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The Panama Canal by Sailing Yacht

by Art on

Cruisin' the Canal When you’re a sailor, you have lots of dreams. Crossing the oceans of the world is probably at the top as we all want to sail around the world. However, to transit the Panama Canal is right up there too and we are about to do it!

We began our circumnavigation back in December from Palma de Mallorca. Now 5,700 nm later, after crossing both the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, we are at Shelter Bay Marina in Colon poised to start our transit of the Panama Canal.

The Canal has been in continuous operation for over one hundred years allowing over a million ships to short-cut the passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Our transit is not special to the operation center for the Canal but it is special to us. Once we complete our transit, we'll enter the Pacific Ocean to continue our multi-year journey of exploration.

Sailing in the Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea have been our 'local playground' for the past number of years. We've sailed all over from South Africa to Sweden and Italy to Panama. We've enjoyed all the places we've visited, but some of the initial excitement has passed. It is now time for something new. Once we enter the Canal and finally the Pacific Ocean, we begin a totally new chapter for our sailing and we're all very excited!

Side profile of the Panama Canal

The mechanics of how the locks work is simple. The height of Panama above the level of the sea (where the Canal is located) is 26 meters (85 feet) at its highest point. So a boat has to be lifted up at one end and lowered back down at the end by that amount. Three sets of locks accomplish this starting (on the Caribbean side) with the Gatun Locks then passing through the Pedro Miguel Locks and finally passing through the Miraflores Locks before we sail under the Bridge of the Americas and arrive at the Pacific Ocean.

You can take a look at really good overview map of the entire Panama Canal to get a better idea of what it looks like.

OK for those of you who are bent on doing it all yourself and want to save a little amount of money (and I do mean little compared to the pain of doing all this yourself) there is plenty of information on transiting the Panama Canal without an Agent but why not choose a reputable agent? We found Roy Bravo of Emmanuel Agencies in Colon who has been doing this sort of thing for the past 27 years (5 of which for his own company). You’ll find him mentioned on websites like Noonsite, and many private sailing blogs. He’s been wonderfully attentive to our needs and has handled everything flawlessly for us. All the paperwork, permits, scheduling of inspections, rental of lines, etc. have gone without problems. He will also schedule your transit within several days after your inspection and, because he’s a registered agent, you can forget about the $891 security buffer fee.

When you arrive in Colon (or Panama City) an inspection of your boat needs to take place to make sure it complies with the regulations for transit. They want to make sure you have holding tanks, AIS capability, bathroom for use of the pilot (who will be on-board for the transit), sufficient fuel for the transit and be capable of doing 5-8 knots at all times. There’s a good document from the Panama Canal Authority to help you understand the transit process.

Once you are approved, you usually have to wait up to two weeks to be scheduled for the transit. However, if you use an agent to handle everything, you can usually get scheduled within a few days. Naturally this saves you on marina fees or taking your yacht off somewhere to anchor for this time pefriod.

Depending on the size of your sailing yacht, you might want to consider doing most of your provisioning for the Galapagos passage in Colon before the Canal transit. On the Panama City side, there are few marinas with space for larger yachts and most are full all the time anyway. So, you'll find yourself anchored out in Balboa in the swell trying to get provisions on-board from the tender rather than off the dock in Shelter Bay Marina. Likewise, refueling is easy in Shelter Bay Marina and difficult on the Pacific side so best to top off before the transit.

However, all is not rosy at Shelter Bay Marina. They are focused on the transitioning yacht business and the berth prices are not cheap. There is only one small chandler there, one small (and very expensive) mini-market and one bar/restaurant with a limited menu. Everything else is 30-45 minutes away by taxi or the marina shuttle bus. Oh, and if you do not have an American shore power plug, forget plugging in as they have no adapters. As we’ve read in many other blogs before we arrived, be sure to get all your work, maintenance, etc. done before you get here as it’s not easy to get something done once you are here.

If you are heading westbound then your transit will most likely begin in the late afternoon when the pilot/adviser comes on-board. Sometime around 15:30 you'll move close to the lock entrance and wait for the proper signals telling us to enter the lock. You'll be given instructions by radio on the location within the lock you should move to.

There are four choices for location however only three are suitable for a sailing yacht. You can be moored alongside the lock wall (bad idea! as your mast may strike the wall when the water in let in/out of the lock), you can be in the middle with two lines to each side (ideal location), you can raft with a tugboat alongside a local wall (a good choice) or you can raft in the middle with several other sailing yachts (a good choice too). You won’t know which position they will put you in until you arrive but when you have your inspection you need to tell the inspector which of the four you will accept. We choose three of them to give us maximum possibilities of placement in the lock).

You’ll need four line-handlers (and the appropriate length and size of lines) but, depending on your location within the lock perhaps only two active lines will need to be handled). This is all pretty straight forward and will be repeated for all the locks you’ll need to go through.

The Gatun Locks in Colon, Panama On west-bound yachts, most likely you’ll go through the Gatun Locks and then anchor for the night in Gatun Lake. The next morning at 6:00 or so another pilot/adviser will come on-board and stay with you for the entire transit to the Pacific. You’ll need to provide him/her with food, water and bathroom facilities and shade. In return, they help guide you through the Canal along the safest path.

So, after all the planning we are ready to begin the transit. Look for a new posting to document the actual transit in the next day or so. We’ll have our YellowBrick on so you can follow along. Instead of sending updates every 4 hours we’ll send them every 15 minutes or so to be able to show our progress through the Canal with more detail.

We will also have some links to the Canal webcams so perhaps some of you could take a look at them once in a while to see if you can spot us going through the locks? We will have Hero cameras set up all over the yacht and, of course, we’ll take photos and videos along the way as well. Our resident videographer (Tracy!) is planning to do a special video of this event and we’ll post it as soon as it’s complete.

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Comments so far

  • comment from Pieter E Tineke Pieter E Tineke on March 19, 2015

    What an amazing trip ! We never realized that the Panama canal is built like it is, very interesting articles. Save journey and enjoy !

    Pieter e Tineke

  • comment from Suzanne and Michael Suzanne and Michael on March 19, 2015

    Have a marvellous and safe trip. Will we see you in Australia?

  • comment from Tammy Tammy on March 17, 2015

    Just getting a chance to check up on your travel. This all sounds very Exciting!! What an awesome experience!