Panama Canal – without using an agent

I am aware that a number of yachting friends have been waiting for this post – so I hope that they are not disappointed! I also hope that any other cruisers who come across it find the information useful.

S/Y “Siga Siga” transited the Panama Canal on 27/28 January 2015. However, as some people know, we had been through four times previously as line-handlers, so the thoughts below are based on all of our experiences.

Although our transit was southbound -i.e. from Cristobal [Atlantic] to Balboa [Pacific], the information can easily be adapted to manage a northbound transit.

General information.

Post transit south most people stay in Shelter Bay Marina, at least for a couple of nights.

www.shelterbaymarina.com

info@shelterbaymarina.com     or john@shelterbaymarina.com

This is not a necessity and we know of boats who have organised the transit from Portobelo or who have come into Shelter Bay, sorted everything out and booked a date some weeks ahead, before spending time in the San Blas and returning to the canal on the day of their crossing.

However you decide to do it there are certain criteria to be met and a number of stages to go through. Most of these are described in the “Procedures for securing a handline transit of the Panama Canal” – a small document [No. 4352-i (OPTC-A)] produced by the Panama Canal Authority.

AUTORIDAD DE CANAL DE PANAMA Form 4352-i Instructions

If you are not able to access my link above, you should be able to find it on the Panama Canal web-page – www.pancanal.com.

You will see that the document is in English. ALL canal business is undertaken in English. All the advisors, pilots and administrative staff speak English so, if you were concerned that “going it alone” might be affected by a language barrier, don’t worry. Obviously having a few words of Spanish can make things smoother and it is always nice to be able to greet people in their own language.

One of the most heard topics of conversation at Shelter Bay was about whether or not to use an agent. We chose not to and found that doing it ourselves was very straightforward. The main difference between using an agent and not seems to be the initial payment [or not] of the “buffer”.  As the buffer charge is, hopefully, refunded, [except for $25 – unless you have a local or US Bank account when you get the full amount back] we felt that the agent fee of around $300 was something we would rather not pay.

If you are transiting the canal without an actual stay in Panama [other than the 72 hours allowed for transit without clearing into the country] then I would say an agent would be necessary, as would a stay at Shelter Bay Marina.

Whether you use an agent or not, you will need a telephone.

Requesting your transit

The first step is to complete Form 4405-i.

AUTORIDAD DE CANAL DE PANAMA Form 4405-i Transit request

If you don’t have access to the internet, Shelter Bay Marina [and probably La Playita Marina or Balboa Yacht Club if you are northbound] has copies which can be filled in by hand. The marina will then Fax it for you.

I completed the form “on line” and sent it electronically to OPTC-ARA@pancanal.com.

Approximately two hours after sending in the form you telephone the main canal administrative office [507]2724201. This number is different from that given in the official canal document but phoning that number resulted in an automated answer message basically telling me the number was no longer in use! The number given above, which I got from the Shelter Bay dockmaster, did get me through to the correct office. The purpose of the phone call is to check that they have received your form [I had to send mine twice] and to arrange for the admeasurer appointment.

Admeasurement.

This process can be done at Shelter Bay marina or at “The Flats” [F Anchorage – around 09 20.5N 79 54.7W]. We sent in our form on Sunday and the Admeasurer, Annabel, came on Monday morning. First of all she gave us our Ship Identification Number, which our two small crew members took very good care of!

???????????????????????????????This number now “belongs” to Siga Siga and should we ever transit again we would have the same one.

Then Annabel proceeded to go through all the paperwork – of which there is quite a lot!

Admeasurer1We had to show her our holding tank and the toilet facilities for the advisor and prove that we had a working horn. We were asked a number of questions e.g. about manoeuvring speed and about the number of gallons of diesel we would use during the lake crossing at our preferred motoring speed. We were also asked about our arrival and departure dates at our previous two ports.

She measured and noted the distance by which the anchor protrudes from the bow…..

Admeasurer2……and, had we been carrying the dinghy on davits/the stern arch whilst undertaking the transit, that protrusion would also have been measured.

Admeasurer3She then measured the whole boat length.

We were then given a final form to be filled in and taken to the bank.

Payment

Payment is made at the Citibank – in CASH. As we had known that a cash payment was necessary we had already taken money out on a couple of earlier occasions to cover the full $1,875 as we have found we can generally only get $300 per card per day.

