It finally was time to organize the voyage through the Panama canal. We wanted to do it without an agent and after some research it looked easy to do. Since four friends from Austria wanted to come through the Panama Canal with us, we had to make an exact plan for the transit. We were able to load down the necessary form from the homepage of the Panama Canal Authority which we sent via email with a few copies of important ships papers to the authority. The next morning we called them to check if they received our application for the transit. Everything was in order so we made an appointment with the so called Admeasurer. This person has to come aboard to look at all the papers, measure the boat (since they don't believe the ships papers), to check if all necessary equipment for a transit is on board and explain the procedures in the locks.
Since the official anchorage for yachts in Colon at the moment is closed, due to dredging (Flats Anchorage), we were not sure where the Admeasurer would come aboard. The Panama Canal Authority told us to anchor ate the usual Flats Anchorage. So we went from our current anchorage in front of the Club Nautico Caribe Colon (very “moving” because of all the tug boats going by) towards the Flats. Nicely we asked for permission to anchor there which was surprisingly denied at first. After a few discussions at the radio tower we were finally allowed to anchor there. But somehow not all of the staff agreed and so we were woken up around 3am by a police patrol boat: “You can not anchor here. You have to leave and anchor at delta”. We were not sure what this meant so we asked the staff at the radio tower again who said that everything is in order and we are allowed to stay there.
They tell you a certain time for the appointment with the Admeasurer, but in reality he comes by any time between 7 am and 2 pm. In our case we were told that he would come around 8 am but he finally showed up at 1 pm. This meant he was already very tired, nevertheless he checked everything and filled out all necessary papers. We signed everything and received our official Panama Canal number. This number stays with the boat and in case we need to transit the Canal again we just have to give them this number and do not need another Admeasurer appointment. The Admeasurer also gave us the bank details for the payment and the phone number to get a date for the transit. On the next day we went to the bank and after a few misunderstandings left them the money. After that there was only one more phone call with the Marine Traffic Scheduler, where we were able to get the date we wanted without problems. Only on the day before the scheduled transit we needed to check in again if something changed.
The last thing to do was getting the necessary ropes and tires for our boat, to protect the ship's side from the rough concrete of the lock chamber. Those were quickly organized with Tito the taxi driver in Colon. Fast and efficient he brought us ten tires beautifully wrapped in black garbage bags and four long swimming ropes, which were not of very good quality but good enough.
Our only problem left was our electrical power supply, since our generator and the battery only produce power enough for continuous operation of our electric motors to run at a speed of 3,5 knots. But to reach the second locks on the other side of the Gatun lake the boat needs a speed of at least 5 knots. Because of that we wanted go buy a new and stronger outboard motor for our dinghy. This did not work out because the company had delays in the delivery and so we had to make do with our 18 HP motor. We were worried that this would not work out. So we had a new motto: Everything will be alright!
Once our Austrian friends arrived we went for a short day trip to the Rio Chagres in the middle of the rain forest. Our transfer date was scheduled for the next afternoon at about 3:30 pm. We were supposed to wait at the Flats Anchorage. So we went there early to wrap our solar panels for protection and fixed the dinghy between our two hulls to be able to go faster than the normal 3,5 knots. Our Adviser for the first day, who has to stay aboard through the whole transit, showed up at 4:10 pm and had bad news for us. The only way to go through the locks that day was via “Side Chamber”. This means the boat is fixed on the side wall with only two ropes and scratches along the concrete wall upwards when the water rises, meaning that the boat is really unstable. That is why we originally did exclude this option (one of four) and also did not sign it during our Admeasurer appointment. But what could we do now! We decided to do the transfer like scheduled. Our “buddy” in the locks was a very heavy tanker which needed a lot of time to slow down. So we were only allowed to go between 3 and 3,5 knots in the first 3 miles towards the locks. This was ideal for us :-) Since it took the tanker so long it got dark in the meantime. With about an hour too late we finally went into the first lock. We have heard a lot about the famous aiming accuracy of the monkey-fist-throwers, which throw the thin ropes to fix our lines. But we must have gotten underpaid beginners since they did not hit the mark twice. One time they threw it into the water and the other time right on our solar panels. Luckily for us the solar panels were wrapped to prevent damage. Our Adviser was not happy with them! As soon as our ropes were fixed the water started to rise. Because of the turbulence our boat was pushed towards the wall twice. Tom was able to slow down this process with the help of our motors and the helpers on board did their best with additional fenders and tires. After the water rose about 8-9 meters within 15 minutes our “buddy” the tanker made his way into the next lock. This again pushed us around a bit and when the tanker was finally fixed in the second lock we were allowed to take off our lines and followed. And again the monkey-fist-throwers did their job! Better than last time.
