How to transit the Panama Canal in her yacht - preparation, costs, peak tips and much more from Behan Gifford for a smooth cross from the Atlantic come the Pacific Ocean


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Cape Horn sailors and ditch diggers sacrificed all to do the path in between the Atlantic and also Pacific less complicated for the remainder of us. It is a surreal situation to uncover yourself floating in a small yacht together a huge ship in a crate of water 25m over sea level. Entering the canal was thrilling, stressful, and awkward. Descending the critical lock was euphoric. The Panama Canal is a gem come treasure.

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Considering the alternative routes, the canal is a blink in between oceans. However a smooth transit services from advancement planning. Our research study began around three month in development after us learned just how seasonal congestion have the right to increase the waiting time from arrival in Colón to an assigned transit date. Most of the year, four to six days is typical. Throughout the high season from so late January with May, six to 20 work is the variety from perfect of measurement and fee payment till an assigned canal transit date. For south Pacific-bound boats, December till mid-January is a sweet spot for minimal delay.

The slowdown escalates v the arrival of the civilization ARC rally. Having waved the fleet turn off in Colombia we made decision to spend a few weeks that leisurely cruising through the turquoise waters of Panama’s Guna Yala instead of adding to the spike in transiting vessels. Hiring an agent was our price to an initial staying in song with the length of the delay, then having an advocate who could aid us uncover a slot to get through sooner throughout the peak-season wait period.


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We arrived in Colón, Panama, adhered to by blustery tradewinds and rolling seas that lastly abated behind the canal zone’s enormous breakwater. Mooring options are few on the Caribbean next of the canal: there space a pair of designated locations for anchoring amongst the advertisement stacks and cargo ships, but they come through security dangers and limited options because that going ashore. Watercrafts waiting much longer than a few days regularly sail either to surrounding Portobelo or further afield come the Guna Yala (San Blas islands) or Bocas del Toro. The lone mooring choice on the Caribbean next is shelter Bay Marina, where we berthed ours Stevens 47 Totem to await transit.

Step one: Get your watercraft measured

Our agent, Erick Galvez with Centenario, met us soon after us tied increase in sanctuary Bay to confirm the process. A friendly confront at the dock and also perfect English softened the news the delays. You have to go through measurement and payment very first before beginning the ACP mechanism to gain a transit date assigned – a transit date cannot be scheduled in advance.

Galvez accepted our payment and also scheduled one Admeasurer (measurements because that transit are only done by an main representative that the Panama Canal Authority, or ACP) for the following day. If you select to carry out paperwork yourself, it’s a contact to the Admeasurer’s office (English is spoken by all canal officials) come arrange a time and location for her boat’s measurement.

Our assigned transit date meant 2 weeks in the marina, but Erick’s efforts sourced multiple opportunities for earlier slots. In the end doing rigging tasks for Pacific-bound vessels sweetened the deal of a much longer stay.


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Heavy duty fenders are vital for rafting up


Step two: Pay canal fees

Galvez took care of payment as part of his agent services, providing a receipt outlining fees. If she organising your own paperwork, the Admeasurer gives a type which you require to Citibank and also pay. The biggest variable is based upon the dimension of her boat. Under 50ft, the transit toll fee is $800. For watercrafts 50-80ft, the fees is $1,300. Length is a true ‘length overall’ including bowsprit, pulpits, davits, etc. Totem’s documentation mirrors our LOA in ~ 46ft 8in but we surpassed 50ft once measured from the prior of our anchor to dinghy davits. Deflating the dinghy edged us just listed below the 50ft note of the Admeasurer’s indisputable tape.

In addition to the ACP charges, a buffer dues of nearly $900 is due. This is a bond come cover potential fines or added charges which could be occurs by absent an assigned slot, being also slow, needing a water taxi because that line handlers, or various other events. An certified dealer covers the buffer fee for you.

For do-it-yourself transiters, the dues (like other official canal tolls) have the right to be paid by credit card, in cash, or bank wire transfer at Citibank together with other typical fees. The buffer will be reimbursed after ~ a effective canal transit is completed.

Our all-in expense to transit the canal (including non-canal certain formalities) was a tiny over $2,000: this consisted of visas, cruising permit, and also clearance fees. It’s a the majority of money, yet Cape Horn and also the phibìc West Passage existing inconvenient options and the necessary gear would certainly have set us back an ext than that!

Every step of the procedure with Canal authorities was over board, the just flaw being a port captain in Colón who asserted an error in our initial entry formalities compelled a $20 fee to correct. As it to be one hour native our reserved departure, us were grounding without any kind of option to problem it – delaying transit can incur one ACP fine. It is one of the just times in our te of seafaring we’ve knowingly paid an ‘unofficial fee’.


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The brand-new Agua Clara/Cocoli looks were opened up in 2016 because that the biggest shipping, but yachts and also smaller ship still use the smaller Gatun/Miraflores locks


Key Costs:

Transit toll  $100/person (or seek volunteers from various other transiters)

Lines/fenders $50-$250

Fender return $12

Cruising permit $197


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From the Caribbean, the leg of the ameri marks the gateway to the Pacific Ocean


Step three: Organise transit logistics

Four heat handlers space compulsory aboard, and also four lines conference canal transit specifications room required. You’ll also want durable fenders.