If you are at Shelter Bay the bus driver [free shuttle to Colon twice per weekday and once on Saturday] will drop you directly at the Citibank from where, after payment, you get a taxi to the bus pick up at Cuatro Altos. The Admeasurer had left at about 11.00 and we therefore caught the afternoon bus.

Inside the bank is a small office marked “Canal Payment” to which you go first, before taking your money to the teller and then returning to the canal payment point to complete the transactions.

Scheduling the transit

Any time after 6pm on the day of payment you can phone the Canal Scheduling Office [507]2724202 to book your transit date. By 6pm they will have had received the appropriate papers from the Admeasurer and confirmation of payment from the bank.

We were offered a transit the following day! However, we had a different date in mind, requested it and were told that we were the first boat asking for that date and it was therefore booked. So, within 30 hours of sending in our form we had our transit arranged.

As there was a gap of about two weeks between booking and our preferred date I did phone once in between to check we were still scheduled for that date. I used the excuse of having to finalise line-handler arrangements.

Whether you make an intermediary call or not, it is a requirement that you telephone the day before your transit to get your time.

Fenders, Lines and Line-handlers.

Even if you don’t use an agent for the full transit arrangements, the same guys can also arrange fenders etc for you. However, being at Shelter Bay we saw boats arriving having transited northbound with fenders they wanted to get rid of – so, without difficulty we got eight covered tyres well in advance.

For our lines we used Roger [507]67176745 who works in Panama as a taxi driver and is very well known to cruisers. [Another alternative we know of is Mr Tito [507]64635009, based in Colon.] Roger charged us $70 for the four lines. This included delivery to Shelter Bay four days prior to transit and collection from La Playita afterwards [about 3 hours after anchoring].

“Professional” line-handlers can be arranged by agents or the above two line/fender providers. The going rate per line-handler is approx $150. There are also lots of people who offer their services through the notice boards at the marina who you can contact direct – some asking for payment, some just for passage.

We had three people coming from the UK to join us for the experience and, as we had promised two cruiser friends beforehand that they could come, we ended up with a crew of seven! You have to have a minimum of four handlers and the captain regardless of the type of tie you request/end up having [see below]. Children cannot line-handle. Quite how “children” are defined by the canal we are not sure as it is size/strength/ability which really matters.

In my view, the best line-handlers are other cruisers and you will always find someone in the marina who would like the experience before they take their own boat through or who, like us, got stuck with engine problems and were quite happy to help out whilst we were waiting for parts to arrive.

I would recommend to anyone taking their boat through the canal to try to do a transit as a line-handler first. You will learn a great deal – much of which I am trying to describe but is better experienced direct.

What kind of “tie”?

The Admeasurer will have asked you which kind of lockage arrangement you prefer. You are offered “centre chamber”, “sidewall” or “lockage alongside a canal tug”. My advice would be not to go for wall tie unless you have lots of big fenders and don’t mind being scraped up/down the lock side.

Unsurprisingly, “centre tie” means that you will be centred in the middle of the lock chamber. What you won’t know when you opt for this is whether you will be on your own, or whether you will be rafted [the canal uses the term “nested”] to one or two other boats. We have experienced 2 x centred as a single boat and 3 x [including our own transit] being rafted with one other boat. We understand that they will never raft more than three together.

If you are on your own you will handle all four lines

If you are rafted with one other boat, the larger boat will “drive” and each boat will normally handle two lines. On one occasion we were on a 43ft boat rafted with a 36ft boat and we handled all four lines.

If there are three boats, the middle boat will usually be the largest and “drive” and the two outside boats will handle two lines each. We have heard of one triple raft where a large catamaran tied to the side wall and then the other boats rafted alongside.

The option of being tied to a tug [or ferry/tourist boat] is a good option. We have experienced it twice and indicated we were more than happy for this. Other than tying up to the tug, there is no actually line handling required. Unfortunately, we understand that tug tie is becoming less used as they are upgrading the tugs in readiness for use in the new canal with bigger cargo ships and the larger tugs are too powerful for small yachts to be tied to. In addition, if there is a tug in the chamber “working” with a big ship they won’t tie you to it in case the tug has to act quickly to assist the ship.

