Transiting the Panama Canal
in a Small Vessel Northbound


    Theodore Roosevelt was eager to have the US naval vessels in the Pacific Ocean available in the Atlantic to fight in the Spanish American War. Steaming time around the Horn was about three months. Joining the world's two great oceans had been a dream for centuries and the obvious route was through the narrow Isthmus of Panama. The United States took over construction of the Panama Canal from the failed French effort in 1904 and it was opened August 15, 1914.

    Compared to going round The Horn the Panama Canal has made the passage from the Pacific to the Atlantic or vice versa far safer and easier for cruising yachts and it is exciting to see first hand one of the great engineering feats of the twentieth century. However, there is concern as well as excitement during a transit because the stakes are high. Vessels of all sizes frequently sustain damage in the Canal and failure to complete a transit as scheduled can be very expensive. The following information is based on my seven transits on my 46-foot ketch, about 30 transits as a line handler on the vessels of friends, one transit on an Evergreen container ship and the helpful suggestions of many friends. While this information is based on my opinion of the procedure, you must assume responsibility for your vessel and crew. Read and think about what is said, relax and have a safe and fun transit.

David W. Wilson
September 16, 1998
Panama, Republic of Panama

 

Arrival at Balboa - Pacific Approach

    When arriving at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal it is recommended that all vessels check in with Flamenco Signal on VHF channel 12, vessels of 65 feet or over are required to check in. Anytime that you are operating in the area of the entrance channel you should monitor channel 12 and stay just outside the channel or just inside the edge of the channel between buoys 14 and 14 ½. Cross the channel so as to not disrupt traffic. There are a few places to put your boat. You can go directly to Balboa Yacht Club, anchor at Isla Taboga, or anchor west of Isla Flamenco at about 8o 54.6'N, 79o 31.5'W. From Isla Taboga you can take a ferry to Pier 18 in Balboa where you can get a taxi or bus to buy supplies and arrange your transit. It is best that you leave someone behind, like a buddy boat to keep an eye on your boat and dingy. From Isla Flamenco you can take a long and sometimes wet dingy ride to the Balboa Yacht Club and since you cannot tie up at the BYC dock you will have to leave your dingy with a friend at his boat and then take the launch to the BYC dock. Again it is a good idea to leave someone behind to watch your boat.

    By far the simplest process is to take a mooring at the Balboa Yacht Club. Motor up the eastern edge of the channel, then turn to starboard at buoy 14½ to enter the mooring area, if you turn at buoy 14 at mid tide or less you will drive right onto a shoal. Call on VHF 6 or pass by one of the launches or the float at the end of the pier and ask one of the launch operators to direct you to one of the moorings. Once you are tied up you can call on VHF 6, give a couple of blasts from your horn or wave frantically for a launch to take you to shore. Patience with the launches is your best ally; always allow a half an hour if you are in a hurry. Theft is not a big problem at BYC but it pays to keep your dingy and outboard locked up and all loose gear off the decks. At BYC you will pay a "One Time Fee" of $15 and 35 cents a foot per day, as of November 1998. Panamanians are rather conservative in their dress and you will be treated better if you dress conservatively. Some government offices will not let you enter in shorts.

 

Paperwork

Checking In
   At the head of the pier at the Balboa Yacht Club is an Immigration Office with Señor Vaz in charge. Sr. Vaz will stamp your passport(s), zarpe and check your crew list. Don't leave the original of your zarpe with anyone until you are ready to leave the country. From BYC you can take a taxi north on Arnulfo Arias Madrid Ave. to Immigration in Diablo to get your visa. Taxis available at BYC will cost more than elsewhere because they wait there for passengers, it is preferable to use the taxis marked with "SET" (Special Services for Tourists), regardless of what taxi you use they are all polite and safe. Always agree on the price before you get into the taxi. In Diablo the immigration office is through the door to the right of the 24 Hour Market and then upstairs. From Diablo you will go to Aduana (the Customs Office) in Balboa on the second floor of the two story building facing the Arnulfo Arias Madrid Ave. just south of Pier 18. From Aduana go downstairs to Consular y Naves to get the Port Captain's clearance and if necessary your Permiso de Navigation (cruising permit).

