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Transiting the Panama Canal without an Agent: Cruisers' Report

By Contributing Cruisers — last modified Jun 12, 2017 12:24 PM

Published: 2016-02-10 00:00:00
Topics: Cruising Information
Countries: Panama

Transiting the Panama Canal without an Agent: Cruisers' Report

SY Margarita in the Miraflores lock from the online camera.

Tim, Nok, & Brian on S/V Margarita transited the Canal Southbound with no agent, in January 2016:

The following is my overly long-winded account of our application process, transit, and aftermath of a Southbound Panama Canal Transit, without an agent, in late January 2016. From the perspective of a proudly frugal cruiser with his wife Nok and eight month old baby boy, Brian aboard out Westsail 32’, “Margarita”.

The birth of our son occurred here in Panama City with an absurd amount of bureaucratic paper chasing. After doing battle with the Panamanian officials for three months to get a birth certificate, my wife and I decided we were qualified to serve as our own agents in the Canal process. It should also be noted, I speak very little Spanish and my wife speaks even less.

I had been through the Canal once before on a Northbound voyage as the chief mate of a 689’ dry cargo vessel but this was a whole different ball of wax. Tending to overthink everything, there is no shortage of concerns to get stressed out about while contemplating a Panama Canal transit. In retrospect, most of it was in vain and the transit was less of a big deal than I was anticipating.

The first step for me was completing the 4405-I form (Procedures to arrange handline transits).
This form can be downloaded at http://www.pancanal.com/eng/op/forms.html. Filled out electronically and e-mailed to OPTC-ARA@pancanal.com (there is a slightly different address if you are requesting an admeasure in Panama City). When I submitted this completed form, I also included scanned copies of my crew list, passports, and my USCG vessel documentation. There is no need to include names of the line handlers on this form but the form is supposed to be submitted a minimum of 72 hours prior to your requested Admeasure appointment. On the form, one of the fields asks when and where you would like the Admeasure conducted. I happened to be in Puerto Lindo, Panama at the time and requested an Admeasure one week in the future at the Shelter Bay marina in Colon. While I was at it, I requested a slip reservation for the following Sunday on Shelter Bay’s website. I never received a reply to either of these e-mails.

If one were even more frugal than myself, I understand the Admeasure can also be conducted at the Flats, otherwise known as Anchorage “F”. A free anchorage in Bahia Limon (Colon) without additional charge for the admeasure services. Another cruiser mentioned that they may conduct the Admeasure in Portebelo and in fact, I think the Admeasure can be conducted just about anywhere in the World if you’re willing to pay for it. At some point in my research, I came across a statement that the Admeasure service costs US$65.00 an hour and there is a two hour minimum. If this is in fact accurate, the fee was included in the overall fees paid as there was no fee requested at the time of the Admeasure.

I requested the Admeasure for a Monday morning a week in advance. The Friday previous to the requested date, I attempted to call the AUTORIDAD DEL CANAL DE PANAMÁ, ADMEASUREMENT UNIT to confirm receipt of the 4405-I and associated paperwork. Several attempts at both numbers listed were unsuccessful for unknown reasons. Either they did not answer the phone or I received a Spanish recording that I didn’t understand. I may have been calling after business hours. There are two different phone numbers listed for the AUTORIDAD DEL CANAL DE PANAMÁ, (+507) 443 2298 and 2293. It was the 2298 number that was ultimately successful.

Thankfully, Shelter Bay had a vacancy when we arrived but don’t count on it during high season. For what it’s worth, the marina did not ask if my boat was insured. However, I think they did require a credit card to check in. Being high season, we were charged US$1.10 per foot per day plus electricity and a minimum three day visit. Prior to entering the Colon Harbor breakwater or making any movements within the harbor, be sure to request permission from Cristobal Signal Station on VHF Ch 12. If you enter through the Eastern entrance, (Manzanillo Bay Breakwater) you must contact a separate authority prior to entry but that authority and VHF channel have slipped my memory. I called Cristobal Signal and they set me straight. Shelter Bay Marina monitors VHF channel 74 but frequently can’t be reached until nearly at the marina entrance.

