We were privileged to experience the Panama Canal Performance, while sailing the world.
If you prefer to listen to this story, click here for Turning Your Cruising Dreams into Reality Podcasts.
A shroud of mystery envelopes the modus operandi for traversing the Panama Canal. Gossip, rumour and dare I say, a little tittle-tattle gave the crew of Mariah II some serious forehead creases as we approached the infamous isthmus.
There are assorted methods to choose from to achieve the same thing. Whether at anchor, or in the mosquito infested marina, there is a standard three days to complete all the paperwork. Once you have handed over all your dollars to anyone you meet, lied through your teeth and signed your life away, you accomplish your “go through” date. Depending how you reach this highly sought status, those three days can be effortless or can feel as though you have a three day pass into hell.
Colon, is a dangerous city. It has been for years and there is no sign of improvement. Almost 30% of the population are unemployed and their idea of making a buck is somewhat frightening. While at anchor we hear about a death and several muggings only 200 yards from the cool, shabby bar on shore. The anchorage (The Flats) is safe, but each night dinghies are vanishing at a scary rate of knots, at least four went missing in our fun-filled ten day stay. It makes you wonder how much longer before the dinghy thieves expand their business into other malicious endeavours. On shore, imprisoned within the compound (high wall with barbed wire), you are safe. Tough guys, with immense attitude instead of sense, walk into town, we think for $US1 taxi fare why take the risk? We can cluck with the biggest chickens, but why play lotto with your life to save a buck? A murder in Colon is as regular as boat maintenance.
Where to start
Contrary to speculation, you can complete all the paperwork yourself. Since a probable mugging and potential death is part and parcel of this option I would advise against it. Also, we are told, that a fine of $US5-6,000 is applied if the paperwork is not completed properly. Hiring an agent costs an extra 10% of your total fee (see fees below) with which you acquire the privilege of cooking a “steak dinner” for your mediator. The rewards are slim, maybe “buying” one day and you can still be ungraciously bumped like the rest of us. We opt for the “taxi driver” option, this does have its pitfalls but the drivers offer steerage through a seemingly rudderless experience. For $US30 an English speaking driver will take you to each office in turn in an air conditioned car with locks. They will help you complete the forms that are in Spanish, (this was particularly helpful to the ignorant crew on Mariah II) and explain what the beejeezus is going on. BUT, your wits should still be dialled onto high alert, the drivers are there to make as many green bits of paper as possible. The smiley taxi driver who assigned himself to us told a few half truths that unchecked, would have cost us bundles more in hidden fees. Other taxi drivers we found very trustworthy, it is good practice to check/compare information with other boaties.
Have your patient head on. The Immigration office is near the laundry and showers, within the grandly named compound. Have boat papers and crew list in triplicate at the ready. Here they will officially stamp and sign one of the crew lists, hang on to this, the remaining box tickers will want to see it. It’s here that the taxi drivers will start touting for business. Once a driver has selected you, sit back, lock your door and enjoy the surreal surrounds from relative safety. At Customs you complete an inordinate detailed form that covers all but your inside leg measurement. This is for each person that has arrived in Panama via boat.
Next the marine office, where a young officer will stamp paperwork, sign, log and scribble, smile politely and hand you more bits of paper. Lastly, as you start sagging at the knees with heat and a tree load of paper, you arrive at the advisors/schedulers office. Here they look at one or two of the sheaves you possess then arrange for the admeasurer to come the following day to measure your boat.
This is where the pressure starts mounting. They say the admeasurer will come to your boat between 9 am and 2 pm. What they actually mean is he will arrive about 1 pm leaving you in a panic. You pay your transit fee after the admeasurer has given you another piece of paper and you can only pay at a bank. In order not to loose a whole precious day it’s a good idea to be measured and pay the same day, however the bank frustratingly shuts at 2 pm. I think this is a cunning plan by the officials to buy more time. After hearing of the 2-3 week delay in locking through, the crew onboard Mariah II were a mite stressful and anxious to reach the bank, needless to say, it did not happen. To give you a smidgen of a chance to complete these two simple tasks on the same day, keep a sharp look out for the admeasurer. A boat with “pilot” written on the side will cruise the anchorage, the admeasurer will stand on the bow in a life jacket. Ferocious waving, perhaps a horn and a good lot of shouting to make yourself known is a good idea as they have a great problem in spotting you. If the pilot does not see you, or cannot jump onboard as your sun covers are in the way he will shrug his shoulders and tootle off home. Once onboard, he’ll run a tape measure from your bow to stern (including all your added gadgets), then meet you in the bar at an agreed time. Try to complete the paperwork onboard, this may help lessen the numerous delays. If you are meeting in the bar, get there early and pounce as soon as you spot him. If you don’t someone else will and an hour or so later, you’ll get your chance to complete a tonne of paperwork. By then 2 pm has been and gone so you might as well have a beer or two and arrange a taxi driver to take you to the bank the following day.
