Panama Canal Transit Process

Below is the text and a link to a Microsoft Word document that details the process I used and recommend to transit the Panama Canal.  It is about going South to North, but the process is the same in Balboa, just the players are different.  Using this process and walking through the steps allowed me to cross paying only the minimum ACP fee plus $80 for the four lines you need.  Enjoy.

Canal Transit Process

Revision 4

August 6, 2008

This was composed by M/V Jenny from several accounts from other vessels that made the South to North transit and our own experience.

1) Buy the Eric Bauhaus Panama Cruising Guide and read the canal transit chapter.

2) Stay at the Flamenco Signal area first. In the rainy season we anchored north of Perico Island at Flamenco and used the Flamenco Marina dingy dock. They charge $5.25 a day and it is worth the fee. They take laundry drop offs and get it back for you. Their fuel dock is the only place we found in the area (both sides) with reliable clean diesel.

There is Capitan Del Puerto, Immigration and customs offices are right there. Elias was the Port Captain when we arrived and he was wonderful. He took us in his car through the whole check-in process. Check in and take care of your Immigration, Customs, cruising permit, etc. Watch out for roaming "port captains". They seem to be on the make and I’m not sure they are official.

3) Do all shopping and provisioning from the Panama City side. There are excellent malls, grocery stores, Price Smart, etc. You can get clean fuel and propane on this side. There are many marine supply sources too. Arturo at the Marine Warehouse in the YMCA building can get you anything from any catalog or Web site. If you can wait a couple of weeks for delivery, they only charged us $40 to deliver from Miami by boat. Do not expect to find anything on the Colon side including fuel and propane.

4) Before attempting the transit, go as a line-handler on someone else's boat. A practice transit is a no worries opportunity to learn firsthand exactly what to do, and equally important what not to do to prepare for and execute a safe passage. When on your 'practice' transit, note everything that happens and especially any changes you might need to make to process or boat to be able to cleanly catch the messenger lines and get them attached to the main lines.

5) While in the anchorage network with the other boats and assess how many line handlers you need (max 4), 125 ft lines and tires. We got our tires from another boat that just came through. We then passed them on to keep them circulating. They were well wrapped with good hanging lines. We ended up with a full crew of line handlers from other cruising boats, and only needed the four 125 ft lines. This is not a complex job but some strength is needed to manage the 125 ft 1 inch lines. Most cruisers are strong enough.

6) If you need to rent line handlers, tires or lines then you need Tony. Contact Tony the taxi driver at 6-228-0721. Tony knows everything there is to know about Panama City, where anything and everything can be found, how the paperwork shuffle goes. He also can provide the necessary 125-ft lines, tires and line-handlers if you need them.

If you are in a hurry or are concerned about the paperwork, Tony can walk you through the process and take you where you need to go, in the right sequence. He charged us $80 for the lines, and tires cost $5 each for a total of $50 for 10. Each line handler cost $60. These charges include the cost of Tony picking up the crew and equipment on the other side. Make sure you have specified where he will pick them up. If you plan to stay at the Shelter Bay marina, then require them to be picked up there. Tony also drives a van that is handy for major shopping excursions in Panama City and he knows the area inside and out. If you have somewhere challenging to go to, he will know how. He charges $10 / hour.

7) When you are ready to go take a taxi to the ACP administration building and complete the form to request admeasurement. This is building 429 and is within walking distance of the YMCA building. Most Taxi drivers know the way. The administrative person speaks excellent English. You will also receive a transit guide with information about steps to take and phone numbers to call. This starts the transit process. The administration person will give you a date when the Admeasure will show up at your boat. Expect the Admeasure to be scheduled for the next day. You will need a local phone number for them to call. We found having a local cell phone very useful for shopping and coordinating our transit. If you do not have one, then you can use Tony’s, but then Tony is becomes indispensible to your transit for a few days.

Your boat must be at one of three places: the Flamenco Marina ($80 / day), the Playita anchorage on the other side of the causeway, or at the Balboa Yacht Club. They will not come to the north anchorage. We chose the first because we wanted also to load a serious supply of drinks and groceries. Also, the Balboa YC was full.