The Admeasure official typically arrives at Shelter Bay via one of the Canal launches around 0900. When he or she didn’t arrive on the scheduled Monday, I again attempted to contact the AUTORIDAD DEL CANAL DE PANAMÁ. This time a very professional and competent sounding representative that spoke fluent English answered the phone. They confirmed that they had received my 4405-I form and would be happy to schedule my Admeasure appointment. Apparently the fields requesting such a schedule on the previously submitted 4405-I carried little weight. I was advised that only one measurer was available and he could only do one boat a day. Furthermore, he had a boat scheduled for Tuesday. I requested Wednesday and the representative recommended I call back Wednesday to re-confirm.

Wednesday came around and I called to reconfirm. It was a little touch and go, I had to call back three times before finally getting a confirmation. When the measurer arrived he was very courteous, professional, and spoke fluent English. The two of us measured the length overall before laying below to complete the paperwork. He asked to see my Panamanian Cruising Permit and my USCG Documentation. After about 30 minutes, he presented me with copies of the following forms:

  • Handline Lockage Request
  • Handline Undertaking to Release and Idemnify
  • Ships Information and Quarantine Declaration
  • Admeasurment Clearance and Handline Inspection (NO AGENT)
  • Attachment to Form 4614
  • Most importantly, your vessels Panama Canal SIN number

He explains the four methods of transiting the locks and asks you which ones you’re willing to accept. There is the Center Chamber that all vessels must be able to conduct, rafted with other handline vessels, tied to the side wall, or rafted to any piece of Canal Authority Equipment. This last one was my preference but I agreed to conduct any of the above with the exception of a side wall locking. I later learned that when down locking, a side wall tie-up may be the best option. The more options you choose, the less chance of getting delayed and the sooner you can schedule a transit.

The Handline Lockage Request form asked about lines, fenders, and line handlers. It was not an issue that these items had not been secured yet. He simply noted that these items must be in place prior to transit. There were some other questions about the boats equipment but no physical inspection was made. He asked what speed I could maintain and I told him 5.5 or 6 knots. He replied, “That’s fine, lets just call it six.” I believe the Admeasurment Clearance and Handline Inspection form is good for up to six months and the SIN number is good for the life of the vessel.  The card with your SIN number is required to be displayed on the bridge or navigation station as the case may be and should be turned over to a new owner in the event you sell your vessel in the future. The representative was easy to talk to, knowledgeable, and happy to answer any questions without the slightest sense of a rush to complete the process. Not to mention, he spoke fluent English.

OK, with this paperwork in hand, the wheels start to turn. Most owners choose to carry cash into the specific CitiBank in Colon. I understand credit card payments are not an option. I don’t much care for the town of Colon and I am particularly leery of carrying serious cash around the streets of Colon. One can take a taxi door to door for security but coupled with the hassle of getting to Colon from Shelter Bay, I elected to do a bank wire transfer. The fees were as follows; Since my Westsail 32’ measured 40’, I fell into the “Up to 50’” category. Transit Tolls US$800, TVI Inspection US$54, Security Charge US$130, Buffer US$891, for a total of US$1,875 as advertised in the form 4352-I “Procedures for Securing a Handline Transit of the Panama Canal”. The procedures for wiring funds to the Autoridad del Canal De Panama via the appropriate CitiBank can be obtained by simply requesting them in an e-mail from CitiBank at MAraujo@pancanal.com or reportedly located at the website www.pancanal.com under customer forms. By conducting a wire transfer and submitting the remaining forms online, (as I will get to) there is no need to ever  go into Colon. Be sure to include your SIN number and the name of your vessel in the reference section of the Wire.

So, with our three day minimum at Shelter Bay coming to an end, and our wire transfer scheduled to take another five business days, what a perfect excuse to go explore the Rio Chagres. Even though I had already cleaned my bottom for the transit, I liked the idea of the fresh water killing any remaining bottom growth before transiting and I was looking for an excuse anyway. Rio Chagres is only a couple hours from Shelter Bay and well worth the visit. With howler monkeys in the tree tops and gators at the waters edge, it’s a beautiful trip up the river. One would never guess they were so close to the likes of Colon while transiting this historically significant river. As remote and isolated as it feels, transportation to and from Colon is actually much easier and more frequent than at Shelter Bay. We met one cruiser that caught a taxi from the face dock at the mouth of the river for emergency rum provisions. At the head of the river, adjacent the dam, there is a lagoon with a boat ramp. If you secure your dingy at the boat ramp, walk a short distance to the main road, you can catch regular busses to and from Colon should you feel the need. The down side was internet data was very weak even after sending my cellphone to the top of the mast.  This is a serious jungle canopy that looks to be over a hundred feet high. Its also the location of the Smithsonian Institute’s tropical laboratory for monitoring the ecological changes taking place.