 

Equipment Requirements

Transit Lines
    Four (4) Transit Lines are required. The PCC says that the lines must be 125 feet long and 7/8 inches in diameter. Lines of less than 7/8 inch are routinely approved by the Admeasurer, in fact I have never seen 7/8 inch lines used, anything less than 5/8 inch should not be used. Nylon and Dacron twist or braid are okay but polypropylene should be avoided as it is too slippery on the cleats. I have seen a 300 foot anchor rode used for the two forward lines, but it is not the best idea. In some instances 125 feet may not be long enough, 150 feet is better. The lines should be in very good condition and have no knots or splices. You can rent Transit Lines from the guys that hang around the Balboa Yacht Club.

Fendering
    Four or five 10 or 12 inch diameter fenders will usually suffice for a 35 or 40 foot cruising boat. Any cruising boat should have enough fenders aboard to go alongside a rustic dock, and that would normally be enough for a transit through the Panama Canal. Tires wrapped in plastic garbage bags are often used by visiting yachties, but local yachts just go through with four or five normal sized conventional fenders. Rub rails are occasionally removed by accident during transits so be sure that whatever you use is well positioned.

Fairleads and Cleats
    Your boat's fairleads and cleats must be strong, well-placed and accessible; closed chocks are a great asset because the load will come from above when you are down in the chamber. Check to make sure that the fasteners are in good condition. At the time this is being written there is a boat at the Pedro Miguel Boat Club that arrived there after an accident in the Canal. It is now several inches narrower than when it started its transit and requires extensive repairs. The boat was part of a nest that came apart due to the failure of a cleat and the boat slammed into the lock wall.

Sun and Rain Protection
    You are required to provide a covered position so that the Advisor, helms person and crew can get out of the rain and sun. Your vessel must be able to continue with its transit regardless of weather conditions. Have sun screen available for your crew, particularly your forward line handlers, they will be out in the sun for a long time.

Personal Safety
    You should have personal flotation devices for all of your crew and a life ring or equivalent. Wearing PFD's is not required by the PCC at this time but any non swimmers should wear them. A particularly dangerous time is when you are down locking and a ship is entering the lock behind you. To enter the lock the ship pushes the water ahead of it to the end of the lock at two or three knots where it hits the lock gates,
submerges, and goes out of the lock under the ship!!! You do not want to be part of that process; stay aboard!!!!!

Miscellaneous
    Clear your decks of as much stuff as possible so that all of the people you have on board can scramble after monkey fists and move fenders as needed. Remove everything you can that extends beyond the gunwales; anything that sticks out stands a good chance of hitting the lock wall and being damaged. Canal regulations state that there are no claims for anything outside the rails. Have lots of non alcoholic drinks available to prevent dehydration; an ice chest in the cockpit will save a lot of trips to the galley. Be sure to have meals available for the PCC personnel on board.

 

Arranging   for Your Transit

    All vessels without agents (about $600 for a regular shipping agent) desiring to transit the Panama Canal must be boarded and cleared by a Panama Canal Commission (PCC) Admeasurer. The Admeasurer will perform an inspection of the vessel, make any measurements required to determine the fees to be paid and determine how you prefer to make your transit. The Admeasurers clearance is valid for two weeks. If an additional visit is required to renew your clearance an extra fee may be charged. From the BYC you can call the Admeasures office at 272-4571 or call Flaminco Signal Station on VHF channel 12. The Admeasurement Division representative will ask a few questions about the size and location of your vessel and will usually make an appointment to visit you aboard your boat the next morning. If you are anchored at Isla Taboga you will have to come in to either Isla Flaminco or the Balboa Yacht Club to be boarded by the Admeasurer. If you would like to stop at the Pedro Miguel Boat Club you must call them at 232-4509 to arrange for a visit and then they will fax the PCC with notification that you have made the necessary arrangements.

