Most cruisers transiting the canal from the Caribbean start their journey in Shelter Bay Marina. They are measured, the transit is scheduled (depending on the time of year, this can be anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, or you can pay $2800 and transit the next day) and tires and long lines are dropped off the day of departure. These arrangements can also be made at anchor in the uncomfortable Flats or Club Nautico. Whether you use an agent or not is up to you. An official agent makes the process smoother and easier and you don’t have to pay the high bond ($800). It is recommended to look around and inquire before choosing an agent.
My husband Mark and I joined our friends Axel and Liz on their 40ft aluminum monohull Gudrun V as line handlers. They were very happy with their agent Roy Bravo. The only other formality you need before leaving Colon is a zarpe to Balboa or to your next destination via Balboa.
Usually, up to six small yachts a day can start their transit. They anchor at the Flats, where the crew, consisting of the captain and at least four line handlers, await the arrival of the advisor around 16:00. The anchor is lifted and the boats make their way towards Gatun Locks. They are rafted up two or three abreast – if not alone – and enter the first of three chambers, where the water level is steadily raised. In a ‘threesome’, the captain of the middle boat is in charge and drives the boats through, while the other engines run idle and two line handlers on each side take up the slack. Over the span of about an hour and a half, the boats are raised a total of 85ft and enter Gatun Lake for a night’s rest.
The following morning a new advisor is expected around 06:30, only in our case, he didn’t show up until 12:30, a massive delay. For the next four hours, we had to maintain a speed of seven knots in order to make our 16:30 appointment at the Pedro Miguel lock. Rescheduling is always a possibility, flexibility a must! We raced a Panamax container ship and managed to sail some of the way, while closely following the many markers. The surroundings of Gatun Lake are lush and the quite boring muddy stretch of water is livened up with a random crocodile or iguana. Once through Gaillard Cut and under the Centennial Bridge, we made the next lock right on time, alone, and were tied to a side wall.
The distance between Pedro Miguel and the last two locks of Miraflores is one mile and by the time we reached sea level again on the Pacific side, it was dark. The total transit took about 12 hours and cost $1125. Days after we finished our Panama Canal transit, the rules changed. Because of a lack of advisors and lower water levels, only three cruising boats a day can go through and delays are longer. If you can make eight knots, you go through in one stretch (15:00 to 3:00), if not, you spend one or two nights in the lake, which is what happened to two of the other cruising boats on our transit day.
Break-down of Panama Canal Transit Costs
40ft sailing vessel, February 22nd 2012
Transit 0 to 10,000 ton: $500
Canal Inspection: $55
Security Surcharge: $55
Bank Commission: $30
Agency Fee: $350
Drop-off lines and tires at Flamenco Marina: $8 ($1 per tire)
Cruising Permit: $193
Passport check-in: $20 ($10 each)
Passport visa: $40 ($20 each)