On the forth business day, I called CitiBank (ACP (+507) 305-0920) to check on the progress of the wire transfer. They had received it and were in the process of transferring it to the AUTORIDAD DEL CANAL DE PANAMÁ account. Again, fluent English, professional, and surprisingly helpful at CitiBank.

On the fifth day, I contacted the Panama Canal Marine Transit Control (MTC  (+507) 272-4202) to verify that they had received the funds. In fact they had. Once again, fluent English, very professional, and eager to assist with answering any questions. After confirming the funds had been processed, they asked me to attach to an e-mail scanned copies of several of the Admeasurer’s documents. I forget specifically which ones but I scanned them all as well as copies of my cruising permit, all three of our passports, my crew list, and my USCG Documentation. This insures they have all the information required to process the return of your buffer. Twenty minutes after e-mailing these documents, I called back to schedule a transit date. The Handline vessel’s schedule was booked for three days in advance but we needed a few days to secure our lines, fenders, line handlers, do some provisioning, and precook some meals anyway.

Once we had our transit date, we moved over to the anchorage in front of Club Nautico In Bahia Manzinallo. This free anchorage is quite convenient for provisioning at the large grocery stores in Colon. Club Nautico does charge US$3 per person per day for the use of their dingy dock but potable water is free and waste bins are available. The down side is the work boat traffic 24/7. On top of swells propagating into the harbor during a Northerly set, this anchorage can be quite rolly to put it mildly.

I took this remaining time to top up fuel, change my engine oil, check belts, and give my engine a loving hug. We double checked that we had met all the requirements for the Canal transit and advised friends and family of our scheduled transit time before stowing the dingy and calling it a day. Vessels transmitting AIS can be watched at http://www.marinetraffic.com and live cams of the locks viewed at  http://www.pancanal.com/eng/photo/camera-java.html?cam=Gatun%20.

While waiting for your date, you hear all the horror stories. Most commonly vessels getting cancelled at the last minute and consequently having to scramble for new line handlers. Other vessels being held at anchor in the lake with all the line handlers aboard for an extra day. Not to mention all the potential engine problems. It’s easy to get a little stressed out if you let yourself.

Most Southbound cruisers secure their lines and fenders from Tito (+507) 6463 5009. I think he charges US$65 for the four 125’ lines and US$2 each for the tires. There are other numbers published for Tito such as WhatsApp  (+507) 444-0600 and a yahoo e-mail address. I made multiple attempts to get in touch with him at all these points of contact. His e-mail came back undelivered, WhatsApp didn’t work, and his 5009 number always went directly to an answering machine. After asking around if anyone else provided lines and tires I was advised that Tito was pretty much the only game in town. Suspecting this was maybe not the full truth, I was also told that the only way to reach him is to leave a message at his 5009 number. Sure enough, I did and he called back an hour or two later. In the end, I met a cruiser heading Northbound that needed to return his lines and tires to Panama City. I offered to take care of that free of charge for him.

Finding line handlers was simple enough as well. Two resources that worked well for me; I posted a note on the bulletin board of Shelter Bay marina looking for Line Handlers that received multiple hits. There is also a web site http://www.panlinehandler.com/ that at first glance doesn’t look like it’s had much traffic in the last decade. I posted my request for three line handlers here and received a couple more hits. This site also has listings of people living in Panama that would like to go for a ride. If all else fails or you lose someone at the last minute, I understand Tito can provide a warm body on short notice. I offered the prospective line handlers food, drink, and US$40 for return to Shelter Bay. The calculation on the return trip: $7 for a taxi from the Balboa Yacht Club to Albrook Mall, US$3 for a bus to Qualtro Alto in Colon, and US$30 for a Taxi to Shelter Bay. In the end, my line handlers pooled the money and took a taxi all the way from the Balboa Yacht Club to Shelter Bay for US$80.