The Admeasurers Visit
Have all your papers, fenders and transit lines ready (see "Equipment Requirements" above). The Admeasurer will ask you more about your vessel, ask you if you can anchor if necessary, make sure that you will have sufficient fuel on board, ask how you would like to transit (see "Transit Methods" below) and make the necessary measurements. He will also ask you what speed you can make; do not over commit on this, you will be expected to keep this speed up for the 29 miles through the Gaillard Cut and Lake Gatun; if you break down during your transit you may be fined for failure to complete your transit on schedule. A PCC tug, if you should need assistance, is charged at $1005 an hour or $1650 an hour if operating in the Gaillard Cut. If you go with a buddy boat you may be able to assist each other in case of trouble. You will also be required to sign a Release and Indemnification form.

Paying the Tolls
Tolls may be paid between the hours of 7:30AM and 11:45AM or 12:45PM and 3:00PM at the PCC Treasurers Office, Building 725, located one short block east of Arnulfo Arias Madrid Ave., north of the Balboa Post Office and south of the Banco Nacional de Panama (BNP). In 1997 the Panama Canal Commission proposed a toll increase for yachts and other small vessels. The minimum rate was to be $1,500 per transit. They seemed to think that all small vessels are yachts and that, since we weren't working, we must be rich. How little they know! Recognizing the impact that this rate increase would have, the Pedro Miguel Boat Club organized yachties worldwide to fight for more reasonable rates. As a result of PMBC's efforts, the PCC set the rates as follows:

Length in Meters

Length in Feet

Fee
up to 15.24 up to 50 $500.00
15.24 to 24.38 50 to 80 $750.00
24.38 to 30.48 80 to 100 $1,000.00
>30.48 >100 $1,500.00

    Although the PCC Advisor is included in the fee, you will have to pay extra for any PCC line handlers that you take on board. You must also make a deposit of 25% of the fee against any damage or delay that you may cause, however if all goes well, the PCC will mail your deposit to you about 90 days after you complete your transit. All payments must be made in US dollars ... cash.

Lining up Your Crew
    Before you schedule your transit date you have to find some line handlers. You are required to have four line handlers aboard in addition to the helmsman, even though in some cases, you may not need all of them the PCC requires you to have them available to meet any eventualities. Most yachties take turns helping each other through the Canal and that is preferable as you gain experience by transiting first on another boat. Competent line handlers, however, can be hired around the Balboa and Panama Canal Yacht Clubs. If you cannot find them elsewhere the, PCC will supply line handlers -- at a stiff price. (If your line handlers fail to show up you may have to cancel your transit or hire PCC line handlers.) As line handlers may have to stay aboard overnight, it may be more fun to have other yachties. No matter how you tie up in the locks your line handlers should be strong, alert and experienced at handling lines. It is a good idea to put your best line handler in charge forward and one in charge aft. Before you start each segment of your transit, explain the procedure to all of your line handlers. After the lockage starts things can get hectic so you must keep an eye out for the unexpected. There will also be the Panama Canal Commission (PCC) line handlers that will handle your lines from the lock walls.

Setting the Day
    After 18:00 of the day that you pay your fees, you can arrange your transit date by contacting the PCC Marine Traffic Control Division at 272-4202. MTC will give you a tentative date for your transit and ask you call the day before your scheduled transit to confirm and get the time that the PCC Advisor will come aboard. You may change your transit schedule as long as you do it at least 24 hours before your currently scheduled transit time. Marine Traffic Control is available 24 hours a day so you may call any time.

 

TRANSIT METHODS

    The following methods may be used when up locking (ascending) or down locking (descending) the locks. Before entering the chamber you will nest (see "Nesting" below) if necessary, flake your transit line, on the deck so that they will run freely and tie a secure loop in the running end of each line that will fit very freely over a twelve inch diameter bollard

Center Chamber

CenterChamber2.GIF (5235 bytes)    Center Chamber means that when the lock is filling or emptying you will be secured as near as possible to the center of the width of the chamber with two lines forward on either side and two aft. You will usually approach the center wall of the chamber first. Then one or two heaving lines will be thrown to you by the PCC line handlers and you will tie the eyes of both lines with an overhand knot to the single heaving line or a transit line to each heaving line if there are two heaving lines. Then you may be asked to move closer to the outside wall to get the heaving lines for the other side. Caution: the monkey fist has a couple of ounces of lead in it so make sure that everyone is alert to it's approach! It might also be wise to cover any exposed portlights, hatches and your binnacle with cushions to prevent breakage.

