Panama Canal Transit - DIY
02 January 2017 | La Plait, Panama City
Maybe Im a sucker for punishment, who knows, but I've decided to undertake all the arrangements myself for getting us through the Panama Canal without an agent - the DIY approach. In essence I enjoy a challenge and the experience plus it will save some cash. My Spanish is rudimentary and I carry around a phrase book. I'm impatient and this exercise needs time. It's Christmas and New Years and most companies and their employees have 'liming' on their minds so I don't even register. But working through the weeds and armed with some know-how from a few pals that have recently done it, I thought, OK, I'll save the $500 or so in agency fees and invest that into a few aspirins instead. Actually, in the end it was easy, not complicated and enjoyable.
Earlier I prepared a step-by-step DIY procedure to allow us to meet the canal transit expectations and requirement of the Autoridad Del Canal De Panama (ACP). I won't list all this out but rather tell you what actually happened!
While in Portobello I completed the first form (4405-I - Procedures to Arrange Handline Transits) and emailed that to the ACP with a followup call the next day to confirm receipt and make an appointment for the Admeasurer - Dec 24th (yes, the canal doesn't close for Xmas, they work 24/7/365). On the 21st we sailed from Portobello to Shelter Bay Marina and took a berth rather than anchor out at the 'Flats' as we had recent stories that it's not so convenient, to say the least.
On the 23rd, the day before the visit, we called ACP to reconfirm the Admeasurer's appointment and all was set for his visit. The Admeasurer is the dude who arrives on your boat with more forms and disclaimers, confirms the boats measurements, answers all your puzzling questions and most importantly - provides you with the forms and address for payment at the Citibank in Colon. Emerald Sea - up to 50ft category - transit tolls US$800, TVI Inspection US$54, Security Charge US$130, Buffer (in case you mess up) US$891 = US$1,875). We are entitled to have the buffer returned following a successful transit passage.
In the days at Shelter Bay we jumped on the marina's free bus service into town to provision and purchase all those little items we needed. We topped up fuel, completed maintenance tasks and continued our research of South Pacific weather patterns, updated charts, renewed Predict Wind and the Iridium GO. We also enjoyed some walks around in the canopy forests, along the beaches and to old Fort Sherman. And of course its Christmas and the cruisers here organised a Christmas Day PotLuck which was a lot of fun and we met a new round of cruisers, some of which are also crossing the canal.
We had to wait till the 27th Dec when the bank reopened in Colon to make payment (cash or transfer - no credit cards). After payment, and after 18:00hrs, we called ACP (Marine Traffic Scheduler) to confirm they had received the funds, and with this confirmation they gave us a date for the transit: 30th December (after a one day delay). Exciting.
My old diving buddy Jeroen joined as crew today (27th Dec) and along with his girlfriend Maria for a few weeks. As Rose would be heading back to Singapore for a few months to be a grandma I needed a mate for the Pacific crossing and the adventures that would follow. And Jeroen is just the guy - Everest climber, kiteboarder, adventurer. I knew I'd be in good hands!
One must choose the type of lockage or configuration that you transit thru the locks.
- centre chamber - where your yacht is held in the centre of the canal chamber by two bow and two stern lines; may also be that you have up to two other yachts rafted up alongside you;
- sidewall - where your yacht comes alongside the concrete wall of the canal chamber (not really suitable for a monohull) or
- rafted up alongside an ACP tugboat.
We ticked the box for any one of the three.
Its also required to have 4x line handlers onboard who will be joined by an ACP 'Advisor'. The line handlers remain onboard for the 2 day transit while the ACP Advisor heads for home for the night, joining back in the morning. Our line handlers were Jeroen and Maria and 2 great volunteer cruisers from SV MrMac - Anne and Chris, who will do the transit next month.
We were requested to be at the 'Flats' (F-Anchorage; designated anchorage for small craft and yachts) at 14:00hrs (30 Dec) so we departed SB marina at 12:30 and then waited for the Advisor to arrive by pilot boat. He was late and didn't arrive until 16:00hrs. In the meantime we laid out the 40m lines, placed the fenders and covered the solar panels with protective cushions (they use monkey fists as messenger lines to collect our mooring lines and I didn't want them smashing our panels.
We entered and sequentially passed thru the three rising chambers of the Gatun locks. In each case we nested up to a ACP tug that initially tied up to the chamber wall. We learned that this is one of the easiest and safest arrangements. The water was a bit turbulent during the filling of the chambers but didn't present any issues. There were two other super yachts in the chambers ahead of us (center chamber arrangement). We carried on thru each of the 3 Gatun chambers in this configuration. Dusk settled in and with the flood lights shining around us made the experience that much more dramatic.
We arrived at Gatun Lake approx 20:30hrs and motored 1nm to a designated anchorage where Moses, our Advisor, disembarked. We then settled in to a delicious dinner of chicken wraps and it was an early night for all.
On the morning of the 31st we arose early to see a 2m crocodile in the vicinity and later 2 manatees. Our new Advisor, Franklin, joined about 08:30 after advising that he'd be there for 06:30 (OK, its holiday season).
The 2nd and final day we continued crossing Gatun lake, along the canal's scenic route and towards the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores (lowering) locks. Franklin gave us a great commentary enroute about the canal history and its present life. In the locks we nested up to tourist ferries which was again safe and easy. And about 14:00hrs we were spat out thru the final doors into the Pacific Ocean. We passed under the iconic Bridge Of Americas and eventually were met by the impressive skyline of Panama City (PC). A pilot boat came alongside to take Franklin home and we made our way around to Las Brisas anchorage where Anne and Chris got off and later Jeroen and Marie for a new years evening in town.
Its now new years eve and Im beat after cleaning up the boat and having leftovers for dinner, I put my alarm on for 23:30 and put my head down - but didn't hear that ring. Rose managed to sleep in the salon and did get up to see the impressive firework displays all across the PC skyline. The Las Brisas anchorage is right in front of the city and is likely the best view in town. Damn I missed it!
A unique experience completed! Lotsa photos on our FB page or in the Gallery here.
Happy New Year!