An Awesome Panama Canal Transit

One of the Great Memories

Posted: August 20, 2015

The Panama Canal Transit will be one of the great memories of your sailing career. You’ll get up-close-and-personal experience with the huge machinery of the locks, cruise ships, container ships, tropical waterways, and get a different perspective on the magnitude of world commerce.

I’ve transited the Panama Canal three times and (also drawing on the expertise of many others) here is an overview of what you’ll need to do and what you should expect. The rules and procedures do change from time to time so no matter how you have planned ahead, when you arrive in Panama for a transit, you’ll need to check with local sources for updates to this information (and see the links at the end of this article).

Yachts typically are placed astern of ships when locking up and ahead going down.
Photo by: Lyn Gateley [CC BY-SA 2.0]

Transit Background

The Panama Canal links the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Even though we think of the Caribbean as being east of the Pacific, looking at the map, you’ll see that the canal runs largely northwest-southeast and the Caribbean end of the Canal is actually west of the Pacific end. Accordingly, we won’t speak of “eastbound” or “westbound” because it’s just too confusing, rather we’ll use “from the” Caribbean or Pacific side.

From the Caribbean, you’ll enter through Limon bay with the City of Colon and the port of Cristobal on the east side. Then up a set of three locks (“Gatun Locks”) which will raise your boat 85 feet to Gatun Lake—across the lake to Gaillard Cut (aka “Culebra Cut”)—then down one lock (“Pedro Miguel”)—then a set of two locks (“Miraflores”) and out past the La Playita Marina/Anchorage to the Gulf of Panama in the Pacific Ocean. Click Here for a flyover video via Google Earth. The route is about 45 nm long and will take one or two days depending on the speed of your boat and the timing of your transit. If you are scheduled for an early start, you may make it in a single day. For two-day transits, you’ll stay overnight at the designated anchorage. Two of my transits were completed in a single day from the Pacific side but it was a long day, preparing to get underway at 5am and arriving at 9pm.

The business of the Canal is to move freight but under the agreement which ceded the Canal to Panama all vessels must be allowed to transit. As such, although you can transit the Canal in almost any powered craft meeting the minimum requirements, and although the fees may seem high to you, the economics of Canal operations make yachts secondary, to be scheduled around the higher-paying ships.

All of the waterways of the Canal are controlled. In the approaches to the canal, you will be in radio contact with vessel traffic control—“Cristobal Signal Station” on the Cristobal/Limon side and “Flamenco Signal Station” on the Pacific side—on VHF 12 or 16. Also, you’ll have an “advisor” from the Panama Canal Authority (“ACP”) on board (or a “pilot” if your boat measures more than 65 ft.) when you are in the canal itself. You may not stop to sightsee for extra days within Gatun Lake, for example, and you may not lower your dinghy at any time.

From Thomas Römer/OpenStreetMap data [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons"

The tires and handlines you'll need for the transit

Preparing for the Transit

There’s considerable preparation needed for your transit. On the administrative front, you’ll need to get the appropriate permits/documents, and pay the fees. As a part of this process, your boat will be measured to determine the transit fees which are based on length and inspected to make sure it meets the minimum requirements. All of this can be handled through an agent and/or with the assistance of your marina—or you can go it alone. It can also be initiated in conjunction with the processes of checking into Panama and obtaining your cruising permit so all the paperwork can be handled in a few taxi trips.

The best places for preparations are at Shelter Bay Marina on the Caribbean end and La Playita Marina on the Pacific end. If La Playita is unavailable, you can anchor out and dinghy into the dock at La Playita or get a mooring buoy at the Balboa Yacht Club. We moved from La Playita to BYC for a few days before our transit because they have a water taxi service which is preferable to a dinghy for transporting the dock-lines, tires, and line-handlers. On the Caribbean side, you can anchor out but the Colon dinghy landing no longer exiss so the anchorage is less useful.

You need a minimum of four line-handlers in addition to the master aboard during your transit; and you’ll see why in the “During the Transit” section below. If using an agent, they can recruit line handlers for you and they will typically be off-duty Canal staff. Alternatively, you can put out a radio call on the cruisers’ net and recruit other cruisers awaiting their turn to go through the canal. TIP: I suggest you volunteer to be a line-handler on another boat transiting before you take your own boat through so you can get comfortable with the process as I did.