    The PCC Line handlers do not like to carry the weight of your transit lines from place to place, so before you start moving you will pull your transit lines aboard and the PCC line handler will be holding the other end of the heaving line. Try to keep the line out of the water but not tight. When the Advisor has directed you to where he wants you, the PCC line handlers will haul your transit lines back up to the wall and put the bowlines or eyes over the bollards. Now you must see to it that your line handlers tighten and adjust the lines so that you are centered in the chamber, side to side, and between the bollards fore and aft. When up locking, make sure that all four lines are secured to the cleats or winches before the lock starts to fill. As you go up the boat(s) will gyrate and surge so when there is slack in a line it must be taken in and then cleated off quickly before the tension comes again. When down locking be sure to get your aft lines secured quickly, when a ship starts to enter behind you, current will start to push you forward toward the gates. There can be very heavy loads. I have heard of 5/8's nylon that was close to parting under these conditions. Cleats have been ripped off decks, hands very badly burned and fairleads doubled. You must watch your line handlers to make sure they are very attentive. The helms person should not ever leave the helm to assist the line handlers as many accidents can be avoided by judicious use of the engine and rudder. When up locking you can avoid having to adjust the aft lines by keeping the engine in slow forward and take up the slack only on the forward lines. I like to use the primary winches aft instead of the cleats as it is easier to take in the slack and then hold the load. Locking down Center Chamber is much easier. You will center up in the chamber as in going up, but there will be practically no turbulence as the water drains from the lock and your line handlers simply keep a turn around the cleats and let out slack as necessary to keep your boat centered. Whether going up or down remember, before you leave the lock keep enough tension on the lines so that the PCC line handlers cannot get your lines off the bollard until you are ready to move ahead. The Advisor may be eager to get moving and blow his whistle to signal the PCC line handlers to cast off your lines, but especially on the last lock going down, tell him that you would prefer to remain tied until the gates are open wider; it's only a matter of 15 seconds or so.

Sidewall (Side Tie)

Sidetie2.GIF (2846 bytes)    To transit Sidewall means that you tie up to the lock side wall with a line to the lock wall forward and a line aft and either haul in on the lines as the lock fills or let out on the lines as the lock drains. This method of transit is generally only satisfactory when down locking. When up locking, the heaving lines will be thrown from the top of the lock wall -- almost 30 feet above you. You then attach the eyes of your transit lines, they will be pulled up and the bowlines dropped over bollards fore and aft. When the lock starts to fill you will be starting off with long lines that will allow the turbulence to push you away from the wall and then back into it. All the while your line handlers are trying to haul in to keep you near the wall. It is much better to use another method when up locking. Using Sidewall (side tie) when down locking on the other hand is the method used by those locals that transit all the time. When down locking, you approach the wall with your fenders all along one side and hand or throw the transit lines to the PCC line handler. Be sure to get the aft line on quickly; as the ship enters the lock behind you a current will try to sweep you toward the gates! After you are secured to the wall the helmsman uses the engine gently ahead or astern to keep the boat centered between the bollards two of the on board line handlers can use a boat hook fore and aft to keep the boat a couple of feet from the wall and as the water gently drains from the lock, your other line handlers ease the lines so that they are always barely snug. The only secret is that when you are down, keep just enough tension on the lines so that the PCC line handlers cannot get your lines off the bollard until you, are ready to move smartly ahead. If you are making a full transit, you can only specify one method, so you must not ask the Advisor for sidewall, but during the transit you can ask your Advisor to let you side tie on your way down. He may allow it and if he does, you will find it is easier.

Alongside A PCC Tug (Tug Tied???)

