The following represents an hour by hour overview of what to expect when transiting the canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific (a two day transit). Information current as at January 2013. Each person's transit will be slightly different, but these are the more common activities.
The below excludes the pre-transit activities like paperwork, arranging the lines and the tyres (fenders) etc.
Day One of transit (Colon side)
11am – Line handlers join the vessel (Shelter Bay Marina or The Flats etc)
12am – Head to the flats to await arrival of the Panama Canal Advisor (who may arrive anywhere between 1pm and 4pm). Call Cristobal Signal Station to announce your arrival and that you are awaiting canal advisor.
1pm - Ensure tyre fenders in place and lines setup in their respective places fore and aft. Create 3ft loop in bowlines. Recommend having lunch beforehand as once you up anchor the action starts and wont stop till 5pm+.
2pm – Generally the advisors are a little late as they have to get all the advisors together (as generally there are multiple yachts going through the canal at the same time as you) before they are dropped off by the launch. The launch will come along side (without touching the boat – but have your tyre fenders out just in case) and the advisor will come aboard.
He will then tell you when to up anchor. This is done generally once the advisors are aboard the other vessels and they have communicated between themselves and the signal station. You and other vessels (ships) will be waiting for all the Pacific to Atlantic vessels to down lock before you can start the process to up lock to Gatun Lake.
3pm – Head towards the first set of locks from the flats. The Advisor may ask you to speed up or slow down depending on the situation and timings, or go into a holding pattern (in front or behind a ship) by doing donuts.
4pm – If you are with other vessels of similar size you may be required to raft up with them (unless you specified in your paperwork that you only wish to be centre tied). Rafting takes a few minutes and the process (mooring line configuration) will depend on if you are an outer or centre vessel. The advisors generally let the skippers decide how they wish to raft up (also known as nesting).
4:30pm – You may or may not follow a ship into the lock (as a nest or solo). It is not uncommon for a whole lock to be just small vessels. You will need to head to port side so that you are close enough for the line throwers to hurl 2 monkey's fists at you (fore and aft). Line handlers on board the boat attach the throw-line to the 125ft mooring lines on the port side, but do not pass them on to the line throwers yet. You then bear off to starboard (or vice verse) to receive the throw lines and have your line handlers attach the starboard mooring lines to the throw-lines. The line handlers ashore then walk you into the lock holding just the throw-line (the mooring lines remain on the vessel at this stage). Once you enter the lock, the signal will be given and the mooring lines fed to the line handlers on the lock. The 3ft bowlines are then thrown over a bollard (fore and aft, port and starboard) so that you are in a four pronged star. During the whole process the Advisor stands next to the skipper and directs the process. If you are rafted / nested then the Advisor in the centre vessel generally runs the show and directs the 3 skippers on manoeuvring and propulsion.
5pm – The locks will start to fill with water. The water seems to boil beneath you and smaller vessels can be buffeted by the wash as the muddy fresh waters fill the lock. Line handlers need to take up the slack as the mooring lines ease off. The locks fill very quickly considering the large volume of water required. Once the lock is filled, a signal is given and the lock line handlers will request slack in the mooring lines and throw the lines in the water. The vessels line handlers retrieve the mooring lines (still attached to the throw-lines). Then the vessel or nest will proceed to the next lock. The nest does not break up. Once nested you generally go through all the locks together (until the lake).
The lock line handlers once again walk you through to the next lock, which requires them to walk up about 30ft of stairs to get to the next lock. The process is repeated twice more through the Gatun Locks.
6pm – After the waters have filled the final lock and the doors swung open, the lock line handlers will request slack and undo their throw-lines (if they have not done so already) and throw the lines in the water for retrieval. The vessel line handlers will then bring the lines onboard. The nest will then exit the 3rd and final lock of the Gatun Locks and head onto the lake. It is at this point that the nest will disband by releasing the mooring lines of each vessel.
The advisor will lead you towards the anchoring site. The advisor will then depart via launch leaving you and the crew to moor the boat. The mooring area comprises of two large mooring buoys and the general depth is about 70ft. Smaller vessels tend to side tie to the large commercial ship sized mooring buoys. If you prefer, you can anchor but be aware that there are tree stumps that litter the floor and you could snag your anchor.
7pm – Settle in for the night less than a mile from the Atlantic ocean but 85ft higher.
5:30am – Recommended wake up time to prepare the vessel
6am – Advisor will arrive via launch.
6:15am – Commence the 31.5 mile motor-sail (this departure time will depend on the Advisor arrival time and vessel motoring speed. When crossing to the Pacific, smaller vessels can share the Culebra Cut with larger vessels (large ships cannot share the cut as it is too narrow) hence go ahead of the ships transiting the canal.
7am – Breakfast underway
8am – Motoring
9am – More motoring. A 5+ knot average will get you to the first locks at approx 12 noon.
