... and ran it through his counting machine... and counted it again... Not sure what that was about, but I think he literally counted our bills 7 times before he seemed satisfied with it. We then watched him fax the confirmation and then he sent us on our way.
Friday, March 28th:
I called the Transit Scheduler folks (507 272 4202) the next morning after the bank. I was informed that we would most likely transit Tuesday, but that I should call back on Sunday to confirm.
: I'd read (on noonsite) that you should call the Transit Scheduler folks the same night that you go to the bank, but I thought that seemed ridiculous. Why would they be open late? My mistake. I think they are probably open close to 24 hours/day. I definitely should have called that same night.
Sunday, March 30th:
I called the Transit folks again, yes they were open on Sunday, and they confirmed that we would be transitting Tuesday, but said we needed to call again on Monday to confirm the time. We also got our lines from Rogelio on Sunday and confirmed that our line-handlers (friends from another boat) were ready to go.
Monday, March 31st:
Called Transit folks, confirmed 7:00 am the next morning.
Tuesday, April 1st:
7:00 am we had the anchor
up and were doing loops around the moorings. 8:00 am the advisor arrived onboard, and informed us that we were scheduled to lock through at 9:00 am. The first lock is 6.5 miles from La Playita, and we had a 3-knot counter-current running against us.
: We didn't even think to consider the tides. Who would think that you could have counter-current RIGHT UP TO THE FIRST LOCK?? But we did, and it meant we were way behind schedule right off the bat.
: If you can get work
it out to transit on a day that has a morning flood, you'd do yourself a huge favour. Especially if you're a smaller boat (like us) that can only motor
at 5 knots on a good day!
On this note actually, there were a LOT of rumours about this mythical "5 knot
minimum" that they ask for. We wrote down that we can do 5 knots, and we can. Through the water
. When we had 3 knots of counter-current and were doing 2.5 knots over ground, we just focused on keeping our advisor happy and calm, and pushing as hard as we felt we safely could.
When we got to the first lock, we were informed that we were too late and had missed our ship. The advisor was on his radio
, worried that our "transit may be void" (I don't know what this would have meant, and I'm glad we didn't have to find out!). 2 ships later there was a ship that was small enough for us to lock through with them, so we entered behind them. We were centre-chamber, alone (ie not tied to another sailboat or a tug or the wall). This meant that all 4 line-handlers were VERY busy for both days.
We received the 4 small lines (with their hard monkey fists) no problem, and were ready to send our big lines up right away. The folks working the lines didn't seem very interested in securing our lines quickly though -- they took their time and seemed quite oblivious to our angst! Until the 4 big lines are secured to the bollards you are at the mercy of the lock to keep your boat in the middle of everything.
: At one point the advisor asked me to give the boat a shot of reverse to stop our forward progress. I knew this would kick us sideways (we don't back up straight!), but listened to him anyways. The back of the boat kicked to Port, the bow threw to Starboard, and although we were still far away from the wall, we were quite crooked. It took some yelling to get the 4 lines secured on the bollards, and then some serious brute strength to pull the bow back to centre. It was not possible to motor
the boat back to centre -- there was too much current
But no harm, no foul. The 2nd lock the same thing happened -- slightly cock-eyed, but not close to the walls. I explained my problem with giving the boat reverse, and the advisor (bless his heart) had no problem altering directions for the 3rd lock. We coasted in on neutral for this lock, no reverse, and the boat never went sideways at all.
Also in this first lock, we underestimated the pull on the lines. I was so sick of people saying that you needed "big strong men" to be linehandlers -- you don't. What you need is people with common sense that will listen and work
as a team. Anyways, at one point a line started to slip through one of our line-handlers hands (it was through the chock but not wrapped around anything). I tried to help get the line on the winch
, and in the process wrapped my hand under a line. Luckily -- super, super, luckily -- I was able to snatch my hand out from under that huge strain with just a scrape and some bad bruising. For the remaining locks we tried to always have a wrap on a winch
(aft lines) or around the cleat (front lines).
Once we were through the 3rd lock, we had the long motor through Gatun lake ahead of us. For boats going to the Atlantic from the Pacific, what this means is a 28nm motor that is primarily against the wind
AND against the current
. Yes, there is current in the lake. Don't ask me how!
: Read the book "The Path Between Two Seas". It's long, parts
are hard reading, but it made the whole process and the motor through Gatun lake so much more meaningful. It is INCREDIBLE how much work went into this canal!
We arrived at the mooring
ball at 9:00 pm. We'd fed everyone lunch and dinner, and were more than ready to be tied up for the night! If we had made our first ship we would have been 1-2 hours earlier, but still after dark.
Wednesday, April 2nd:
We'd heard that there can be lots of confusion about when your advisor will show up on the second day. I started calling "Cristobal Traffic Control" at 6:30am, and they were able to tell us when our advisor would arrive right away. You could also call them to confirm if anything was seeming off.
Down-locking was much easier. We knew (more) what we were doing, we were excited to see the Caribbean
ahead of us, and we knew that family
was watching at home on the live webcams (Multimedia - PanCanal.com
I tried to explain to our 2nd advisor that I would strongly prefer to not put the boat in reverse; he didn't like this. In the first lock, when he said "Reverse!" I simply did nothing. He got agitated and yelled "REVERSE LEAH!" so at the last possible moment I quickly switched in to reverse, waited 10 seconds, and popped it back in neutral. This earned me a nice lecture from the advisor ("I am like your doctor, what I say to do you must do!") but I didn't care.
Lots of people say this and it's true: YOU know your boat better than they do, so do what makes sense to you!
We continued this silly charade through the next 2 locks (I don't think our advisor was too keen on dealing with a woman Captain
, but that is fairly par for the course down here!)... in the end I think I won him over because we stayed completely centered, no issues, all the way through. Our advisor was especially nervous about the last lock, as apparently he'd had a boat go squirelly on him the day before. It was smooth for us.
Once we were out we dropped the advisor off just outside the locks and then proceeded to Shelter Bay Marina. We tossed the tires in the garbage (nobody wanted them which was too bad -- it would have been nice to pass them on to another cruiser going the other way!) and emailed Rogelio who organized the pickup of his lines. Just a note, the internet
at Shelter Bay is very slow (and costs $10!) but the laundry
($4/load) and the showers are great.
And that's it! Way more information than you ever wanted on the Panama Canal
I wouldn't have bothered to write all of this, but honestly the number of cruisers we know -- and know personally, not just 2nd hand through the cruisers' rumour mill -- that used agents or hired line handlers and had horror stories was just too much for me to not say anything. Everything from agents not properly confirming transit dates (so they were all ready to go and then got told last minute that nothing was happening), to charging
($400 agent fee plus $120/line handler plus bank fees
plus who-knows-what-fees), to scaring us with how much work it was going to be (it was one email
, one call to the Admeasurer's office, one trip to the bank, and one phone
call to the scheduler.... that is NOT a lot of work!!!).
Long story short, the Panama Canal was a great experience, having friends as line handlers made it all the sweeter, it was a very cool milestone in our sailing lives, and it's an engineering feat that we are still marvelling over. Well worth the money!!
PS - The only piece that's missing from this story is the refund of the "buffer". It's been 3 weeks and we are still waiting, but we've been told it can take up to 6 weeks for them to wire you the $891 buffer back. Fingers crossed!