It is quite possible that you won’t know exactly what lockage you will get until the actual transit. If you have said NO to any of the options ensure that your advisor knows this.

Provisioning/Food for the transit.

This is probably the second most talked about issue of the transit! Whoever your line-handlers are you are expected to feed them lunch and dinner on day one and breakfast and lunch on day two. The advisor expects dinner on day one and breakfast and lunch on day two. You must also have plenty of water and soft drinks available. Because we had friends on board we also provided dinner on day two and an additional night on board after the transit. You are also responsible for the transport cost of your line-handlers [approx $7 taxi to Albrook, $3.15pp bus to Colon and approx $25 taxi if they have to get back to Shelter Bay].

As line-handlers we were fed well and tried to do the same for our crew. Basic sandwiches, we believe, are not considered sufficient by the advisers. We heard of one boat who provided that and the advisor sent out for a “proper meal” delivered by a pilot boat and they had to pay the cost of the meal and delivery!

As the advisor was not having lunch on our day one the crew were quite happy with ham and cheese salad sandwiches! For dinner some form of hearty soup/stew seems to go down well and is easy to prepare in advance. We made creamy chicken and mushroom [served with couscous] and spicy beef [with mashed potato]. For breakfast I made a fresh fruit salad and had yogurt and granola bars etc available for people to help themselves. This was followed at about 11.30 with bacon and sausage and toast – a kind of brunch which people then made into sandwiches! I had kept a portion of the chicken stew available for the day two advisor but in the end he didn’t want anything at all!

The biggest problem is timing everything because you never know quite what the best time to eat what will be as the transit times vary from one transit to another. On one trip through the canal we ate “dinner” at 4.00pm and on another it was nearly 10.00pm. So, just have food available, a couple of meals made in advance and quick to assemble on hand and plenty of snacks and soft drinks.

We also provided beer, wine, rum etc for the two evenings. We did not allow alcohol during the daytimes when we were underway.

Other preparation

We have two solar panels at the stern and felt that they were quite safe. Other cruisers with panels on their coach roof or attached to their bimini have chosen to cover them [e.g. a duvet tied on or fenders with a tarpaulin across] because the monkey fists are generally thrown between the bow and midships and could break a panel.

Because the lines attached to the monkey fists can wrap round anything and, because our genoa sheets can hinder movement up and down the boat we decided to wrap them round the forestay for the transit. Obviously, they were tied up in a way which didn’t hinder access to the anchor locker or the front cleats or get in the way of the forward line handlers.

Day 1 of the transit.

Going southbound the transit is usually completed over a two day period, with an overnight stay in Gatun Lake. Northbound, it is usually completed in one day.

On all five of the transits we made the boat was expected to be at “The Flats” around 1300/1400hrs.  Although the control tower overlooks the anchorage…..

???????????????????????????????…….. and it is fairly obvious you are there you have to call on Channel 06 to confirm your arrival.

There is always a delay between your arrival at the anchorage and the advisor coming on board [anything from 3-5 hours] and this is a good time to check that your crew can tie a bowline….

???????????????????????????????….that your lines are laid out properly……

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????….and that there are sufficiently large loops at the end of the lines to fit over the lock-side bollards…..!!

It is also very important to make sure the line handlers know what to expect and tell them NOT to try to actually catch the monkey fist.

Your advisor will arrive by pilot boat……

???????????????????????????????……. and leap across to your boat so make sure you have your gate open. The pilot boat drivers are excellent and can stop their boat within inches of yours and then back away quickly. Of the 20 pilot boat approaches I have seen [4 per transit] not one has resulted in the boats touching.

Our first advisor, Hector, arrived at 1700 which we were really pleased about. One transit we undertook had an advisor arrive at 1600 [excellent] and the other three ranged from 1730 to 1830. There is nothing you can do to speed up their arrival time but once they are on your boat you usually need to be ready to move immediately.

From leaving the Flats to entering the first lock took one and a half hours. Just behind us heading for the channel was our “partner” boat “Mandala” – a 52ft aluminium Allures….

???????????????????????????????….and once in the channel we had to wait for our “Big Boat” to arrive….

???????????????????????????????….. and pass. She was actually a relatively small container ship but even so, needed the assistance of a tug to keep her headed straight.

???????????????????????????????As all Captains will know, the wash from these tugs can be very strong.

