(This post is an excerpt from an online article. To read the entire article, click on the link at the bottom of the page)
Cape Horn sailors and ditch diggers sacrificed all to make the path between the Atlantic and Pacific easier for the rest of us. It is a surreal situation to find yourself floating in a small yacht alongside a giant ship in a box of water 25m above sea level. Entering the canal was thrilling, stressful, and awkward. Descending the last lock was euphoric. The Panama Canal is a gem to treasure.
Considering the alternative routes, the canal is a blink between oceans. Yet a smooth transit benefits from advance planning. Our research began about three months in advance after we learned how seasonal congestion can increase the waiting time from arrival in Colón to an assigned transit date. Most of the year, four to six days is typical. During the high season from late January through May, six to 20 days is the range from completion of measurement and fee payment until an assigned canal transit date. For South Pacific-bound boats, December until mid-January is a sweet spot for minimal delay.
The slowdown escalates with the arrival of the World ARC rally. Having waved the fleet off in Colombia we decided to spend a few weeks of leisurely sailing through the turquoise waters of Panama’s Guna Yala instead of adding to the spike in transiting vessels. Hiring an agent was our answer to first staying in tune with the length of the delay, then having an advocate who could help us find a slot to get through sooner during the peak-season waiting period.
We arrived in Colón, Panama, followed by blustery tradewinds and rolling seas that finally abated behind the canal zone’s massive breakwater. Mooring options are few on the Caribbean side of the canal: there are a couple of designated areas for anchoring among the commercial stacks and cargo ships, but they come with security risks and limited options for going ashore. Boats waiting longer than a few days often sail either to nearby Portobelo or further afield to the Guna Yala (San Blas islands) or Bocas del Toro. The lone mooring option on the Caribbean side is Shelter Bay Marina, where we berthed our Stevens 47 Totem to await transit.
Step one: Get your boat measured
Our agent, Erick Galvez with Centenario, met us shortly after we tied up in Shelter Bay to confirm the process. A friendly face at the dock and perfect English softened the news of delays. You have to go through measurement and payment first before entering the ACP system to get a transit date assigned – a transit date cannot be reserved in advance.
Galvez accepted our payment and scheduled an Admeasurer (measurements for transit are only done by an official representative of the Panama Canal Authority, or ACP) for the next day. If you choose to do paperwork yourself, it’s a call to the Admeasurer’s office (English is spoken by all canal officials) to arrange a time and location for your boat’s measurement.
Our assigned transit date meant two weeks in the marina, but Erick’s efforts sourced multiple opportunities for earlier slots. In the end doing rigging jobs for Pacific-bound vessels sweetened the deal of a longer stay.