The Panama Canal - Thoughts for Other Cruisers
11 April 2019 | Panama City, Panama
Barbara Johnston & Craig Johnston | Hot, muggy, overcast
With our Outbound 44 sailboat, we transited the Panama Canal in the southbound direction, on April 7-8 2019. We started at Shelter Bay Marina at the north end of the canal, and finished at La Playita Marina, Panama City.
Much of this narrative relates to dealing with agents. We elected to hire an agent. Other people did not. Since I don’t know much about doing it on your own, this narrative doesn’t cover that situation.
Our agent was Erick Galvez, email email@example.com. He certainly did an acceptable job, although we never met Erick, and his employee, James, didn’t speak enough English to be able to answer many of our questions. We saw James 3 times: for the initial sign-up when information is gathered, when the lines and fenders were delivered (one day before the transit began), and when we redelivered the lines and fenders at the end of the transit. The last two times there was no conversation; he was merely one of the people carrying lines and fenders. The reviews on Noonsite for Erick are much more positive than this. Apparently Erick used to show up at Shelter Bay frequently. Now not so much.
For Sequoia, a 44 foot boat (which with all projections measured out at 46.59 feet), we paid a total of $1469 (April, 2019). That includes tolls of $800, $54 inspection fee, $130 “security fee” (I have no idea what that’s for), $60 bank charges (the cost of using a credit card), $350 agency fee, $75 lines and fender rentals.
We have heard about much more personalized service from “Stan”. On the downside, Stan wants to be paid cash or by wire from your bank; Erick accepts a credit card and charges a $60 fee for “bank charges.”
We emailed Erick for the first time 5 days before we arrived in Panama. He asked for additional detailed information, which we provided by email. (Never mind that we were asked for all that information again when we arrived in Panama).
Whoever your agent is, be aware that once you are anchored out awaiting the arrival of your transit authority, you are completely in the hands of the Panama Canal authorities and not your agent. Your agent collects information from you, gets you a slot in the system, answers some of your questions, and provides you the lines and fenders you will need. If you are unable to find line handlers on your own, your agent can line up some or all of those people for you. But don’t leave it until the last minute (and by that I mean 3-4 days before), or your agent may have already committed all his available line handlers. (More about line handlers below)
In that initial meeting with your agent, you will be asked to make some choices, and we wish we had been more informed at that time. The biggest questions: (1) when do you want to transit, (2) do you need the agent to provide some or all line handlers, and if so how many and (3) which transit configurations are acceptable?
It turns out the first two questions are interlocked. You may have agreed with another boat or boats that you’ll serve as each other’s line handlers. If so, you’ll have to coordinate dates to make sure that you’re not scheduled for the same or overlapping transit time. The transit (at least southbound) takes two days. From experience, it’s completely exhausting to do a 2 day transit on one boat followed by a 2 day transit on another boat. You should consider scheduling a day in between. Don’t forget that on your own boat you will have to provide sleeping accommodations for 4 line handlers plus yourselves, meals and snacks for 4 line handlers plus your transit advisor plus yourselves, plus one of you will have to serve as skipper.
There’s something to be said for having the agent provide at least one line handler. That person will be local, will speak Spanish, will likely be young and relatively physically fit, will be completely familiar with all the canal procedures, and can assist in directing your less-experienced line handlers as to what they ought to do and not do. You’ll pay $100 for each line handler hired through your agent.
Other cruisers would be our first choice for the other three line handlers. But there are also people out there who will serve as line handlers for a fee, and/or for transportation reimbursement. We engaged a couple of teenagers from a Shelter Bay cruising boat, who are doing line handling to make some money. That worked out fine. We also engaged a local expat who wanted to do it for the experience. That also worked out fine. We reimbursed him for his transportation.
Land transportation across the isthmus can vary widely in cost and effectiveness. A Panama City taxi will charge $75-100 for the trip to Shelter Bay Marina, and they most likely will not know how to get to Shelter Bay. (It involves either a ferry or a trip across the locks when the gates are closed between ship transits). (When the new bridge opens it will become much easier. We are told it will be “May, but we don’t know what year.”). For now the much better option is to take the express bus from Albrook Mall in Panama City ($3.15 to Colon) and then a taxi for $25 to Shelter Bay Marina. The Colon taxi drivers know the way to Shelter Bay. The only downside of that is that Colon is a very run-down city, and the bus station is located in a dangerous district. Much better to get off at an earlier stop (Avenida 13 is the last stop before the station.) There will be taxis everywhere. I have learned from another cruiser that Uber is a bit cheaper than a taxi for cross-isthmus travel, but they are also unlikely to know the way to Shelter Bay.