Just as the sun was beginning to go down we passed part of the construction of what will be the new bridge over both canals….

???????????????????????????????….and arrived at the bottom of the three Gatun chambers…

???????????????????????????????As you can see the arrow telling us to enter the West chamber behind the container ship which, by this time had been locked using the “mules”.

As you look at this photograph you can see several men. The one with the lifejacket on is waiting [with a colleague behind him] to throw us our monkey fists. Once we had attached the thin line to the loops on our thick lines [this is where the bowlines are used] we moved across to the starboard side for “Mandala” to catch their monkey fists/lines and then centred behind the ship. The advisor tells the lock handlers which bollards to use in the lock and just prior to reaching them the boat line-handlers must quickly feed out the heavy lines to be looped over. As soon as they are over the bollards the boat handlers need to pull fast and hard to make the lines tight and secure them firmly. Just holding the lines is NOT sufficient. There is a lot of pull.

Having been through five times we think we understand better the water flow into the chambers. If you look at the approach photograph again, being in the West chamber means the strongest water flow comes from the port side. [Had we been in the East chamber the water pressure would have been greater from the starboard side.] We therefore put our strongest/most experienced line handler [our cruising friend Jack] on the bow at the port side…

???????????????????????????????and our second strongest [John B] on the port stern.

???????????????????????????????As we only had to handle the two lines we placed James and John [H] as back ups….

???????????????????????????????and I ran round the boat like a mad woman!

As it turned out, there was nothing for me to worry about and everyone did a brilliant job. Once the water had reached the right level and the boat in front has moved out of the chamber, the advisor blows a whistle and the lock handlers take off the heavy line loops. The boat handlers then pull the lines in quickly and hold onto the thin line while the boat moves to the next chamber. Moving between chambers the lock handlers have to walk up stairs behind a balustrade and the boat handlers need to raise the thin line as high as possible and look for it snagging on the wall side.

Once into the second and third lock chambers the process with the lines was repeated until we made it safely to the top where the lighthouse awaits.

???????????????????????????????It is quite interesting passing boats in the opposite chamber when you are at different heights. Mostly they are going in the same direction as you, but not always.

???????????????????????????????Once on Gatun Lake the advisor told us where to find one of the two small ships mooring balls which are away from the big ships anchorage. As there was just “Mandala” and “Siga Siga” we had a mooring buoy each. Sometimes boats are rafted on the buoys or each tie alongside and then secure to the other boat fore and aft. I don’t have a photograph of Siga Siga on the mooring ball but on an earlier transit took this shot of Mike as the mooring monkey!

???????????????????????????????You can probably just about work out how all the lines went on that occasion when there were two boats on the buoy. Just a word of advice, these buoys are unlit. We had a torch to help us find it and then shone the light on it to assist Mike to come alongside. We tied up at 2020, so the first part of the transit took 3 hours 20 minutes

The advisor left as soon as we were tied up and he told us to expect our second day advisor at 0700 the following day. No-one stayed up very long and one crew member took advantage of having the dinghy on deck to sleep under the stars!

???????????????????????????????Day 2 of the transit.

As a point of interest, some crews take advantage of the fresh water and get up early for a swim. Two of the boats we transited with earlier did this though Mike and I didn’t join in and we didn’t exactly encourage our crew to jump overboard. It is certainly not allowed to try to go ashore or anywhere in your dinghy.

Our second advisor, Ricardo, arrived promptly and by 0705 we were underway, motoring across Lake Gatun. It took us about 4.5 hours to cover the 30 miles. We were therefore doing more than our preferred motoring speed. We had put 5.5kn as our preferred speed and 7kn as our maximum. Obviously the advisor wanted to make sure we arrived before our given lockage time of 1215.

The lake is really quite pretty, but the only real signs of life are the birds…..

P1010315athe Smithsonian Institute…..

P1010311….and the crocodiles….

CrocWe have only seen crocs on two of our five transits but, given the size of this fella, you may understand why we have not encouraged our crew to swim in the lake!! [Thanks Jack and Christine for the photograph].

We also had a fabulous view of “Puente Centenario” [this photo courtesy of John B] which we reached just before the downside locks

Centenial BridgeAlthough, as noted above, our lock time was originally given as 1215 we actually started to enter Pedro Miguel at 1130 and, we were almost alone in the lock…..