The day before your scheduled transit, the Marine Traffic Control (MTC (+507) 272-4202) is able to provide the time of your Adviser pick up in the Flats and type of lockage you will be conducting. The day of your transit, the MTC can provide the time of your second Adviser in Lake Gatun for the following day. We received a 1600 pickup time for a center tie-up. Additionally, I had been calling each day for confirmation to ensure I found out about any delay as soon as possible.

On the big day, we took departure from Club Nautico for Shelter Bay to pick up the line handlers at 1300. At 1400, underway from Shelter Bay with line handlers and fresh bags of ice (We kept an ice chest on deck full of a variety of drinks for everyone). Arriving at the Flats to await the Adviser at 1500, one hour early. This gave me a chance to discuss the line handling procedures, asses abilities, and point out some safety items before the Adviser arrived.

  • The locks have dangerous undercurrents, particularly where layers of fresh and salt water meet.
  • This is the ladder, this is how it’s deployed, and this is the throw able life preserver.
  • Discussion of the four types of locking (w/ tug, center, side, rafted)
  • When locking up, current is going down. When locking down, current is going down
  • If locking w/tug, bow lines priority going up, stern lines going down
  • Lines in the water near the screw are bad bad bad
  • Panama Canal uses steel monkeys fists that are outlawed most everywhere else
  • Screw wash from accompanying ship can be strong
  • Never release a line without my authorization
  • Let me know when all lines out of the water
  • We will be taking in slack while up-locking and checking lines down-locking
  • Demonstration of specifically how lines are to be cleated

The Adviser was 30 or 40 minutes late and with the late afternoon sea breeze, the choppy bay made it challenging for the pilot boat to deliver the Adviser. On more than one approach I was certain the pilot boat was going to take out my starboard side stanchions and life lines. In the end, the Adviser made it safely aboard without damaging Margarita. Once he was aboard, we immediately turned for the Gatun Locks at full speed ahead.

As we approached the first lock, the Adviser explained that we would be locking center chamber as previously reported, along with a bulker ahead of us. We would be using the Eastern side lock. He indicated for us to approach the port side wall first where we would receive two monkeys fists for the two port side lines. While the line handlers aboard were making the heaving lines up to our mooring lines, I would shift over towards the starboard side wall to receive the two starboard side lines. The heaving lines were all made up to five foot eyes in my mooring lines but not paid out. Each of the four heaving lines had a Canal line handler at the other end. As we continued into the lock chamber, the canal line handlers walked along with us. Once just inside, astern of the bulker in front of us, I stopped the vessel and the mooring lines were heaved in by the Canal line handlers and dropped on bollards. Slack was taken in by my line handlers aboard and a single turn around the cleat without a half hitch to secure. The lock doors closed behind us and the water boiled around us. As the level rose, the line handlers aboard took in the slack so as to keep the vessel square in the lock. Once the lock reached its level, the forward doors opened, the bulker ahead of us motored forward, the line handlers ashore released the mooring lines from the bollards and the line handlers aboard recovered the mooring lines to the eye. The heaving lines remained made fast to the mooring lines and the shore side line handlers walked with us into the next chamber. This process repeated until the last chamber where the line handlers ashore simply threw off the mooring lines at the completion of the locking, we recovered our lines and motored into Lake Gatun. Various currents were noticeable be it from the screw wash of the bulker or the filling of the lock but none were excessive. One of the line handlers aboard commented that we rose at a rate of about 15 seconds per foot.

We must have reached the mooring buoy in Lake Gatun shortly after sunset, maybe 1930’ish. The mooring buoys are not lit and difficult to spot in the dark until your right on top of them. The one I used was located at: L 09˚ 15.6539’N,  λ 079˚ 54.1288’W or Ø 087˚ True at a range of 0.85nm from the “A” yellow special purpose anchorage mark. There was at least one other of these soft sided mooring buoys nearby. The buoys are stable enough to jump onto and secure fore and aft spring lines. This prevents you from repeatedly bumping into the buoy all night in the light air.