The third question, acceptable configurations, is important. Your agent will show you four diagrams of how you might be placed in the lock. You are allowed to reject one of the configurations, but you have to accept the other three. The configurations are (in no particular order) (1) by yourself, tied to the side of the lock; (2) tied to the side of a tug; (3) by yourself in the center of the lock; and (4) in a “nest” (raft-up) of 2-3 yachts in the center of the lock. Here are the advantages and disadvantages of each (that I can think of).
(1) Tied to the side of the lock. Advantage: not subject to pushes, pulls and personalities of other boats. Disadvantage: In turbulence, if your boat rocks or rolls, you could be subject to spreader damage against the side wall. Also sliding contact up or down wall of the lock. This option is probably the one to veto.
(2) Tied to the side of a tug: Advantage: Tug is presumably very knowledgeable about being secure, you’ll have no lines to the wall, and you’ll be protected from most turbulence once you’re attached. Disadvantage: the tug will be at work, and there will be times you’ll have to wait, tied up to a wall or to the buoy until the tug is ready for you. Potentially much more work for the line handlers.
(3) By yourself in the center of the lock: Advantage: Not subject to pushes, pulls and personalities of other boats. One boat is easier to control than three. Disadvantage: All four of your line handlers will be fully engaged with receiving the monkey fist from the canal workers, attaching the line, and adjusting it during lock operation.
(4) In a “nest”: Advantage: One of the boats (the center of three) will be in charge of moving, and a superior transit advisor will be aboard that boat, directing all three as to engine and steering state. If you are an outside boat, only two out of your four line handlers will interact with the canal workers. Disadvantage: Interacting with lots of other personalities, possible conflict between your own transit advisor and the controlling transit advisor. A mistake on one boat could affect all. This is a common configuration.
Thoughts about the transit:
The start of the transit will be a trip out of the Shelter Bay Marina and anchoring in “the flats”. (Be sure you have your wash down pump ready to go when it's time to up-anchor. The bottom is obnoxious mud infused with petroleum and sewage.) If you’ve been through the canal before, be aware “the flats” have moved. Erick had us out there 2 hours before the anticipated time the transit advisor would be brought out by pilot boat. But as it turns out, we were out there for 4 ½ hours before our transit advisor arrived. I believe the agent has no control over changes of schedule. We were told right away, upon our arrival in the flats, by “Cristobal Control” (Channel 12) that our pick-up time would be 1730, not 1500. On Craig’s first transit as a line handler, s/v Julia Max was told to be out there prior to 1630, but at 1545 the advisor came aboard saying “go, go go!” On that trip, the second day was scheduled late and they entered the last two locks at sunset and had to find the La Playita Marina in the dark. On Sequoia’s transit we got finished in daylight.
The overnight accommodation is tied to a large buoy in Lake Gatun. You’ll likely be sharing the buoy with one or two other boats. All need to be tied together and to the buoy; the transit advisor will help you figure that out before he leaves by pilot boat. Periodically you’ll get a wake from a passing freighter and all the boats will bob or roll at a different rate, stressing the lines and the fenders. Your transit advisor for the second day will show up at 8:30 or 9:00 am the next day.
Your friends may enjoy watching you go through the canal. There is a webcam in the highest Gatun lock, and even on the darkest night it’s possible to make out a yacht under the brilliant canal lights. There is also a webcam in the higher Miraflores lock. If you are paired in the Miraflores lock with a very long freighter, they may put the sailboats so far forward in the lock that you won’t be visible to the webcam. In the locks on the way up, the sailboats go in behind the freighter; in the locks on the way down, the sailboats go ahead of the freighter.
Webcams are found here: https://www.pancanal.com/eng/photo/camera-java.html
If you do have friends watch, you might consider having them take lots of screenshots of you and save them for you. I’m not aware of any way to obtain those images after the fact.
Thoughts about lines: 4 lines of 125’ are required, and most cruisers rent them and fenders from the agent. The lines they supply are 7/8” 3-strand polypropylene blend. They need to go through cleats or chocks and the pull will be upward to the top of the wall. It is more convenient if they are led to a big winch, as they will need to be continuously taken in (going up) or let out (going down.) Two other lines may need to be supplied for springs to adjacent boats if rafted; these should be strong and low stretch, ½” double braid at an absolute minimum. On Craig’s first trip, as line handler, they were rafted to a larger boat with a marginal skipper who seemed unable to apply small fore/aft propulsion corrections, and he moved too hard astern, causing a poorly cleated spring line to slip free, then with several feet of slack overcompensated with full throttle forward, fetching up hard on the other spring and breaking his mid-ships cleat clean off. (It was aluminum, old and corroded.) Fortunately no one was injured.
Re the fenders, even if you have lots, renting their big ball fenders is recommended. You will end up with all available deployed.
If you are lucky and keep a sharp eye out, you may see alligators on the banks. This should perhaps discourage swimming in Lake Gatun while tied to the mooring buoy there overnight.