All the paperwork has a little box where you write your speed. Never has a little square on a piece of paper raised so much background debate. This is where true blue honest cruisers struggle. Take heed, lie or you won’t go through.
You have to put 8 knots. You know your lying, they know your lying and you all know, you all know you are lying. Still, put 8 knots. Sitting with our friendly admeasurer the strain of blatant deceit takes its toll and Noel takes a punt at suggesting 7 knots. It is still a lie, but a splash closer to the truth. In response, the official screws up his eyebrows, frowns and says “I’ll just put 8 knots anyhow!” It’s all a game of ticking the right boxes and writing what they want to read.
Go to the bank early to avoid heat and queues. You can pay by cash or visa. If you can pay by visa do, as they will take the fee and simply swipe the card for the buffer, not actually taking the buffer unless you cause damage. If you pay with cash they will take the fee and the buffer. The buffer is returned, if all’s well, six weeks later to an address you have specified. Only after paying you reach the end of your yellow brick road and you can call the wizard after 6 pm, to acquire your “go through” date.
Handling the handlers
Satisfied and a little smug that we already have line handlers in the form of family, we are a little deflated to find out we need yet another person. My Dad, Roy and Noel’s brother Col have flown in from the UK and Australia respectively, after harassing us for a year to ensure their place onboard for the great event. Squished onboard with three large men I was a little thrown to hear I’ve another person to cater for. Four line handlers are required, plus the helmsman. Finding helping hands can become tricky. In an ideal world, you line handle for a boat and they return the favour. However, the words ‘ideal’ and ‘boats’ just don’t go in the same sentence. It falls down when the first boat reaches the Pacific and the relatively safe city of Balboa and the crew cringes of the thought of returning to crime riddled Colon to return the line handling favour. Desirable and not so desirable backpackers mill around looking for a free ride through (although some want paying!). Taxi drivers with dollars ringing in their eyes will spiel a story how pilots have been known to leave a boat if backpackers are part of the crew. What they do not realise is that we are all backpackers of a sorts, living on our wits, just travelling with our home afloat, instead of on our backs. Employing the drivers men is an option, which at $US55 per day each is exactly what they are trying to achieve. We have seen these guys in action, while causing no major problems their attention span is that of a bored gnat. The day before our departure we found Michael, a backpacker. A great find for us, he was helpful, friendly, ready to muck in and all round good company. You will feed your line handlers for the duration, give them a bed for the night (if required) and the fare back to wherever you departed from. (If possible, ask them to bring their own bed sheet and pillow case to cut down on your deluge of laundry.)
Girl Guide/Boy Scout
Be prepared. Food forethought, preparation and paper plates will save your sanity. With six hungry labour onboard, timing is of the essence. Once your pilot arrives, feed him. From the anchorage (or marina) to the first lock there is plenty of time. Have a meal prepared that simply needs re-heating for the rest of the crew, they will have to wait until you complete the first three locks until they are fed. Nibble items, will help keep vocal and tummy grumbles at bay. Heading south most boats depart in the evening, giving a comfy day and a half to complete the journey. Heading north you have to do it in one day, this is where parts of the speed battle slot into place and the 8 knot game can be won or lost, but we’ll get to that.
My Dad (Roy), Noel and I encountered our first experience of locking through onboard “Theta”, a NZ sail boat with our friends Barry and Judy. It is far less stressful when it is not your boat and fun if you’re lucky enough to like the people you line handle for. Right here you can dispel the rumour that you have to be big, strong and tough to line handle! For me, being the prime caterer, finding out how to balance constantly feeding the masses while still being part of the line handler team was crucial for my enjoyment. We believe it is important to lock-through with another boat first. To see and understand what happens can make your journey onboard your boat far less stressful.