An agent will certainly organise all of these, or friend can resource them locally yourself. The morning VHF net, marina bulletin board, local Facebook groups, and also the cruiser’s Coconut Telegraph will affix you with local suppliers.


Line handlers are generally recruited from various other cruising boats. Joining a boat to transit is great preparation for taking your boat through, and a method to pay it forward when it’s time to discover your own handlers.

If girlfriend don’t uncover volunteers, competent Panamanians deserve to be rental for roughly $100. Whoever come aboard, make certain they know exactly how to tie a ideal knot and have an easy boat sense, and will be prepared to work instead of take pictures.

Lock lines need to be need to be a minimum of 125ft long and between 7⁄8-11⁄2in (23-38mm) diameter. While most watercrafts will gravitate in the direction of standard fenders, the budget plan option that plastic-wrapped tyres space a fine alternate for protecting your hull from the stormy concrete wall surface or your lock neighbour.

Final prepare to ensure a smooth transit include anticipating meals, snacks, and also beverages because that the duration.

Transit generally takes two days, the night invested tied to a large buoy just exterior the channel in Lake Gatun.

In addition to heat handlers, her crew will include at least one canal torture (occasionally yes sir a trainer/trainee pair). Hot meals space expected by the advisers, as is bottled water and cold Coke. Snacks should be obtainable for the duration.

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Step four: Time to go!

“Cristobal Signal Station, Cristobal Signal Station, this is cruising vessel Totem.” after ~ weeks the anticipation and planning, this VHF speak to to educate the harbor entry co-ordinator the Totem’s location marks the start of our canal journey. We were assigned a one-day transit: the sky was just start to lighten as soon as Totem’s advisor, Roy, was dropped turn off by water taxi. Roy proved to be a significant asset because that ensuring a for sure transit. Cruising watercrafts are most commonly rafted in bag or a trio to transit the canal as a block, and Roy directed our raft’s formation. Totem to be designated centre watercraft (making Roy the command advisor because that the raft) based upon propulsion ability.

We knew we favored Roy as soon as he dryly commented, “Perfect, currently we have big fenders to safeguard us,” upon seeing two aluminum-hulled Ovni seafaring boats method to raft up.

The canal is approximately 37 miles long, many of i beg your pardon is the waterway that Lake Gatun and Culebra Cut in between the trios of locks at each end. Entering from the Caribbean side, three sequential chambers the the Gatun locks lift vessels up around 90ft. Howler primates in the jungle adjacent greeted sunrise together we approached the very first lock behind a big ro-ro car carrier.


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Each yacht has an torture (dropped turn off by water taxi) and also each raft has a lead advisor


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When the lock doors close and water level changes, line handlers stress (or loosen) the lines according to the adviser’s instructions. It’s harder than it sounds and requires close attention. Among the watercrafts next to us was inattentive v easing and caused the raft come shift, a possibly dangerous case for the boats. The crew realised and scrambled come secure the line, and twice almost caught hand in the process. Therefore much much better to keep focused on the role!

Our raft remained intact through the an initial three locks, then separated to overcome Lake Gatun and also proceed v the reduced towards the Pacific next locks. This to be the longest component of the transit, a time for us to relax and enjoy a meal. March is dry season; we could relax in the cockpit because that this component of the journey, learning from ours adviser around his experiences and appreciating the sights: our background buffs anticipated see the crane called Titan that was taken as a second World war prize, and also the pet lovers aboard functioned at spotting birds, monkeys, and also crocodiles (a 3m croc swam alongside us in the Culebra Cut).

The torture isn’t the captain – you’re quiet responsible because that boat and also crew –but our number one takeaway come transit safely is that it’s important to occupational tightly through the adviser. They know the lock conditions: part instructions might seem odd, like directions to turn the watercraft to suggest towards a lock wall, however it’s for a reason. There can be a four-knot existing deflected by the wall, and their goal is to stop the raft indigenous spinning out.

Leaving the Miraflores locks behind, Totem motored towards the bridge of the Americas and the Pacific Ocean. This significant our return to the human body of water where our trip began, the last leg of ours circumnavigation, and also the last weeks aboard as a household of five prior to our eldest heads because that college. A momentous event, suitably experienced by a monumental creation.


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For the Totem family, transiting the Panama Canal marked the closing phase of a ring the people voyage


Tips because that a smooth canal transit

• store decks clear. Relocate or stow items to keep the area roughly bow and stern cleats as clear together possible.

• Ensure every fairleads room fair come start. Re-leading bring away time you might not have actually if currents begin spinning the raft.

• Stern lines take it the most load. Think about running them to a cockpit winch v the stern cleat as a overview to provide much better control and also mechanical advantage.

• Prep heat handlers well. Hold a crew meeting. Make sure they know how an essential it is to be alert: they should not expect to usage a GoPro or post on social media throughout transit.

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• Repeat instructions from the adviser. The confirms you have actually heard and also are responding to the activity called for. It may serve come clarify the adviser’s intentions as soon as issuing fast instructions.