Panama Canal Agents: Beware!
Published: 2010-04-15 15:01:55
Agents can be useful (or can save time and running around) in arranging Panama Canal transits.
But beware: There's a range of levels of service provided. And even if you're only asking for a quote on agency services, you will be pressed and cajoled into accepting services without a full detailing of services provided or costs. You may be surprised when they turn over the bill.
We transited the canal this last December (December 2009).
We saw that some agents were providing padding or protection to protect solar panels from damage from flying monkeyfists. And one agent was present on both ends of the transit, easing paperwork and other arrangements at the Balboa Yacht club after transit as well.
But we didn't have such luck with ours, a Mr. Stanley Scott. He was cheaper than the others, and offered a fixed price (which was reassuring). But we certainly didn't get full service from him.
After the admeasure and other paperwork was completed, and we paid Stanley, we asked if he'd be available if anything came up. He said he would, even though he'd be in Miami while we were doing the transit. We could call his cell phone there, he said.
Well and fine until we started the transit. After clearing the last Gatun lock, we found we'd lost a propeller. The ACP (canal authority) pilot for the Gatun locks transit said we could continue the next day on our one good engine, but when the next pilot arrived at the Gatun anchorage the next day, he refused to take us on (and falsely told the ACP that we couldn't maintain five knots). We tried to call ACP about this and they told us to get a hold of our agent.
But Stanley was missing in action; all calls (both from us and from the ACP) to his cell went unanswered.
We ended up spending the day there at the Gatun anchorage, restricted to the boat, with no way to try and get a new propeller, and no way to get the ACP to schedule us for the rest of the transit. We finally managed to talk to Cristobal Signal over VHF, and get a request to the port captain for us to proceed under one engine. Stanley was still missing in action through all of this. We finally got the port captain to approve our transit to Balboa the next day if we could make five knots. We took another pilot on board, and were just fine and doing nearly eight knots on the one engine.
We completed the transit uneventfully, and arrived in Balboa.
In Balboa, Stanley Scott's confederate, a taxi-driver/hustler named Federico, was there to help on that end. He did take us around to try and find a new propeller (unsuccessfully) in Balboa/Panama City, for which we paid him a reasonable fee. But the next day, he arrived to do our zarpe for us. For this, he insisted on $225 for the paperwork ... for things that could be done for less than $50 ourselves. Worse, when asked what the $225 involved, he said "everything", including zarpe and mooring, etc. We gave him the money and passports, and he went off. But he never came back. He sent the passports and zarpe out on a Balboa Yacht Club panga, along with a bill from the BYC panga drivers for the BYC moorage and tire disposal fees. We rushed onto the dock, and tried to call Federico, but he wasn't answering his cell. The BYC general manager told us that Federico was a sleazy character and a ripoff artist. He promised that he wouldn't let Federico on the property again ... but if you don't watch it, you might be subject to Federico's wiles.
Panama is filled with people out looking for a hustle (but by no means all; there were plenty of good and honest people there), and you need to ask up front what you're getting and for what price ... and be aware. Avoid Stanley Scott and his confederates if you want good service for those occasions that rise above the minimum duties.
Arne and Kristen, S/V Morrigan, 46' Dolphin sailing cat
When Arne and Kristen complained to Stanley Scott about his service, he replied with the following:
A don't know what happened. I left to USA on december 19th and i came back at december 30th. I was in New York for ten days. I'm so sorry i did not give you assistance.
Noonsite contacted Stanley Scott for comment about this complaint, however did not receive a reply.
We read of problems with Stanley on this site but we found him friendly efficient and willing to go the extra mile. He sourced a couple of jerry jugs for us at cost price and fixed us up with a good English speaking line handler. When I had to get back to him for some more advice after the transit he was easy to contact and happy to help further if I had needed it. We were through in 8 days after arriving at Shelter Bay.
Shelter bay too were fine, if a bit expensive, and my only complaint was a slightly dodgy wireless service.
We did meet people who did it themselves without any problems and were through just as quickly, but it does take out all the hassle by employing Stanley or any of the others.
Care to be taken with choice of canal agent:
We feel compelled to relate our negative experience with the agent called Stanley that we chose to assist us in transiting the canal, since it was not only highly dissatisfactory but we also know that it tallies with the experience several other boats of our acquaintance have had with him. In short we have found Stanley to be unreliable, uncommunicative and moreover at best guilty of sharp practice and at worst dishonest.
Reasons we shall never use Stanley as our agent again:
• His absolute failure to communicate information and status of our transit time during our 10 day wait to transit. This included such fundamental things as failing to advise us of a line handler strike that directly impacted on our transit time, failing to advise that our transit slot had been delayed on another occasion, failing to inform us when our vessel would be measured up and a general failure to either answer the phone or to halt mid-stride to speak to his clients when approached on the dock.
• Demanding a fee to collect the lines and fenders we rented from him off our vessel after the transit, without prior warning.
• Demanding a fee to bring a hired line handler ashore on a journey of approximately 30 seconds, without prior warning.
As a crew and as individuals we were unfailingly polite in communicating / communications with Stanley. We understand that the agents have little or no influence on when canal transit slots are allocated and to whom they are allocated - the rapidity of how our transit documentation etc was handled and the slot allocated is not our issue. However his complete lack of any customer service ethos, his ripping off of his clients with hidden and unexpected fees and the difficulty in communicating with him make him the worst service we have had the misfortune to use in our round the world trip so far. He might be a (very) few dollars cheaper to use than other agents but believe us, it is not worth the extra hassle that dealing with him entails. The overwhelming amount of anecdotal evidence from many other boats we’ve discussed this with would suggest that you are better off using anyone except Stanley.
Ultimately, we ended up communicating with the ACP ourselves in order to get updates on our transit time. I am sure that this is not something the ACP wants to happen but we felt we had little choice in order to get accurate and timely information on the status of our transit. We appreciated their understanding and assistance. We urge you to use another agent and in doing so this Stanley will be required to review his approach to assisting cruising yachts in what is already a quite stressful situation. We complain not hastily but rather in the hope that negative feedback may induce him to do so.