The chatter and threats lead one to believe the Adviser will not be happy with anything less than a classic 7-course grand menu including Appetizer, Soup, Salad, Sorbet Course, Choice of Entree, Cheese and Dessert. In fact, there was little time for a sit down dinner on this first day. My wife made hot melted tuna rolls in tortillas to snack on while transiting the Gatun Locks. She also prepared a Thai stir-fry for the Adviser but he barely had time to eat it before his ride arrived. He would have been happy with just the tuna wraps and a soda. The rest of us sat down for Nok’s premade sweet and sour chicken after the Adviser departed. Sitting on deck as the full moon rose over Cristobal was magical.

On day two of the transit, at around 0700, I called Cristobal Signal Station (VHF Ch 12) to re-confirm our scheduled Adviser a pick-up time of 0730. We were told the time had changed to 0830 but he actually showed up around 0900. Both of these Advisers were pleasant, professional, knowledgeable of the locking system, and spoke fluent English. I understand there are abound 60 Advisers and they only do roughly one trip a month. It sounds like more of a hobby or a status symbol to be an Adviser than an income. Consequently, they seem to quite enjoy the ride.

Setting off across the lake, I asked the Adviser if we could take the Panama Canal Shortcut, otherwise known as Banana Channel.  He advised the channel was currently closed to all traffic. Slightly more embarrassing, I asked to shave some more time by taking Monkey Cut. It turns out, the island that formed Monkey Cut has been removed for some years now to widen the sharp bend. Thus, there is no more Monkey Cut and hasn’t been one for some time. Well then, how about we stick to the main channel?

The Pedro Miguel and nearby Miraflores locks were handled exactly the same in terms of line handling. The most noticeable difference is that we were at the head of the lock with a bulker closing in astern of us this time. As mentioned previously, the Adviser asked us if we would be willing to do a side wall lockage going down. He assured me that it was actually the most preferable method during a down locking. In the end, the lockmaster ordered a center chamber tie-up as before. The Adviser warned me to beware of unpredictable currents as we exited the Miraflores lock but we experienced nothing excessive. It’s probably a good idea to stay in the middle just in case.

Welcome to the Pacific. Out of the Miraflores Lock, it was roughly an hour to the Bridge of the Americas, or at least it felt like it after a long day of motoring. The Adviser directed us to the East side of the traffic separation scheme to clear traffic. The Pilot boat picked him up just beyond the Bridge of the Americas but before the Balboa Yacht Club. Caution in this area as immediately outside the channel are dangerous shoals. If you haven’t already downloaded tide charts for Balboa, now would be a good time. We then contacted the Balboa Yacht Club on VHF Ch. 06 for a launch service. They met us minutes later for the line handlers to disembark in front of the club. If you were using Tito’s lines and fenders, the launch would take these also.

For Margarita, it was off to the anchorage and so far, it appears the stories of Panama City being particularly unfriendly to transient cruisers looks to be valid. The marinas are reportedly out of our price range and potentially booked years in advance. The La Playita dingy dock has recently raised its rates to US$50 a week irrelevant of how many times in that week you use it. Additionally, the La Playita anchorage is reportedly quite rolly and we had our fill of that at Club Nautico recently. This left the obvious choice of the Las Brisas anchorage. Reasonably protected, it has the worst dingy dock I have seen, EVER!. Granted, the circumstances are aggravated by the 15’ to 20’ tides but it’s clear Panama isn’t going out of its way for the transient cruisers visiting.

Everybody in the system spoke good English, was very helpful, and a pleasure to deal with. One warning of an unsavory character outside the system, a taxi driver that frequents the Calz de Amador anchorages like a wharf rat looking for scraps, Luiz has proven himself to be quite dishonest, corrupt and unfair in record time. On my first day alone I had an altercation with him that involved the police and witnessed several other boaters fighting with him on similar grounds. Panama City now has Uber as well as frequent buses and light rail that are all much better options to the likes of Luiz.

Aside from a reminder to ensure that your Panamanian courtesy flag is in good condition, (Even ships have been denied transit on the grounds that their courtesy flag was shabby) that’s about all I can remember that might help. As you can see, there really is no need to hire an agent although it would potentially have speed up the process if time were critical.

Tim, Nok, & Brian
S/V Margarita

 

Nike Steiger (White Spot Pirates) transited the Panama Canal in August 2015

Nike Steiger documented her experience as part of her "Untie the Lines" YouTube series. The following videos and accompanying blog posts parallel much of the experiences of other cruisers who transited the Canal with no agent.