Tugtied2.GIF (6340 bytes)    The easiest and safest way to ascend and descend the locks is to go tied alongside a PCC tug. There won't always be a tug to tie to, but you may as well take advantage of this simple method if you can. The routine is as follows: If the Advisor says that a tug is available, ask which side the tug will be on and move your fenders to that side. The tugs have fendering but if you want to avoid black stripes along your hull, use your own. They should be centered about 18 inches off the water so that they match the tugs fendering. Have fore and aft breast lines and spring lines ready. The lines should have 24 inch diameter eyes. As you slowly approach the tug have line handlers ready fore and aft with the breast lines ready to throw to the deck crew of the tug. After the breast lines are secure, pass the springs over and make them fast. The Advisor may say that the springs are not necessary, but they are a prudent safety measure, especially when up locking. Not only is there more turbulence up locking but you will probably be behind a ship and when the ship starts that big prop turning the current can be fierce! Discuss the process that you plan to use with the Advisor before you are ready to come alongside the tug. Down locking you will probably not be behind a ship but could be behind a tug or some other small vessel. I always tell the Advisor that I would like to put on the springs. Snug the lines up tight. When it is time to leave the lock, the tug will be eager to get under way, make sure that the gates are open far enough for you to squeeze through so that you have some place to go.

Nesting
Nest2.GIF (7254 bytes)    Nesting is tying two or three boats together so that they go though the locks as a unit. Nesting can be fun, creating a party atmosphere with so many yachties together. It can also save a lot of work. If two boats are to be nested they should be of about the same size and type. If you feel that you are going to be mismatched, tell the advisor about the problem and that you prefer not to nest. If there are to be three boats, the one with the best ability to maneuver the group will be in the center. This is usually the biggest boat. Fendering and lines will have to be coordinated with the other boats and the masts should be aligned so that they won't hit when the boats are rocked from side to side. Between each pair of boats there will be fore and aft breast lines and fore and aft spring lines. The helmsmen will concentrate on bringing the boats together at minimum maneuvering speed and the line handlers will get the lines secured, starting with the breast lines. After all the lines are in place snug them up very tight so that the nest moves as a unit.

    Although it is commonly done, there are risks in nesting. The line handlers on the outside will be restraining the surging of two or three boats instead of one, and the loads on the cleats and fairleads may be two or three times what the yacht designer expected. Look carefully at your and your nest mates hardware, crew and lines to make sure that they are up to the job. If you have experienced line handers among the nest of boats, use them in key places instead of less experienced people. If you are not sure that everything is as it should be, ask your Advisor to make the necessary changes. The success of your transit may depend on it! If a cleat breaks while you are up locking or when the ship ahead starts to power out of the lock, your boat could be slammed into the lock wall. Finally, when you are nested the Advisors will have to determine which of them is in charge of the nested boats, make sure you know who is in charge.

The Locks

    The locks (see the diagram on the next page) of the Panama Canal are 1,000 feet long and 110 feet wide. When the water is lowest in the lock (or chamber) it is deep enough for a ship with 39 foot, 6 inch draft. There are 100 four foot diameter openings in the bottom of the lock that allow it to be filled or drained in about 12 minutes. Refer to the diagram for terminology used to describe parts of the locks

A Northbound Transit

Pmlocks2.GIF (21327 bytes)    You are now ready to let the Panama Canal lift you and your home over the Continental Divide, from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean.

Embarking and Disembarking the Advisor(s)
Have your Line Handlers aboard before the Advisor is scheduled to arrive. Northbound transits are usually scheduled for early in the morning so you might be told the Advisor will come aboard as early as 5:00AM. The Advisor will come aboard your boat to advise you on procedures for transiting the Canal. The Advisor will speak at least passable English and have a copy of your Handline Transit Request form that tells him how you prefer to transit. He also will have a schedule of the boats and ships transiting the canal, including yours. With his radio he can talk to the Lockmaster, the PCC Tug Captains, and ship Pilots. The Advisor may bring a more junior Advisor with him for training. It is important to note that you, as the captain of your vessel, remain in charge of your vessel and crew and may be responsible for any damage that may occur to your boat. You probably have more experience handling a small vessel than your Advisor but the Advisor certainly knows the Canal better than you. Therefore, it is important to listen carefully to the advice of the Advisor, but ultimately you must protect your vessel and crew. You will be expected to provide food and non alcoholic beverages for the PCC personnel aboard your boat. This may mean breakfast, lunch and or dinner, but usually just lunch.