What you need
You will need 4 x 36 metre lines void of knots and fraying. The lines should be 30 mm with a metre long, spliced loop at one end. Most likely you will only use two sets, but spares are a requirement as you may tie on your own, in the middle of the lock, requiring the four lines. You can hire these from the taxi drivers for $US60 ($US15 each). Some boats are asked for a $US50 deposit some are not. We obviously looked a bit dodgy and warily handed over the deposit. For fenders you can hire tyres for $US3 each and 5 tyres each side, for a 10-15 metre boat is ample. Hiring the ropes and fenders is a hassle free bargain. Once you reach Balboa the ropes are collected from shore and your deposit returned, the tyres are collected from your boat (for $US1 per tyre). Keep your alert antennae high, a particularly greedy taxi driver, through his cheerful banter, quoted us an additional $US20 to have our lines collected at the other end. He was hoping we’d cough it up there and then. You do not need to pay this.
Locking through options
You are offered four choices of how you want to lock through, you choose three. These are your preference only, your pilot will decide on the day how you go through. (1) Rafting up with one or two other boats and tying in the middle of the lock. (2) Going alone and tying to the side of the lock, against the wall.(3) Going alone in the middle and (4) Alongside a tug. The least favourite is against the wall. Going up the turbulence could spin your boat causing damage on the concrete wall. But, it all depends who you go through with. Talk of a separate day for sailing boats to traverse the locks is a big fat hairy rumour currently churning it’s way through the mill. We went through with ships, tugs and other sailboats.
Bumps of the frustrating kind
Between line handling on another boat, organising our line handlers, equipment and ferrying water, I felt as though I was running in four directions at once and should be hauling up the white flag, instead I duly called the scheduler every other day, or when instructed. Almost everybody gets bumped, we hear of only one boat bumped forward by a day (only after being bumped back). You can even get bumped on the day you are going. Minimum wait is a week (the later in the season the better). There are additional options to hand over cosmic amounts of cash to speed things up and hand pick pilots, but we were more likely to pluck stars from the sky and selecting pilots you do not know maybe a little hard.
The compound has a café/restaurant. Cheap eats are available daily in an air- conditioned, fly free seated area. Burgers became a daily way to survive, grabbing the most convenient, cheap, quick meal as we gallop through the compound on our next mission. The added benefit of a hit of sodium, carbs and salt help keep us at full speed ensuring we fulfil the day’s projects. We give no thought of hardening arteries and bulging fat tanks and the intolerable levels of adrenaline killing heart cells left right and centre – our laid back life has long gone over the horizon – youthful heart failure, de rigueur.
Finally on your way
For ten days we sail along the stressful stream of organising our transit, preparing the team and are finally on our way. It is a good idea to take up your anchor or leave the marina in preparation for the arrival of your advisor/pilot. Between 1700 and 1800 we mill around the anchor site and our advisor jumps onboard. Thoughtfully, he has already eaten, but manages to post a few yummy muffins down his throat. Heading south we putter for about three miles, ensure the crew/line handlers are ‘nibble-satisfied’ and await clearance. The first three locks are in succession and this is where the turbulence can be fierce as the water is let into the huge concrete bath. Our pilot instructs us to raft to a similar size boat and advises which boat supplies which lines. You need lines with a little give, despite what anyone says, when a tug boat hoons past you creating a tidal wave, you will be happy to have taken this advice! At these times, fending off is not an option, you can fix boats but not limbs. One boat will be the main driver, the pilots will discuss this and tell you exactly what they want, they will provide precise and constant direction.
As you enter the first lock, take a peek at the men at the side swinging ropes. They will hurl these at you with startling accuracy, one aft, one fore. Keep your eyes on the ball, or what is known as the monkey fist. On the end of the rope there is a ball of metal, if this hits you, it hurts – take it from me. Organise your line handlers in teams, fore and aft. Once the line is onboard, come out of hiding and tie the ropes they have thrown to the loop at the end of your lines onboard. You will then be led into the lock like a dog on a lead. Once nearing position, someone somewhere will shout and this is the signal to feed your lines out, so that the linesmen onshore can loop your lines onto their bollards. Once your line is affixed to their bollard it is your job to tighten/release as required. As the first three locks are one after another, the shore based line handlers, keep the lines and simply lead you through.