???????????????????????????????Other than ourselves and our rafted boat there was just a small ferry. We were told that we were able to have a small boat lockage because the water level in the lake is high. This has been the case in the last three transits we have done, all in January. The first two we did last July/August – at the end of the dry season – and on both of those occasions we were in front of a large ship.

The view from Pedro Miguel across the Miraflores Lake is quite stunning…..

???????????????????????????????[The photograph above was taken during an earlier transit when we were right at the front of the lock with a big ship behind us.]

Going down the locks is easier on the line handlers than going up. The pressure of water is less strong and its a case of letting the lines out as they become tight rather than constantly pulling them in.

Pedro Miguel has just one chamber which opens into Miraflores Lake. This is a very small lake which takes about 20 minutes to cross and we remained rafted for the crossing to the two chambers of the Miraflores locks. Because of the two stages [Pedro Miguel and Miraflores] we had to do the monkey fist routine twice – but it is just the same procedure as for the up lock leg.

It is perhaps worth noting that your transit can be viewed by relatives/friends at home – there are cameras on all the locks which record “live”. Unfortunately they aren’t always working – though the one at Miraflores does seem to be fairly reliable. Thanks Chris for waving [and also to anyone else who watched]. Chris said that the whole thing was really quite interesting especially the “mules” which, as I mentioned earlier, are attached to the big ships and guide them into the locks.

???????????????????????????????

We entered the first Miraflores chamber at 1225 and the second at 1250. We were nearly there….

???????????????????????????????

Down for the last time, and the gates opened at 1310….

???????????????????????????????We had to stay rafted to “Mandala” until we were out of the lock….
???????????????????????????????…but then it was just a case of passing the last set of big double gates…

???????????????????????????????….and there we were….’The Gateway to the Pacific’. Fantastic.

???????????????????????????????We then motored down to the canal pilot station where our advisor departed.

??????????????????????????????? On the Pacific side we had the choice of Balboa Yacht Club moorings [which are approx $35 per night] or anchoring at either Las Brisas or La Playita. There is also another Marina called Flamenco but the rumour is that cruising boats are not welcomed – it is full of big game fishing boats.

Balboa Yacht Club.    BYCMARINA@cwpanama.net    Captain Rex Jansen [507]2110827 or mobile 66707284

La Playita        www.thebeachhousepanama.com/en/la-playita

laplayita@siwireless.com

Anyway, the general consensus is that La Playita is the better of the two anchorages. Las Brisas has no easy access to shore by dinghy. La Playita is certainly very popular – at least at this time of year.

P1010394We have counted 50 boats in here. Most have come through the canal and are spending time provisioning for their crossing to wherever whilst others are here before their transit northbound. The anchorage overlooks the canal so its quite interesting watching all the traffic but it is rolly. Apparently during the rainy season it can be untenable.

For $35 per week you get use of the dinghy dock and access to water and diesel. Outboard fuel needs to be jerry canned from a garage [taxi ride] – though we have been told that it is more easily available on Contadora [one of the Perlas Islands]. We are heading out that way soon and will let you know!

So, we had a great transit. The organisation was, as I said earlier, very straightforward and the transit itself very smooth. No doubt that was because of our fabulous crew. Lots of chemistry in MC?J?! [Mike, Claire, Christine, James, John, John, Jack].

???????????????????????????????

 

If there is any additional information anyone would like, please don’t hesitate to ask. Just leave your question as a comment and I will be happy to reply.

 

Permanent link to this article: http://www.sigasiga.co.uk/2015/02/13/panama-canal-without-using-an-agent/

2 comments

    • Malc on February 16, 2015 at 12:53 am
    • Reply

    Thanks for taking the time to write that up Claire. Easily the best, most detailed account of the canal trip I’ve read! Cheers malc

    • Sandy Duker on April 30, 2015 at 2:55 am
    • Reply

    This article information was passed on by Malcolm Bullock and as Blue Water Section Secretary of the Cruising Association (UK) I have taken the opportunity to pass the site information on to our members in my current Newsletter. Many thanks for the brilliant article and all the information it includes, I am sure our members will be grateful.

    Safe Sailing – Sandy
    (currently at anchor Sydney Harbour – we are going the ‘other’ way around

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