    The Advisor will normally come aboard your boat while you are moored at the Balboa Yacht Club or somewhere along the entrance channel while you are underway. Schedule changes are not uncommon. If the Advisor doesn't arrive when expected, be patient for 15 or 20 minutes and then call Flamenco Signal on Channel 12 to verify the pickup location and time. If one of the PCC launches brings the Advisor to your boat, reduce to minimum maneuvering speed, have your boarding gate open, fenders in place (probably useless) and maybe a fender in hand. The launch drivers are used to powering right into the side of ships to transfer the pilots and can be really inept at approaching a small vessel. I think that it is better to ask the launch to come to a stop and bring your boat along side the launch, however this will put you in the position of being responsible for any damage that occurs. Be ready to take the Advisors ditty bag, give the Advisor a hand getting aboard and fend off. Be prepared for anything, the launch usually comes to about the top of the stanchions and a lot of stanchions are bent in this process.

 

Miraflores Locks

    Miraflores Locks consist of four chambers, two lanes (east and west) of two locks in series. Before you enter the locks flake the lines down on the deck so that they will be ready to run freely and put a loop in the end that will fit very loosely over a 12-inch diameter bollard.

Entering a Lock Chamber
    Entering a lock chamber is an awesome experience. To appreciate the magnitude of these gigantic structures, I remember that when the Gatun Locks were being constructed, they poured 3,000 cubic yards of concrete every day for two and one half years! If you are going to be nested with another boat, you will be directed to do so before you enter the first lock chamber, and will remain nested until you exit the second chamber into Miraflores Lake (the home of Pedro Miguel Boat Club). The PCC Lockmaster is in charge of the operating the locks to pass boats through the canal. He will tell the Advisor where he wants you in the lock. If things get out of control, the Lockmaster or the Advisor may ask that the filling or emptying of the lock be stopped. If you feel that something is unsafe about the arrangement in the locks you can express your concerns to the Lockmaster through your Advisor. Entering the locks is probably the easiest part of a transit. If you are locking along with a ship, it will enter the lock ahead of you and there will be some current from ahead if the ship is under power.

Tying up in the Chamber

See "Transit Methods".

Moving from Chamber to Chamber

Center Tied
      As soon as the lock has filled the Advisor will blow his whistle and the PCC line handlers will take your lines off the bollards (with the heaving lines still attached), your line handlers will quickly retrieve the transit lines. When the transit lines are safely aboard you will motor into the upper chamber at the walking speed of the PCC line handler.

Tied to a Tug
    After the lock has filled you will retrieve the springs, then the breast lines, and move away from the tug so that he can pass; and then motor into the upper chamber to retie to the tug.

Sidewall
    Not recommended, (see "Transit Methods" above)

Exiting Miraflores Locks
    As soon as the lock has filled you will retrieve your Transit Lines and proceed across Miraflores Lake to the Pedro Miguel Locks or to Pedro Miguel Boat Club (PMBC). If you were nested you will remain nested until you exit Pedro Miguel locks unless you are stopping at PMBC. If you are scheduled to stop at PMBC, will give the club a call on VHF Channel 72 so that they will be ready for you at the receiving pier.

 

Pedro Miguel Locks

    The Pedro Miguel Locks consist of two chambers side by side and are negotiated just like the Miraflores Locks without the second set of chambers. If you are nested you will unnest before you proceed into the Gaillard Cut.

The Gaillard Cut

    Fifty trainloads of rock and soil were removed every day during the height of the excavation through the Continental Divide. The French failed in their attempt to build the Canal partially because they didn't figure out how to get rid of all of the spoil. American, John H. Stevens, an expert in railroad construction, designed an ingenious rail system for removing the excavated soil.

