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Transiting the Panama Canal

The crew waits for its lockmates. Transiting the canal often means sharing space with much larger vessels and a watchful eye is needed to negotiate the currents these giants create.
For many cruisers, transiting the Panama Canal signals a milestone in their cruising careers. Whether transiting from the Caribbean to the Pacific and points beyond, or voyaging from the Pacific on to the destinations in the Caribbean, the six locks and 45 miles of waterways offer an alluring short cut between continents.

As most who have been through the famed isthmus will attest, the Canal was not designed for small boats. The scale is immense. The lock doors weigh 800 tons a piece, but are so precisely balanced on their hinges that only a 40-horsepower engine is required to get them to open and close. The volume of freshwater filling each lock is 2,675,200 cubic meters, or enough liquid to supply a city of 100,000 people for a day. Each lock is 85 feet deep and 1,000 feet long. The maximum length of a ship able to transit the Panama Canal is 965 feet long and 106 feet wide. The locks are 110 feet wide, leaving little room for piloting error. This and the 24-hour operation hint at the philosophy governing the Canal—namely, to maximize the number of vessels passing through the waterway.

The three sets of locks of the two-lane Canal work as water elevators that lift the ships to the level of Gatun Lake, 85 feet above sea level, across the Continental Divide, and later lower them again to sea level on the other side of the Isthmus of Panama. Once a cruising boat is in the lock, usually accompanied by other cruising boats, tugs, fishing vessels from around the world, and container and other bulk carriers of every possible configuration, the water from the lake fills the lock, raising the vessels 33 feet in seven minutes.

The forces inside the lock are likewise huge, and the currents boil like river rapids. Going up the locks (from the Pacific to the Caribbean), a cruising boats are required to travel astern of the ships. When the ship in front starts its giant engines, turning, the prop wash can wreak havoc. Make sure the captain of the ship in front of your vessel knows he has a small craft close behind lest you bear the brunt of 30,000 horsepower in motion. Going down the locks, the smaller vessel is in front. While most cruising boats transit with no problems, boats have been damaged by collisions with tugs and ships in the canal, or broken loose from raft ups. The mix of salt water and freshwater of Lake Gatun also alters the currents. Half-inch lines have snapped under tremendous strain, and cleats have been sent flying with disastrous consequences.

Few cruising boats just show up and transit the Canal. A long paper trail has to be completed before making it to this point.
The crew of a voyaging vessel should also know that cruising boats are on the bottom of the totem poll when it comes to scheduling a transit. We made a transit from the Pacific to the Caribbean in 1999 aboard a 26-foot Westerly Centaur, and our delay of two weeks paled in comparison to many vessels that waited a month or more to get through. There are generally more cruising boats coming from the Caribbean and Europe heading to the Marquesas and South Pacific than there are boats traveling from the Pacific to the Caribbean, which may have been one factor for our short wait. For many vessels, the Canal area is a place to replenish stores, buy spare parts, and make repairs, so the attendant delays are only one part of the larger picture. For the crews of vessels that are in a hurry, however, each rescheduling on a moment’s notice and every cancellation can become a teeth-grinding experience that you're essentially powerless to do much about. Make sure that patience is in ample supply when you prepare for a transit.

There are a number of steps required to get the paperwork rolling. You can pay an agent to do the paperwork for you, or do it yourself. Customs, immigration, and the port captain may need to be visited. Tourist cards may also need to be obtained if the crew expects to be in the country for more than three months. Arrangements need to be made with the Panama Canal Commission for the boat to be measured. Every vessel transiting the Canal is essentially treated like a cargo ship. The Canal Commission will then send out someone to your boat via a Canal pilot boat for measuring your vessel's length, beam, and calculating its interior volume. These 40-foot steel boats and their hefty engines are designed to deploy pilots on to ships by essentially ramming up along side them. The boat bringing our measurer took several heart-stopping passes that nearly claimed both the barbeque and the solar panels.