To go through the Gatun locks at night is a special experience, apart from that this man-made monument is very impressive. Although you should not forget that during the building of the canal more than 28.000 people lost their lives :-(
At the third and last Gatun lock our boat was kept in the middle of the lock due to the currents inside. But when the doors of the lock opened to the Gatun lake and the tanker started to move forward, our Pakia tea was pushed towards the wall very very fast. Tom already suspected this would happen and used all of our motor power – one forward, the other backward – to keep the boat parallel to the wall. Otherwise we might have crushed our bow or other parts of the boat. But everything was fine.
Finally at about 9:30 pm we arrived at the Gatun lake and the Adviser showed us to the buoy for the night. The buoy was next to the Gatun locks and we had to stay there for the night. So we finally had some good food and of course a beer as a reward for the days work!
The next day around 7 am our new Adviser Edwin showed up. Just before we had a little bit of rain but after that the weather looked good. No thunderclouds anywhere and no wind. So we started to move through the lake and we were easily able to maintain the needed 5 knots with the help of our dinghy motor. On the Gatun lake you are only allowed to move inside the dug out channel. There would be so much to look for and discover but we had to keep the schedule.
Edwin told us a lot about his work, which he is doing since 16 years, about the canal and the life in Panama. There is plenty of time to talk and get some information. We had to be at the Pedro Miguel lock at 3 pm which we did easily. We saw a lot of big ships and even a cruising ship coming from the Pacific. At the first bridge we had a short squall with thunder, lightning and rain but it was over quickly. All in all a very nice trip. And it was getting even better since we could go alongside of a tourist boat in the Pedro Miguel as well as the Miraflores locks. This meant that we almost had nothing to do except fixing the boat to the tourist ferry. Great since it gave us enough time to watch the locks and the small trains (called mulas) which stabilize the big ships inside the locks. This time the water inside the locks was emptying and we sank 9 meters down to the Miraflores Lake. One more mile and we arrived at the last locks – the Miraflore double locks. The same procedure and not to forget to look nice for the webcam and visitor center. Some of our friends and family watched us live on webcam to see this big moment in our life. Shortly before 5 pm we finally reached the Pacific Ocean!
For the night we fixed the boat on one of the moorings of the Balboa Yacht Club where Edwin, our Adviser, was picked up. Time to celebrate!
Organizing a Panama Canal Transit without agent - information for yachts
very easy, just a few phone calls, one email, one trip to the bank and that's it
everybody speaks very good English, so you do not need to know Spanish
fill out Form 4405-I of website www.pancanal.com
send filled out form together with ships papers, crew list (not line handlers), passport copies and cruising permit to the following address:
call them 1 hour after you send mail or next morning to verify if they got the email and ask for admeasurer appointment – working hours between 7 am and 2 pm on work days
(+507) 443 2298 or 2293
after admeasurer appointment you get all necessary info to make the payment either by wire transfer or in person at the Citybank next to Cristobal piers entrance – best is to take a cab from the Club Nautico Caribe (app. 1.50$) directly there – bring a passport copy! they will send a fax
a few hours after the payment (they will tell you when) you can call the marine traffic scheduler for a transit date, we wanted a certain date and called about 10 days in advance and it was no problem – maybe different in the busier time (+507)272 4202
do not forget to organize lines and/or tires – send sms to Tito, he will call you back
(+507) 6463 5009 app. 60$ for 4 lines and 3$ per tire (subject to change of course)
the only thing left to do is to verify the date 24 hours prior with one last phone call
and do not forget to organize 4 line handlers :-) Good luck!