    The seven mile long Gaillard Cut is being widened at this time and you will see dredges, barges, and other vessels at work. Your Advisor may encourage you to push your boat faster than you ordinarily would like so that you can lock through with a certain ship on the other end of the lake. Since a delay could cause you to not be able to lock down and to have to stay in the lake overnight, there is some incentive to push your boat. However, a breakdown anywhere during your transit will definitely raise the stress level. I have been aboard a yacht that broke down several times during his transit and the Advisor just directed him to safe place and waited patiently while he patched things together. He was very lucky as any delay can cause you to fail to make your transit on schedule and be subjected to a fine. In years past, the fine was usually $400. If you should need a tow, the charges could be in the thousands. It is best not to push your machinery too hard. Worse, if you do incur additional charges you may be required to pay them before you are allowed to continue your transit.

Lake Gatun

As you move across Lake Gatun, you will pass over a part of the original route of the Panama Railroad. Built between 1850 and 1858, was a popular route for the Forty-niners traveling to and from the California Gold Rush and it played a major role in the construction of the Panama Canal. It is said that a man died for every tie under the tracks. This is an exaggeration, no proper records were kept but it is known that thousands died. A train ran every day to collect the cadavers which were pickled and sold in the US and Europe for medical teaching and research

    As you enter Lake Gatun you will pass Gamboa on the right where the PCC has a major maintenance facility with barges, dredges and some of the worlds largest floating cranes, the Hercules and the new 700,000 pound capacity Titan. Lake Gatun, the largest man made lake in the world when it was created can be a relaxing interlude between your lockages. You will follow the ship channel for 20.5 miles unless your Advisor lets you go through the Banana Cut. The Banana Cut is a bit shorter than the ship channel and certainly more picturesque, but you may be risking an expensive tow bill if you have a breakdown while out of the ship channel. If you have a delay while in the lake, it might just be a nice chance to swim in the cool fresh water.

Anchoring in Lake Gatun
    When you arrive at the Gatun Locks the Advisor will determine if you will be able to complete you transit that day. If you have to stay in the lake over night, you will anchor off what used to be the Gatun Yacht Club. If you look around a bit, you can usually find a place that is less than sixty feet deep. The bottom is mud. The Advisor will be taken off and returned in time for your passage through the Gatun Locks the next day, usually in the early afternoon. The Gatun Yacht Club is now under the control of the PCC for the use of cruise ship passengers and on weekends Pan Canal employees, if you can go ashore they have very good ceviche.....

The Gatun Locks

    The Gatun Locks consist of six chambers in two lanes of three locks. If you are transiting nested you will nest up before entering the locks and proceed as you did in the Miraflores Locks except that you will be in the locks ahead of any large ship so you won't be in his prop wash and there will be negligible turbulence as you go down. Caution: As the ship enters the lock behind you there can be strong surface currents that could sweep your boat or worse anyone in the water to the gate, down and out under the ship.

Ending a Northbound Transit

    As the gates open from the last chamber of the Gatun Locks, the water level inside and outside of the gates is the same but the heavier saltwater outside of the gates sinks down under the fresh and into the chamber and the fresh water on top surges out. You can see the tongue of current flowing out of the lock. The Advisor may be eager to get moving and blow his whistle to signal the PCC line handlers to cast off your lines, so tell him that you would prefer to remain tied until the gates are open wider; it's only a matter of 15 seconds or so. When the last locks open, you should keep your boat parallel to the lock walls and be ready to move out at near full power. If you are not making at least three or four knots when you hit the current of fresh water the flow over your rudder will reverse and could cause you to lose control.

    Motoring north from the Gatun Locks on the left you can see a portion of the French canal construction effort. This is the portion built by an American contractor for the French between 1885 and 1899. Few people know that American Contractors actually completed one third of the digging that was accomplished during the French effort. In about the same place but on the right you will see where the US started a new set of locks during the Second World War. The channel where the Panama Canal Yacht Club is located is actually in part of the old French Canal!