Tying up alongside a canal tug is the easiest way to transit, although the decision of how your vessel makes the trip through the Canal will ultimately be made by your advisor.
After this the transit fee must be paid, ( in 1999 payment was cash only, although the policy may have changed) a somewhat daunting prospect. It should be noted that Colon on the Caribbean side is a tough town. Cruisers are regularly mugged here, some on the short walk to the bus station, despite repeated warnings. If you leave the confines of the Panama Canal Yacht Club, do so only in taxis. And if you are packing serious dough, take a cab and some friends. Panama City also demands caution, a few wrong turns can send you walking into a seriously wrong part of town, as we found out—just as it can in many cities in the US. We found the busses safe, if colorful and loud.

For vessels up to 50 feet, the most recent rates for the transit according to the San Pedro Miguel Yacht Club was $500—a small fortune if you are on a cruising budget, although still the cheapest alternative for getting from the Atlantic to the Pacific. There is also an $800 security deposit of sorts that must also be forked over, which you can evidently now put on a credit card. This amount is then refunded in the mail about a month later. It should be noted that these rates are subject to change, as the website for the Canal ( ominously declares the current tariffs are being revised.

Despite being an engineering marvel, the Canal is showing its age. The first complete Panama Canal passage by a self-propelled, oceangoing vessel took place on January 7, 1914—and the years since have waged an ongoing battle with corrosion and metal fatigue as the soldiers attacking the Canal. Nonetheless, traffic here is on the rise. Transits increased 1.3 percent, averaging 33.9 per day for a total of 5,125 this year. For a comparison, the average cost of a ship transiting the Canal is $34,000, and some tariffs have exceeded $100,000, making small, slow, resource-consuming pleasure boats not exactly a priority for Canal authorities. 

Each vessel must have four 125-foot lines, four line handlers, a pilot, and a helmsman. It's a good idea to make the transit on someone else's boat first, before taking yours across.
Once the fee is paid, the boat has a scheduling time that needs to be checked on a daily basis, and several times a day before the actual transit. Each cruising boat needs four line handlers, four 125-foot lines of appropriate diameter for the size boat, as well as four heavy-duty cleats capable of taking the immense loads the Canal dishes out. You can either have four lines for the transit on board, or beg and borrow lines from your fellow cruisers. If you can, make the trip aboard someone else’s vessel first as a line handler before taking your own boat through. It will be an educational experience. If you’re short on crew and friends, local line handlers can be hired for roughly $50 per person per day. The pilots prefer to have cruising boats transit the canal in one day, if possible, although we did ours in two.

There is an official five-knot minimum—a law we violated due to mechanical problems (a malfunctioning oil pressure sender falsely indicated imminent and catastrophic engine failure, and may have done permanent damage to my nerves in the process). The 10 tires wrapped in plastic bags hanging over the topsides, a full load of diesel, water, food, and family members altered the handling characteristics of our boat markedly. Our pilot somewhat scornfully referred to our boat as the slowest boat ever! For boats that break down inside the canal, stiff penalties amounting to several hundred dollars per night have been levied in the past. Check and recheck your vessel's engine to ensure there are no mechanical problems.

Once in the locks, a boat can transit several different ways. The first is the easiest, tying up alongside a tug. Every ship has a tug that accompanies it through the canal. Once the ship is in place, held by small rail engines and cables, cruising boats can dock alongside the tug. A cruising vessel can also be rafted up with other cruising vessels, three or four abreast, depending on vessel size. Here there are only four lines, on the corners of the vessels, and given the international nature of the cruising community, care must be taken to assure that communication is clear among all parties. You can also tie up in the center of the chamber, but this requires the four line handlers on board adjust the lines to keep the boat in the center. Although most boats are advised not to tie up along side the rough lock walls, it is also an option.

These big smiles mean that a new ocean is only moments away.

Every boat traniting the Canal is required to have an accompanying pilot, who communicates with the other pilots and the lockmaster regarding logistics for making the passage. The pilot decides how the boats entering the lock will be arranged. The pilots for cruising boats are junior pilots in training for larger ships. They do not steer the boat, that’s the captain’s job, and if the situation looks like it’s getting dicey, it’s the captain’s call as to whether or not continue. When it’s all said and done, the crews of transiting vessels find that they're possessed of contrdictory emotions—equal parts relief that it’s over, and anticipation regarding  the multiple destinations that a new ocean offers.

Mark Matthews is offline  
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