Various accounts of pilot’s attitudes seep through the quagmire of gossip. We hear good and bad things about the same people. When it comes down to it, it is about moods on the day and personalities. The 5 or 6 different pilots we witnessed on our two journeys, liked to snooze and eat. They were, however, alert when locking through. With plenty of good food, shade and obedience you will have a smooth passage.
The paperwork clearly states that if through a fault of the canal officials, you are delayed, then they will bear the costs. But, read on for the shrewdly inserted clause stating that if you cannot do the declared speeds (8 knots) and cause a delay, an addition $US440 will be chargeable. This can be a problem if you are heading north, having to complete the whole canal in one day and you incur delays at the locks. If your day goes smoothly you should have enough time to do a lesser speed. However, if pressed for time, you will be asked to do the 8 knots. Mostly, locking through is quick, with little delay which graces most boats with enough time.
The end of the beginning
After the third lock, put your faith in your pilot as he will guide you to the mooring buoys. The stretch of water here is unmarked and by now darkness has laid her thick cloak. There are two large mooring buoys, choose one to tie alongside to. (Or raft to another boat, if the buoys are already full). The buoys are large and you can easily step onto them to affix your lines. Anchoring is allowed, however it is very deep (over 30 metres) and mooring is quick, safe and easy.
By now you are all hot and sticky and heady with the excitement of being on top of a hill in Panama! The fresh water beckons and although 9 pm at night Mariah II’s crew donned cossies and dived into the cool, refreshing water. The surplus of fresh water is a such a treat the shampoo gets a good airing. However, be warned, crocodiles lurk here. The following morning a nearby French boat’s crew enjoy a swim. As dawn grazed the sky a small boat with a large man and even a larger gun headed towards the swimmers “ I say” someone said in their best British accent, “they’re going to shoot the French!” I could not help but notice the crowds gathering. The gun stayed prone, but the warning was clear, to us all, you must not swim, if you do it is at your own risk, “there are many many crocodiles here” came the stern statement. This caused more than a few shudders onboard Mariah II.
The beginning of the end
As dawn peeks through the dark cloak of night, be ready to leave. Do not untie from your mooring or raise your anchor until the pilot is on board. Each member of our crew receives a severe reprimand as we had released our lines just moments before the pilot stepped on board – not a good start. After our pilot ate a fully cooked breakfast, had a snooze and admitted that he had not slept the previous night, we turned our dower, scowling faces, to more cheerful welcoming smiles. A-top of the hill, before your final three locks you can enjoy 30 miles of puttering through glistening lakes enclosed within vivid fauna and well marked channels. Smaller boats are guided through the Banana Cut, a slightly quicker route avoiding some of the larger channel for bigger ships. The last three locks are easy, water is let out and you are gently eased down. Be aware of other boats turbulence. A large propeller, gently eased into gear in front of your bow can make the peaceful water turn tumultuous in moments.
Here you may encounter tourist boats where school children will divert your attention for a wave and a smile. You will pass an incredibly ugly concrete viewing building where locals and tourists can sit with a coffee and watch the strange amalgamation of boats ease in and out of sight. As you putter into the last lock, the monkey line dodging is over and the inviting Pacific Ocean glimmers below, nostalgia and emotion mix like bubbling wakes, for us it is more than five years since we have glided through this great ocean. We are on our last leg back to Australia. Urgently we are snapped out of our reverie, the last lock has a powerful push of water coming through, lines must be affixed promptly, day-dreaming and reminiscing has to wait.
At last the mighty doors creek open and free the placid boats and fidgety crew into the channel. The pilot will jump ship shortly after the last lock and you race just a few miles to Balboa, in order to pick up an elusive mooring.
To moor or to anchor?
The moorings (Balboa Yacht Club) are often full, but with boats coming and going regularly if you are patient you will find a free mooring. This is not as easy as it sounds, the adrenaline come-down after completing the locks leaves you weary and wanting just to tie up safely, stop and consume inordinate amounts of alcohol. The moorings cost us $US13 per day (for our 10 m boat) and anchoring is free, but there are bonuses (and I never thought I’d say it) for paying out money. (1) you do not have to use your dinghy (free taxis give you rides to and from shore and/or other boats). (2) it is safe and secure (3) ropes are collected from the dock (4) tyres are collected from your boat (5) the bar is four boat length’s away!