Blog post: "Panama Canal Experience"

Video: "Panama Canal Transit without an Agent" (Part 1) & (Part 2)

Video: "Crossing the Panama Canal" (Day 1) & (Day 2)

 

Roberto Cavallo transited the Canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific in October 2015:

Searching on the internet I was under the impression that a Canal transit from the Atlantic to the Pacific without using an agent was not possible.

I contacted two agents that asked me for $ 350/450 … then I decided to do the paperwork myself.

IT HAS BEEN REALLY EASY.

ANCHORING IN COLON:

I anchored in front of the Club Nautico Colon (09 21.8585 N 079 53.5635 W) in 5 meters of water. There were 4 other yachts there. One had been anchored for more than 2 weeks with an engine problem. The passing of high speed boats can create some wake here, but nothing untenable.

The Club charges $3 per person per day to use the facility (dinghy dock), but the location is extremely convenient being just minutes walking distance from the Colon2000 area (with a Super99 supermarket open until 00.00), the Free Zone and town itself.

ADMEASUREMENT AND CLEARANCE:

From the Club, a taxi should charge you $1 to bring you to the entrance of Panama Port, Cristobal Signal Station (a couple of blocks from the Bus Terminal). An ID is needed to enter the area.

An official bus will bring you to the Admeasurement Office Tower. Ring the bell and the gate will magically open, repeat for the other door. The Office is located on the second floor of the tower. Bring the boat documents with you.

The Admeasurement Officers were incredibly nice and relaxed with me. It took approx. 30 minutes to put the information on the system and fill in the forms - which were to be completed later on board. The Officers took the time to explain all the requirements and discuss the preferred passage location (no sidewall).

The officer said she was ready to inspect the boat as soon I moved to the Flat anchorage area (09 20.5780 N 079 54.7714 W), not far from the Tower. She gave me her phone number and told me she will arrive with a pilot vessel.

She called the bus to bring me to the entrance and from there I walked back to the boat and moved to the Flat anchorage.

AT THE FLAT ANCHORAGE:

It was a calm day and I didn't even put the anchor down, after 15 minutes the pilot boat arrived. The officer said she was sorry, there were no pilot boats available earlier.

Boats up to 50 feet pay a fixed rate of 984$. My boat is 32 feet and the measurement was just a fast proforma.

The documents partially filled in the office were completed and  a copy given to me:

  • ADMEASUREMENT CLEARENCE AND HANDLINE INSPECTION (needed to make the payment at the bank).

  • ATTACHMENT TO FORM 4614 (needed to be filled in with your bank information and presented when the payment is done to receive the Buffer refund).

  • HANDLINE UNDERTAKING TO RELEASE AND INDEMNIFY

  • HANDLINE LOCKAGE REQUEST

  • SHIP INFORMATION AND QUARANTINE DECLARATION

and

  • THE SIN NUMBER (identification number needed to schedule the passage and valid for all the life of the vessel).

N.B. The inspection documents are valid for 60 days.

The Officers are also available to complete the inspection in Shelter Bay Marina.

I didn't have on board the required lines and fenders at the time of the inspection, because I planned to rent them. That was NOT a problem. I rented the 4 lines for $60 from Tito (+507 6463 5009). I found 6 tyres at the Club Nautico, probably from another boat that had transited before.

THE PAYMENT:

Payment must be done in Cash at the City bank located next to the Cristobal piers entrance.

THE SCHEDULE:

At 1800 on the day I made the payment I called the Marine Traffic Scheduler @ (507) 272 4202

The passage was scheduled for 2 days later, but needed to be confirmed the day before the passage.

LINE HANDLERS:

I travel alone and I needed 4 line handlers but I didn't want to pay $85/100 each. There is a website: www.panlinehandler.com and I asked a friend to put a note on the Shelter Bay board. After I spread the word alot of people approached me willing to transit for free.

THE TRANSIT:

The transit was scheduled for two days later.

FURTHER INFORMATION:

As a source of information also refer to “PROCEDURES FOR SECURING A HANDLINE TRANSIT OF THE PANAMA CANAL” available as a PDF online at the canal website.

If you want to know more details, please write to me at Cavallo.Roberto (at) hotmail.com

Tom Partride and Susie Plume transited the Canal February 2014 with their UK yacht Adina.

