Transiting the Panama Canal – A Cruiser’s View

Published 13 years ago, updated 4 years ago

Please see comments from Shelter Bay Marina & Karsten Staffeldt (Scandinavian Ocean Cruising Associations) below this report.

Report by cruiser Mike Dorsett of SV White Princess

3 February 2010

We have just transited the Panama Canal and thought that you might like to have our views to share.

Firstly when we arrived at Shelter Bay Marina was full with the Arc (World ARC), and would not allow us to anchor off or dinghy in to complete formalities.

From shelter bay, there is a long bus ride into Colon which does not leave until 1 pm. As most of the offices will close at 3.30, this makes it impossible to complete the process in one day.

The attitude of the Shelter bay management was also completely negative – they would not try to help, and any suggestion that we made was met by “you can’t do that”. If you do manage to get an anchor spot inside shelter bay you must take a slip as soon as one is available, or your 1/2 rate for anchoring goes up to full rate.

We confirm that Tito is still operating – there have been some rule changes for agents recently – and sought permission to move to the flats. Tito can be reached by phone or email ([email protected]) and for $75 provides water taxi and land taxi to both complete clearings in and to book the transit admeasurer and personally assists with all the paperwork. Tito will also rent you tires, lines and line handlers. He does not do any more than take you to the bank to pay your transit fee, so he does NOT handle the refund for the deposit. All in all, he does provide a good service.

There is no anchorage outside Shelter Bay, the only legal anchorage for small craft is the flats. Also, the Port Authority has prohibited the use of private dinghies for going to shore (they can be used for visiting other yachts), and it is nowhere good to get to shore. You now only have two options:

1) pay shelter bay rates (high) and do the paperwork your self – which is not difficult just tedious

2) or anchor on the flats and pay Tito.

We were waiting a total of 5 days from arrival to transit – much reduced from the 3 weeks in 2005. There are also rumours of a new marina to be built, hopefully, this will help the situation.

At the Balboa end, you need to make the decision as to whether to stop at the yacht club or la Playita anchorage by the time you leave Cristobal. You can drop off your line handlers, lines and tires ($1 each ) at the yacht club dock – in this case, the transit advisor will leave the yacht before the Bridge of the Americas. If you proceed straight to La Playita, the line handlers and the advisor should remain on board until you arrive.

It is now $30 per week or $100 per month for use of the dinghy dock at both La Playita and Isla Flamenca marina – there is no longer a daily rate.

Mike Dorsett

White Princess

Shelter Bay Marina has provided a response to the comments about their service in this report. Note: as stated on noonsite, Shelter Bay Marina is very busy at all times and it is recommended that an advance reservation is made.

It appears that the vessel in question was not a guest at the marina as we have no record of their visit.

The Panama canal does not allow boats to anchor off Shelter Bay, we advise yachts that this rule exists so that they are not hassled by the ACP police, who can be rather aggressive.

For security reason we don’t allow unknown dinghies to “dinghy in”, there are multiple concerns including the 4-mile ride across a very busy harbour to the canal approved anchorage, the canals regulations and the absence of any facilities for these boats, not to mention the limited transportation back to town.

We do send boats who have requested space at our docks to anchor behind our existing dock when we don’t immediately have space for them. Most of these vessels have a slip by the end of the day as boats leave to transit the canal between 4 and 5 pm. For many reasons we don’t allow boats to remain at anchor in this very small 500 ft by 500 ft area and we also prohibit discharges of grey and black water.

Our bus operates at 8 am and 1 pm. The 8 am bus is reserved for our guests and is free. It appears Mr Dorsett was somehow on the afternoon bus.


Shelter Bay Marina

Karsten Staffeldt, who represents the Scandinavian Ocean Cruising Associations in Panama, clarifies some of the points made in Mike Dorsett’s report.

If anchored in the flats, it is possible to use the official launch service which services the commercial vessels. This brings you ashore in the commercial Port of Cristobal, however, this service is very expensive. Some locals, like Tito, offer an unofficial shore service, landing around dock 16 Cristobal or dock 5 in Colon, the latter not being in a safe area of Colon!

Whether you are at Shelter Bay Marina or at the Flats the service of agents are available if yachts are prepared to pay for the service and don’t want to do the paperwork etc. themselves (such as clearing in and out, arrangements with Canal Authorities or any other requirements they may have).

Yachts interested in appointing an agent should ask around first. There are official agents, registered with the Canal Authorities, whose service does not come cheap, and unofficial “agents” who in the main are taxi drivers who understand the procedures and where the various offices are located but will be unable to assist should any problems occur during transit.

The current waiting time is between 3 and 6 days after the Canal Authorities have the transit payment, but could increase as the peak season builds.

Our thanks to Karsten for this information.

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