    Be sure to stay inside the line of the green buoys as you head down the channel. A friend struck a rock and did considerable damage to his keel when his Advisor directed him to go outside the channel before entering The Flats. Usually a PCC launch will take the Advisor off somewhere after you leave the channel and before you enter The Flats and your line handlers will have to be taken to the Panama Canal Yacht Club. It may be well after dark as you proceed up the channel. Refer to the charts ahead of time so that you aren't wandering around looking for The Flats or the Panama Canal Yacht Club after dark.

The Flats
    The Flats is an anchorage area for small vessels that is delineated by six amber and red buoys. The area closer to the shoreline is quite shallow. Leave the channel after the Green #3 and proceed to the amber buoy at approximately 9o 20.7'N, 79o 55.2'W. From there you can enter The Flats and look for a place to anchor or proceed around the north end of pier 16 and into the old French Canal and to the Panama Canal Yacht Club at about 9o 20.9'N, 79o 54.3'W. The tidal range in this part of the Caribbean is about a foot.

Panama Canal Yacht Club
    You can discharge your crew at the Panama Canal Yacht Club fuel dock (if it is open) between the finger piers and the Med moored boats. Perhaps if you can't get to the fuel dock, you can discharge your crew onto one of the boats tied to the end of one of the piers. If your dingy is handy you could anchor in The Flats and dingy them into the dingy dock past the finger piers and before the fuel dock. There are a lot of shoal areas in PCYC so be careful approaching the piers or fuel dock. As of November 1998 the rates are $.45 per foot per night or $7.00 a foot by the month. PCYC is located in an area called Cristobal on an island with the city of Colon. Anywhere outside the gates of PCYC can be very dangerous. Thieves and pick pockets are a big problem. In daylight I think it is safe enough at this time to walk out the PCYC gates, around the Hutchinson Wampoa container terminal to either the bus station or to the Cristobal offices where you can check out. It is not safe to walk around Colon anywhere or anytime. If you need to go anywhere, get a taxi to pick you up at the Club; you can call one from the bar. (If you get claustrophobic at PCYC take a taxi to the historic old Washington Hotel for lunch or dinner or visit the Tarpon Club and the Gatun Spillway in Gatun.)

Transportation Back to Balboa Yacht Club
or Pedro Miguel Boat Club

By Bus
    During daylight hours it might be safe for your line handlers to catch an express bus from Colon to the downtown terminal in Panama City. From PCYC walk out the gate straight along the fence curve around the container terminal to the left and then straight past building 1907 and turn right at the corner then it is a short block to the bus station. At the end of your bus ride you will have to get a taxi or local bus to BYC or PMBC.

By Taxi
    I have always taken a taxi direct from PCYC to BYC or PMBC. This is simpler and if there are several to share the cost (about $30 to $40) it may worth it, usually the captain will pick up some or all of the tab. Once you get in the taxi it should be a comfortable and safe ride to your destination. Not necessarily, I have had the heck scared out of me twice on this trip by taxi drivers that were trying to set a new speed record. The last time I made this trip I agreed to the price and that the driver had to drive with caution ("Tenga que manejar con cuidado, por favor") before I got in. If the taxi driver doesn't seem to be driving responsibly ask him to "regrese al club de yates" and get another taxi. Driving responsibly in Panama can be wild enough.

Paperwork in Cristobal

    There is an Immigration Officer on the grounds of the PCYC in the building near the fuel dock. To go to Immigration, Customs (Aduana) or the Consular y Naves in Cristobal proceed out the PCYC gate left around the container terminal then straight past building 1907 and turn left into Cristobal. For the location of the various offices you will need to visit to leave Panama see the description in the "Southbound Transit".

Acknowledgments
    My sincerest thank you's to senior PCC Pilot Sarah Terry; Willie K. Friar, former PCC Director of Public Relations; editors Nick Smythe and Alex Psychoyos; and Sandra T. Snyder, wife par excellence for their help in this endeavor!

    Copyright © David W. Wilson, 1998. This document may not be copied or used in whole or part without the express written permission of David W. Wilson.

    This is a work in progress if you have any suggestions please email me at: tantoes@pobox.com
or call 011 (507) 223-4146.

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Last Edited
January 18, 2002