To download the excellent step-by-step guide by SY Adina go here.

David and Bella Sturm transited the Canal on 27 December 2013 with their boat Admetus.

We transited the Panama canal on the 27th of December 2013 from Colon to Panama City and we want to share our experience with other cruisers. We didn´t use an agent and we found it simple to organize it ourselves. The following information is based on our personal experience and on the published information on noonsite.com from the crew of SY Seluna (see report below this one).

  1. Send an email with the infomation from the form 4405.pdf (Thanks to the Crew of SY Seluna who uploaded this file) to optc-ara@pancanal.com

    We filled out the printed form, made a picture of it with the digicam and sent it as attachement to them.

    Call the office (00507 44322998) half an hour after sending to check the information has been received and is complete.

  2. Call the admeasurement office for an apointment 00507 2722293. We didn´t need to call them extra, when we called the office if our information under point 1 is complete we got directly forwarded to the officers for the admeasurement.

  3. Go to the "Flats" in Colon for the admeasurment. We were asked to to confirm our arrival in the morning via telephone. During the admeasurement you receive all the paperwork and the invoice for the payment. You have to give information about your vessel, don´t forget that your vessel has in any case a holding tank (or you have to rent one when you mention that you don´t have one onboard) and your cruising speed is 5 Knots.

  4. Go to the Citybank to pay the fees. We paid it in cash, be careful in Colon with large amounts of cash which you need to have with you. Up to 50 feet you pay 1875$ (you will get 891$ back which is a security buffer for further charges). Go to Club Nautico and take a Taxi to the Citybank.

    After the payment is done ask there if they have faxed the information to the canal authorities.

    You can go there also from Portobelo by Bus+taxi to Colon and pay for the transit.

  5. Some hours later you can call the sheduler (00507 2724202) to get a transit date.

  6. Arrange fenders and lines. We organized it via Tito (00507 64635009). He will bring it to Club Nautico, Shelter Bay or even Portobelo.

  7. Organize linehandlers. You need 4 linehandlers in addition to the captain. The linehandler can be one of the crew. Usually there are sailors around who want to get the experience of a canal transit and are happy to help you. It´s common to pay the transportation costs for them and serve them good food and drinks during the transit.

  8. Prepare to feed a minimum of 6 people (captain + 4 linehandlers + advisor). You may have to feed a trainee advisor as well.

  9. Be in Colon for the transit the morning of the day you are scheduled. You can pick up your linehandlers at the Club Nautico in Colon. Be careful when anchoring in front of Club Nautico, inside the small bay in front of the club it gets shallow. Usually for standard size sailing boats it´s a two day transit, you will spend one night in the Gatun lake and arrive in the afternoon in Panama City.

  10. You can drop off your linehandlers and ropes+fenders at the Balboa Yacht Club or at the dinghy dock at the Las Brisas anchorage.

    Generally it was very easy to get the official part for the canal transit done. Everybody spoke very good English and were helpful. If you don´t want to wait for your transit inside Colon harbour you can stay in Rio Chagres or at the anchorage behind Isla Naranja, both are roughly 10 miles away from Colon. We prefered Isla Naranja because it is simpler to enter there. We waited in Portobelo for our transit. Don´t forget to get a local Zarpe to Panama City.

    David and Bella Sturm
    SY Admetus
    www.sturmaufsee.at

Leo Merz transited the Canal on 30 December 2012 with his boat Seluna.

Dear Noonsite and cruisers,
I'd like to share our experience from the Panama Canal (30. Dec. 2012) with other cruisers, who might find the information useful:

You can organise almost everything by phone and email in English or Spanish. You have to pay the fees in cash at the Citibank and your boat has to be present at the admeasurement and transit. A slightly longer, German version of this report is on http://seluna.ch/Panamakanal.shtml

Panama canal transit without agent in short:

Email to optc-ara@pancanal.com (resp. to optc-arp@pancanal.com for northbound transits) with the info. from form 4405 [a copy is on http://seluna.ch/images/4405.pdf] namely:

  • first visit: yes/no
  • SIN (ship identification number, for boats who have transited the canal before)
  • name of the boat
  • country of registration
  • email-address
  • speed  (>=5kn, tip: say 5kn, you're allowed to be faster than noted but being slower costs you your deposit)
  • type of ship
  • LOA
  • beam
  • colour of hull
  • crewlist with: name, given names, place of birth, date of birth, nationality, rank, type of identification (i.e. passport), identification number. Linehandlers that are not normally crewing the boat need not be listed.