10am – Motor a little more dodging ships and dredgers along the way. This is if you take the normal shipping channel. If you take the Banana Cut, you will have a lot less ship traffic and a lot more scenery. Also shave off a good couple of miles off the 31.5 mile lake journey. Unfortunately this route is dependent on the Advisor and the state of the lake. Sometimes pesky dredgers and bureaucrats affect the use of this water way.
11am – If you have been doing slightly over 5 knots (there are times when you get 15 / 20 knots of wind across the lake to help you along). You will be nearing the gates to the first set of locks. Depending on the vessels near you (i.e. whether you kept up with the pack or vice verse) you may be required to speed up or slow down in order to raft up again to down lock. The advisor will inform you of the situation. If you are really quick and the rest of the vessels a lot slower, you may down lock solo. Similarly if you are really slow, the rest of the vessels may go ahead and you end up centre tied too.
Assuming you arrive with other vessels you will raft up (into a nest) and begin the trip towards the first lock. There are 2 sets of locks that will down lock at roughly the same time. So a ship might be in the lock next to you.
12am – Enter the Pedro Miguel locks and have monkey's fists hurled at you (again). Attach mooring lines port and starboard (same process as up-locking). Remember that when you are nested, the centre vessel is responsible for primary thrust and manoeuvring. The outer 2 vessels are required to keep the wheel locked and engine in neutral unless told otherwise by the advisor on the centre vessel who has overall control of the raft of vessels.
It tends to be a lot trickier down locking. This has to do with the wind blowing on the aft quarter or stern and so a few more revs are required to keep the mini flotilla centred in the chamber. As you enter the lock, the advisor will request that the port or starboard vessel go forward or astern in such a manner that help to speed up / slow down / turn the nest. Once in position the mooring lines are fed up to the lock line handlers and placed on the bollards.
12:30pm - Good line handlers are paramount in down locking as the mooring lines need to be fed out gently the whole time. Attention is required in this stage more so than the up locking process as there is considerable strain placed on the mooring lines as the nest drops 35 feet. Cleats that are usually used to horizontal forces now experience vertical forces that try to pull them from the deck unless the line handlers are on the ball and paying out the line evenly. See our list of Do's and Dont's for more information.
1pm – Once through the Pedro Miguel locks, the lines will be separated from the throw lines and tossed back to the boats. The nest will then stay rafted together across the 1 mile Miraflores Lake to the MiraFlores Locks. The nest will then manoeuvre to pick up the throw-lines again at the Miraflores locks and then down lock through two locks.
2pm – It is quite a sight when the twin doors open up to expose you to the Pacific ocean. Don't crack the beers open just yet though. Once through the last lock and the line handers disengage the throw-lines the mooring lines can be hauled in. Exit the lock and then the nest is disbanded. Get your line handlers to coil the mooring lines ready for pick up. Keep the tyre fenders out until the advisor disembarks which should be before the Bridge of the Americas. Generally vessels head to Balboa Yacht Club to offload the tyres and lines. A launch may come out and pick up the lines and tyres from you at a cost of $1 per item or else you can come along side at the pier and offload them.
You can also drop off the line handlers at Balboa Yacht Club.
3pm – Many vessels then head for La Playita anchorage as it is free to anchor (it is about 2 miles from Balboa Yacht Club).
4pm – A well deserved beer!
Breakdown of costs to transit
|Length Overall (feet)
||TVI Inspection Charge
||Total Deposit Required
|Up to 50
|50 < length <80
|80 < length <100
|Length > 100
*all costs in USD
** Charges as at January 2013
The $891.00 “buffer” is to cover any additional costs that you may incur in the canal (breakdown, tow etc). You do not pay this if you use an Agent to do your paperwork, but if you don't use an agent the money is returned to your account 2 weeks after transiting (at an additional cost of $25) and yes they do an electronic transfer, you needn't wait for a cheque in the post to a location thousands of miles away.
Other additional fees include:
$3 per tire fender (hire)
$15 per 125ft mooring line (hire)
The cost of removing the tires and lines at each end of the canal is another $1 per item if you do not want to moor and offload the items yourself.
$1000 for a sub 50ft vessel seems like a lot of money to move what is essentially less than 40 miles.
However once you go through this immense feat of human engineering, you gain a new appreciation for what is involved and $900 in the grand scheme of things is actually reasonable.
Consider that the process starts with the people in the ACP (Admeasurers Office):
The Admeasurer (guy that comes and measures the boat and does all the paperwork)
Canal Advisor/s who are there for the whole day. (there are two of them for a Atlantic – Pacific transit – Day 1 and Day 2). The Day 2 advisors who live in Panama City have to wake at 2am in order to get to your boat by 6am.
Signal Station staff who are in constant communication throughout the transit
4 Canal Line handlers per set of locks
The Lock Masters who coordinate the locks
Then you need to factor in the enormous expense of running and maintaining the canal.
What you have to ask yourself when you are presented with the invoice is, how much would it cost to round the horn...