You will probably rent the fenders (tires in garbage bags) and the four hand-lines which must be at least 125 feet long and 7/8” diameter with a 1-meter eye spliced in one end. Now consider how the lines will lead on your boat. When you are in a lock with the water lowered, the lock walls will be about 40 feet above the waterline so your lines will be leading upwards from the deck cleats. As the boat is raised about 30 feet, the angle will change and you don’t want the line to foul your lifelines or damage your brightwork either. If you have open chocks (as we do) you’ll need to consider an alternative method of leading the lines. Fortunately, on our boat, we have snatchblocks of sufficient size so we could lead aft lines to the primary winches.

For a quick preview of the Canal Transit route, watch the Google Earth video here. Be sure to alert your friends back home so they can watch your progress through the canal on the Canal Web Cams and if you have an AIS transceiver on board, they can also monitor your progress on a map here.

Locking down with a ship coming in astern. Sure hope it stops!

Minimum Requirements To Transit the Canal

  • Able to maintain speed of 6 kts. (8 kts is the actual requirement but to my knowledge this requirement has not been enforced). Slower boats may need to arrange towing.
  • Holding Tank(s)
  • VHF, Horn, Compass
  • Safe area for pilot to board
  • Anchor ready to use
  • Four Hand lines: 125 ft. long, 7/8" diameter, 3-ft. eye spliced in one end
  • Fenders adequate for the rough lock walls

During the Transit

First thing in the morning, or even the night before, you’ll board your line handlers. Remember that it is your responsibility to feed them. On the day of your transit, wait at the designated location for your Advisor. This will probably be at the anchorage “F” in Limon bay on the Caribbean side or near the Balboa Yacht Club on the Pacific side. The advisor will arrive on a Pilot Boat which will seem like it’s way too big for the job but is usually handled skillfully and will do no damage. Follow your advisor’s instructions!

Buoyage is red-right-returning as you enter the canal from either side and reverses at Pedro Miguel locks.

Lockage may be center-chamber, rafted, sidewall or some combination and you may not know in advance. We entered one lock anticipating a center-chamber lockage and were directed to tie to a commercial tug. It rare that a yacht gets a sidewall lockage as the lock turbulence can cause your boat to roll and your mast and/or superstructure could be damaged against the lock wall.

Your first lockage will be upwards so the lock wall will initially tower above your boat. The lock crew will toss messenger lines to your boat, each with a monkey’s fist on the end. Each line handler will attach this messenger line to the appropriate hand-line and the lock crew will pull up your hand-line and place its eye over a bollard at the top of the lock wall. Your line handlers will then take on tension on each of the hand-lines to keep the boat in the appropriate position in the lock. If you are on a center-chamber lockage, you’ll use four hand-lines. Rafted to another yacht, you’ll need two. Rafted to a tug which is on a sidewall, you won’t need to use any—you’ll just be tied to the tug.

As water enters the lock there will be considerable turbulence and the boat will rise so the line handlers need to be alert and physically capable of taking in the hand-line to maintain tension. If tension is not maintained, your boat may rotate and hit the lock wall potentially damaging your boat.

You may also share a lock with a ship. If so, you’ll usually be astern of the ship locking up and ahead of the ship locking down. IMPORTANT! If you are behind a ship, the ship’s propwash as it gets under-way is enormous. It’s best to stay tied up until you know the ship’s plans. There are also considerable currents to deal with. Locking down, the current will be coming from astern making it more difficult to stop your boat when you need to.

If your transit goes for two days, your advisor will direct you to the anchorage and he will be picked up by a pilot boat. You will need to feed and house your line handlers onboard.

After the Transit

Before you break out the champagne/beer, make sure you are securely docked or anchored. The anchorage outside La Playita Marina, on the Pacific side, is famous for dragging anchors, partly because of the large tidal range of up to 22 ft. After leaving the Caribbean where tides are minimal, some sailors, anchor in shallow water at low tide, put out 3:1 scope on chain, and then drag free when the tide comes up. Tides coupled with the winds, currents, ocean chop, and wakes from passing container ships, etc. make this an anchorage requiring some care!

Assuming you arrive in the evening, you’ll need to get your line-handlers back ashore and make arrangements to return your hand-lines and tires (they might be scheduled to go to another boat going the other way). After that, enjoy!

Also, be sure to send out social posts and receive the congratulations you deserve from having participated in one of the world’s greatest structures!

Useful Links and Information

Panama Canal Transit Flyover video from Google Earth Link

Panama Canal Authority ("ACP") (507)443-2293 Link

Marine Traffic Website showing vessels equipped with AIS Link

Panama Canal Web Cams Link

Shelter Bay Marina (507)433-3581 Link

Balboa Yacht Club (507)228-5794 Link

La Playita Marina (507)314-1730 Link