We transited the Panama Canal in January 2011 and we feel that much of the information in current guides and available online is out of date or incomplete. Here we explain the options and procedures for an east to west transit.
Arriving at the Caribbean breakwater, there are two entrances. If there is traffic then use the one to the east as this is for smaller vessels. Once inside, there are only two places to anchor. One, just off Club Nautico, has room for about five boats and boasts a dinghy dock for five dollars per day. The other is in Anchorage area F or what is more commonly called The Flats. This is where you pick up your pilot or advisor; admeasuring can be accomplished here, too.
Shelter Bay is the only marina in the Colon area. This is a big facility that sees tremendous turnover. According to one of the owners, Russell Goedjen, approximately 1700 transient boats come through Shelter Bay each year. The entrance channel is deep and straightforward. Before entering the channel, be sure to call the marina on VHF 74. And keep trying, they are very busy and do not always monitor their radio. Making reservations in advance, according to the office manager, doesn't always guarantee you a spot, as preference is given to boats that are already in the marina. Basically, consider a reservation like putting your name on the waiting list. The good news is that another pier is being built and this will increase mooring space.
You can make all the arrangements for transiting the canal yourself but many boats use an agent. The advantage of using an agent is that you don't have to pay the $891 deposit (called a buffer) as canal agents are registered with the canal authority (ACP) and this fee is waived. The bad news is that agents charge from $600 to $700 or more. Many people use locals who may call themselves agents or assistants but have no authority. These can be very helpful and typically charge a lot less. We went this route and spent $100 for our helper, a guy named J.C. He was very informative, arranged for tires and extra line handlers for some of the boats, came up with long dock lines, and made all the appointments for admeasuring and coordinated with the ACP for our canal transit schedule.
If you wish to do everything yourself, then call the admeasurer's office on +507 443 2293. Once the boat has been checked over and your paperwork has been given to you, call the ACP on +507 272 4202 and they will give you your transit schedule. While we were there many people were measured one day and transited the next, but a wait of a few days is typical.
On the day or your transit you go to Anchorage Area F and call Cristobal Control on VHF # 12 to request permission to anchor and to confirm your Advisor or Pilot's arrival. Canal fees in January, without an agent, were $1500 for a boat under 50ft, and $1750 for boats from 50 to 65ft. If you are less than 65ft you will normally be placed with an advisor at no additional charge. If you are over 65ft (including any davits or bowsprits) they will assign you a pilot, which costs an extra $2410, so get an accurate measurement and, if close to 65ft, consider ways to shorten up by unbolting davits etc., if at all possible.
Currently, most small craft begin their transits around 4-6pm and will only go through the first three locks before being directed to a mooring on the lake where they will spend the night. There are three ways you may go through the locks. The best is center chamber; either alone, or rafted to one or two similar types of boats. This is the safest and easiest way to go. The second possibility is to go alongside an ACP tug or a tour boat. This can also be safe and easy provided your freeboard is high enough to prevent you from going under the chine or rails of the other boat. The least desirable is to go side chamber and this is only a good idea if your vessel is large, has a bow thruster and a very skilled helmsman. You can decline this option but your transit time may be put back because of it.
On the second day of your transit your advisor will show up at around 6:30am and you will get underway immediately. You need to be at the Pedro Miguel Locks at the end of Gatun Lake by noon in order to catch your slot going down. Often, the first group to go down the locks will all go together, so there may only be small craft in the locks with you. Down-locking is much easier and there is very little turbulence. Once you are through the final lock, you motor another couple of miles and your advisor or pilot will be picked up just before you go under the Bridge of the Americas. There are moorings at the Balboa Yacht Club and most yachts stay there for the first night at least. Mooring buoys are now $0.65 per foot per night and the facilities are somewhat run down, but the people are friendly and efficient and there is a laundry, free internet and a decent restaurant, so it's a fun stop. Be sure to pass red marker # 16 before your turn into the anchorage and call the club on VHF # 06 to have a pilot meet you at your buoy!
You can also go a couple miles further out to two nice anchorages. One is called La Playita de Amador. The other, Las Brisas De Amador, is around the corner of the causeway. Most people stay at Las Brisas, this is open to the east but generally not too rough. There is a free dinghy dock and free internet beamed into this anchorage, so it's a good place from which to prepare for the next part of your voyage. Taxis and buses travel the causeway that connects this area to the mainland and it's possible to get to anywhere in Panama City reasonably easily. Buses still cost a quarter in the city, but taxis have gotten more expensive. Despite our best efforts in fluent Spanish, we were unable to negotiate fares like those mentioned in some of the guides. Generally taxis cost four to five dollars and there are thousands of them prowling the city.
Transiting the Panama Canal is an incredible experience, that many sailors might do only once, and is an exciting shortcut to another ocean. If you go, we hope this information contributes to a safe and fun passage!
Todd Duff and One World are currently sailing through the Pacific.