8) The Admeasure person shows up in the morning, measures your boat and fills out a bunch of forms for you to sign. One of them has the parameters for the cost of your transit and has to be taken to the CitiBank by the YMCA building. CitiBank location information is in the guide you get and is an easy cab ride. Go to the bank that afternoon (before 3:00 PM and have $1500 cash on hand or a Visa card that will accept a cash charge for a boat that measures under 50 feet. That night you can call the ACP to find out your transit date. The evening before your transit you call them again to find out your start time. We were measured on Tuesday and got a Saturday transit date. Take notice of the copy center next door. You’ll be back.

9) The day before your transit you must clear out of Balboa. You can get a national Zarpe for Cristobal on the other side and another for your next stop, etc. However, we checked out to "Cartagena via San Blas and ports as necessary". That way, we hope to have not more Panama paper dances. Elias recommended this way. Tony is useful for the clearing out process as there are several stops to make with driving in between.

10) When you weigh anchor, call the Flamingo Signal on VHF Channel 12 to request permission to proceed to your advisor pickup location and to receive instructions on our Canal advisor pick-up procedure, time and place.

11) Provide a good breakfast for your crew, and especially the Advisor. We served fresh fruit, a baked egg/ham dish, assorted rolls and muffins, as well as hot and cold drinks. Since the Advisor did not arrive until around 10:00, we fed the crew first.

12) Remember that your Advisor has done this a thousand times before, and that his advice and instructions should be followed without question. Remember, too, that he has no legal responsibility for the safety of your boat. That remains with the captain/owner. The advisor not only tells you where to go and when, he also instructs the lock side line handlers about where to place your boat and coordinates how you are tied up. You may have a different tie up at each lock. He also helps instruct your line handlers and provides a history of the locks and can answer many other questions. However, if you don’t like what he is instructing you to do, tell him you won’t. For example, we were rafted (nested) with a sail boat on our starboard side and had used all our fenders to assure there was no damage. Our advisor then told us we were to raft to a tug on our port side. I told him I would not do it since I had used all my fenders already. We went center lock.

13) When in the locks, make all your movements with determination. Remember that you are the captain and that the crew is just that, not guests along for the ride. An overcautious or sloppy crew can be a recipe for damage or disaster. If you have a power windlass up front, make it ready to use for the forward lines. Ditto aft winches.

14) It's very hot in the Canal, so have plenty of nonalcoholic drinks on ice, and let everyone know they are welcome to them. Food is important, too. We were told that not long before, a French boat made the transit without providing any food. Not only did the Advisor phone an extremely expensive caterer and have lunch delivered to Lake Gatun, but he also imposed a $300 fine!

15) Don't worry too much about being able to maintain eight knots across the 28-mile-long lake that makes up most of the Canal. Your Advisor may make you push, but we haven't heard of anyone who missed the next lock from being too slow. We averaged just over seven knots. You need to be at the Gatún locks by 7:30 PM in order to be sure of a one day transit though. Note that your down lock schedule and tie up is created as you transit through the lake and is determined by your ETA. So, have the canal transit route in your electronic chart plotter, and activate the route so you have a continuous ETA at the Gatún lock. Your advisor will use this information to set you up to down lock.

16) Also have routes from the Gatún lock to each of the below destinations. It will be dark out and possibly very windy. You will need to know how to get to each destination comfortably.

17) Once you arrive at the Caribbean side, your Advisor will be whisked away on a pilot boat before you get to the Flats. If you have Junior on board (the best of Tony’s line handlers), he will be your only guide then. Unless otherwise arranged, Tony picks up his crew and materials at the Panama Canal Yacht club. However, there may not be any space to land and you will get there after dark. Even though the Yacht Club basin is wind and wave protected. I recommend that you require Tony to arrange for a Panga to come out to your boat to pick up the crew and materials or arrange to have him pick everything up in Shelter Bay if that is where you are going. If you have guest line handlers, he will also take them back to the Panama City location of their boat. However this is not a friendly act. The drive back at night is uncomfortable at best. We recommend keeping your guests aboard and put them on an express bus the next day.

18) Our Canal transit went like clockwork, and we popped out and into the Caribbean just in time for dinner. Once on that side, the choices are:


a) As I understand it, the Panama Canal YC was shut down and demolished so is no longer an option. 

b) Anchor in The Flats, which given the industrial look, slimy holding and demise of the yacht club, was not that appealing to us.

c) Lastly, there is Shelter Bay Marina, which is a brand new marina across the bay from Colon. It has new concrete floating docks, a restaurant with tablecloths, a plasma screen TV in the bar, and Jacuzzi tubs in the showers.