To anchor it is free, however it is (1) not so secure, your dinghy will be left on a remote dock. (2) further from town . (3) two miles away from the majority of boaties and bar where you can have a good yak. Again, it comes down to personal choice.
Post canal debrief
Chattering boaties fill the bar nightly. A heady mix of fatigue, relief and tangible excitement stirs through the tables. Burgers and beer are too readily available, the crew on Mariah II clean forget the quantity of starch we have consumed pre canal and crave more fuel to enable us to tell others of our canal crossing and patiently listen to their experience. Audible sighs and clinking of glasses welcome the vivid sunset across the resting boats, swinging peacefully on moorings. We sit contentedly and wonder what the hell all the fuss and worry was about.
I hope you enjoyed our Panama Canal Experience, here is a video on how the Canal works. The details below are from 2006
Transit Costs (US dollars)
|Length Overall ()||Transit Fixed Fee||Buffer||Total Deposit Fee|
|Up to 15||$600.00||$850.00||$1450.00|
|50 <length< = 24||$850.00||$850.00||$1700.00|
- Anchor in “The Flats” (Balboa), just west of the marina, is free. You can complete all necessary paperwork from here.
- $2 per day for dinghy dock (except Sundays and Bank Holidays when it is free.)
- Beer is cheap
- Dinner in the compound is good and very reasonable
- There are not checks in place to confirm you have had a Yellow Fever Jab (we have not).
- Back-packers are not allowed as line handlers – they are, this is a taxi drivers ploy to hire him/his men
- It costs $20 to have your lines collected – another taxi driver try on
- If collecting crew/family from Panama City International Airport you can only get there by taxi – untrue – you CAN get a bus to within spitting distance (the second bus will leave your bones in pieces, but it is possible)
- You need a visa to enter the country.
- Listen to SSB/VHF, talk to other boaties to find the right frequencies.
- Have lots of food on board (sometimes the pilot on the boat you are rafted too needs extra fodder!)
- We saw no benefit in hiring an agent (for a boat under 15 m this would be $600 fee plus $850 buffer, therefore 10% of 1$450, $145)
Post Canal Info
- The bus from Balboa back to Colon has since been a target for thieves.
- A person has been taken by crocodiles in the fresh water lakes between the locks, swimming is now banned.
- You check into Colon when you complete the paperwork for your transit through the canal. Visit the immigration office at the compound, an immigration office in town and the Port Authority.
- Officially, you have to check out of Colon and into Balboa.
- The marina (moorings) at Balboa, houses the immigration officer who will inspect your papers. An agricultural official will want to visit your boat. Do ensure you seek out the marine officer if he does not come to you. Charges are minimal (and inconsistent), paperwork is huge. They will have no change so ensure you have plenty of change and small denomination notes.
Costs – Colon (checking in/out) – US dollars
- Immigration at compound – no charge
- Cruising permit at Port Authority (at Colon) – $65
- Immigration office in town – no charge
- Customs office – $11 per person (that arrives by boat)
- Port Captain – $8.20
- Quarantine – no charge
Costs- Balboa (checking in/out) – US dollars
- Port Authority/Marine Office – $15 + $1.50 + $16.40 for Zarpé (exit papers)
- Ministry of Agriculture – $15
2 thoughts on “Sailing the World – Panama Canal Performance”
Thanks for refreshing my memory. It seems such along time ago. It was a good year. I bought a motorhome in Vancouver,drove down the west coast of USA to Las Vegas, flew to Panama ,bus to Colon. Through the mighty Panama Canal on the mighty Mariah 2 ,which was the highlight of my trip.Fly Panama back to Las Vegas, pick up motorhome and drive back to Vancouver. Sold motorhome and flew home to Sydney. Once again thanks for inviting me to be a member of Mariah 2 going through the Panama Canal on part of your circumnavigation of the world.
HI Col! I couldn’t think of better crew! What fabulous memories…. You and Dad made the entire trip what it was, the best times of our life. I had great fun recording this and looking through the pictures. I remember your plane ride too – that was hairy another thrill you didn’t need! xxoxoxox