Telephone: Do call and check by phone to ask if the data is complete/received: Atlantic side
(507)443-2298, Pacific side (507)272-4571

Telephone Admeasurement Office: Shortly afterwards, you can call the Admeasurement Office to make an appointment for the admeasurement: Atlantic side (507)272-2293, Pacific side (507)272-4571The admeasurement is done in the anchorage area "the flats"/Area F between 07.00h and 14.00h (other times are charged extra).

Pay Fees: The admeasurer gives you a paper with which you can pay the transit fees at the local Citibank IN CASH (less than 50ft: $1875 (inc. $891 buffer), 50-80ft: $2375). Citibank Cristóbal (Colon) is open Mo-Fr approximately 08.30h to 15.30h. Use the dinghy dock at Club Nautico ($3/person) and a taxi ($1/person one way). Pacific side: Citibank is in Niko's Plaza in Balboa (08.30h-15.30h).

Make Transit Appointment: Shortly after paying (officially from 18.00h) you can make your transit appointment with the scheduler: (507)272-4202.

Final Arrangements Pre-Transit:
- You will need 4 lines (3/4-1.5 inch thick, at least 38m long; $60 for 4 lines) and plastic-wrapped tires ($2/piece) can be rented e.g. from Tito (507) 646-35009, who will bring them to Club Nautico (or Balboa Yacht Club in Panama).
- Don't forget to get a zarpe to Panama City from your local port captain ($13).
- So-called professional line handlers should not be hired. Often they have NO clue about sailboats, knots and physics. There are many sailors who will help you for food and bus fares ($10+food/drinks)

Timing: Southbound transits: today two-day transits are normal. You start in the afternoon from the flats, pass the Gatun-locks behind a freighter in the early evening and spend the night at a buoy on the lake. Cross the lake with a new advisor (breakfast) from about 06.30h and lock down around noon in front of a freighter. Sometimes you'll have to feed an additional advisor-trainee.

After Transit:
- Returning tires and lines: e.g. call a water taxi on VHF 6 from Balboa Yacht Club ($1/item) who hands them to Tito.
- Two to three weeks after the transit you'll get back your deposit of $891 by bank transfer.

Everything you need to know is in the form 4352 which you either get by email from the canal authorities [or on http://seluna.ch/images/4352-ENG-201211.pdf]

Some additional details from our transit:
On the phone they first said that I have to come to the office in person. When I asked them, if I could send the data for their EDCS-system, namely the input for form 4405 by email, they happily agreed.

Also, when the data input guys told me that the admeasurement could only be next week, I simply called the admeasurement office and I could get measured then in two days. The admeasurer comes aboard and measures the boat (with a tape, or not at all if you have an old SIN) and he fills in all the necessary forms. If you state that you don't have a holding tank, you have to rent one. The required speed today is 5 knots (used to be 8), so don't claim that you do more, you have to be able to maintain that speed in every condition.

The scheduler planned our crossing faster than we agreed to cruise. We met our declared speed and were not fined, despite changing the schedule. You also have to sign a release form that states your boat is basically too weak for the canal, it's all your problem if something happens.

You can choose here if you accept to transit "sidewall" (two lines alongside the wall, no-go for sailboats), "alongside an ACP tug" (easy lockage but difficult currents/wake to manage in each lock), "center chamber" (best, with 4 lines), "nested" (like center chamber but rafted with 1-2 other small boats). You may have to remind the canal authorities/advisors during the transit to which type you agreed/disagreed.

We've had friends that had their transit rescheduled (one boat on the transit day and another the day before), so confirm your transit time by phone.

An agent is said to cost between $75 to $500. For $75 he explains most of the above, calls a taxi for you, but you have to do everything including the paperwork at the canal authorities yourself. At the other end of the scale he pays your bond/buffer and hopefully does the paperwork.

Our transit cost us about $1122 (without diesel, food and drinks).

Leo Merz, SY Seluna.

For earlier reports from cruisers from the 2012/13 transit season see this report.

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