Transiting the Panama Canal without an agent

(Published in March 2014)

Whilst many sailors choose to use an agent to arrange their Panama Canal transit, we opted to do it ourselves and found the whole experience very straight-forward and hassle-free. The Panama Canal Authority employ people who are not only polite, helpful and efficient, but also speak excellent English.

Adina undertook her transit from north to south in February 2014 so all information given in this document is current as of then. We followed the guidance given by the Panama Canal Authority in document 4352-i (click on the link to the file), embellished by advice from other cruisers we met.

Pre-planning, we registered our intention to transit with the Panama Canal Authority prior to arriving at Shelter Bay Marina where we stayed to complete all formalities. We were in the marina a total of 6 nights before leaving directly to complete our transit. This was less nights than some other cruisers there at the same time and using agents. You would also be able to complete all of the formalities when anchored at The Flats Anchorage inside the Cristobal breakwater but expect it to take more time, especially at peak times, as officials tend to visit the marina first. Some yachts came into the marina to compete formalities, provision and then anchored while waiting for their transit date.

We had to make a number of phone calls to the Panama Canal Authority; we bought a local SIM card for use throughout our time in Panama and felt this was the most economical and convenient way for us to make these calls. Note that there are a number of different phone numbers for the different departments at the Panama Canal Authority that you will need to contact, all listed in the notes below.
 

1. Getting registered in the system

Your first step is to register your intention to transit and get yourself into the Panama Canal Authority’s system. You should do this before you arrive in Cristobal; the Authority request that you do it 96 hours before arrival in Cristobal waters. Fill in form 4405-i (click on the link to the file at the end of this document) and email it to OPTC-ARA@pancanal.com. It is worth noting that other people had been told to email it to OPRT-ARP@pancanal.com so it may be worth emailing both of these addresses. About an hour after sending the email, phone the Panama Canal main office on (+507) 443 2298 to check they have received the form. Once they have found your email and checked the details in the form, ask them to arrange the date for your Ad Measurement appointment. This is when an Ad Measurer will come out to your boat, check it is suitable for a transit and take measurements of length and beam. We recommend you take the first date available as when we were there several boats, us included, had their date moved back a day due to high demand. It was peak season and the Authority brought in additional Ad Measurers to get back on track with appointments.
 

2. Having your Ad Measurement appointment

The day before your Ad Measurement appointment, phone the Ad Measurement office on (+507) 443 2293 to re-confirm the appointment. This is not a requirement from the Panama Canal Authority but something we feel is valuable to do, to ensure everything is on track. We were berthed in Shelter Bay marina and everyday saw one or two Ad Measurers around. We had been told we would have the first appointment of the morning. When the Ad Measurer didn’t appear, we phoned the office and were told he would definitely see us that morning, which he did, just later than expected.

The appointment is very straight-forward. The Ad Measurer will complete several forms with details about your boat: 4614 – Admeasurement Clearance and Handline Inspection, 4312 – Handline Undertaking to Release and Indemnify, 4627 – Handline Lockage Request. He will ask you to help with taking measurements of the length and beam of the boat, needing you to hold one end of the tape whilst he holds the other end and takes the readings. With prices increasing significantly for vessels of 50ft and over, there are stories of yachties nudging their end of the tape inboard to ensure they don’t break the 50ft barrier…

Once completed, the Ad Measurer will give you a copy of his paperwork and a blank form titled ‘Attachment to 4614’ for you to complete and take with you to the bank to pay your fees. He will also give you a card with your Ship Identification Number for the transit which it says must be kept in the wheel house – we never needed our card but kept it just in case.

If you are anchored in The Flats Anchorage the Ad Measurer will visit you there.
 

3. Paying for your transit

The costs are detailed in document 4352-i and as of February 2014 were (in US Dollars):

Length Overall
(in feet)
Transit
 tolls
TVI inspection charge Security charge Buffer deposit Total inc. deposit
Up to 50 $800.00 $54.00 $130.00 $891.00 $1875.00
50 < length ≤80 $1300.00 $54.00 $130.00 $891.00 $2375.00
80< length ≤ 100 $2000.00 $54.00 $130.00 $891.00 $3075.00
Length > 100 $3200.00 $54.00 $130.00 $891.00 $4275.00

 

The buffer is a security deposit which, assuming all goes well, you should get back. If problems arise the Authority may take additional payment from you by not returning part or all of the buffer. We have not heard any stories of people having any issues with the return of the buffer.

Using the form Attachment to 4614 which the Ad Measurer gives you, you will need to fill in details about your bank account to enable the Authority to make a bank transfer of the buffer back to you after your transit. A list of the details you need to provide can be found on page 7 of document 4352-i (click on the link to the file at the end of this document). Note that the form requests the SWIFT code for your bank. After some confusion, we established that SWIFT codes actually no longer exist and have been replaced by BIC (Bank Identifier Code) codes. I put the BIC code for my account in the SWIFT space and received payment back within a week of our transit.

All payments must be made at the Citibank located next to the Cristobal Pier entrance in Colon. The bank’s opening times are listed as being from 0830 to 1530, Monday to Friday and they can be contacted on (+507) 441 6303 or (+507) 441 6144. From Shelter Bay Marina we took the marina’s free minibus to Colon, got off at the supermarket stop and hopped in a taxi straight to the bank at a cost of $2. Some people managed to get the bus driver to take them straight to the bank! Whatever you do, do not attempt to walk there – Colon is not a safe city to walk around. If you take a taxi, ask the driver to take you to “Citibank en Puerto Cristobal”.

At the bank, head to the small window forward and to the left as you walk in. Here the administrators will want all of your paperwork – your 4614 form that the Ad Measurer completed, Attachment to 4614, your boat registration document and passports of the boat owner(s). Once the paperwork here is completed, you then go to the cash desk to pay for your transit, paying your fee and buffer together. You can arrange a wire transfer but the quicker option is to pay cash. The cashier will give you a receipt which you take back to the administrator at the small window to the left. They will then fax all of your paperwork, including the proof of payment, to the Panama Canal Authority. When we were there they then phoned the Authority to check it was received and to check nothing else was needed – it is worth staying to see this is done in case there are any problems.
 

4. Getting your transit date

Official advice seemed to be to call the Panama Canal office after 6pm on the day you have paid at the bank, however we called mid-afternoon, about 30 minutes after leaving the bank and were able to schedule our transit. The number you need for this call is (+507) 272 4202. We asked for the first date available, but I believe you are also able to ask for dates further out if the first one doesn’t suit you.

We then phoned 48 hours and 24 hours before our transit date to reconfirm the date and to get our time. Transit dates do get moved occasionally so this is recommended.
 

5. Hiring lines and tyres

Now your transit date is confirmed you can arrange your lines and tyres. Each boat must have 4 125ft lines capable of holding your vessel stable against the strong turbulence in the locks – this is a requirement of the Panama Canal Authority, full details on page 2 of 4352-i (click on the link to the file at the end of this document). Supplementing your own fenders with tyres or larger fenders is your own choice and is something we highly recommend. There are many stories of yachts sustaining damage in the locks against the thick, heavily pitted walls. Despite this, we were surprised to see many yachts just using their own fenders. The tyres are cheap and easy to hire; when you see the walls you come in close proximity to in the locks you’ll wish you had hired them!

We explored various options for hiring lines and fenders but by far the easiest and cheapest was to use Tito. You can contact him on (+507) 6463 5009, (+507) 444 0600 or titongservice@hotmail.com and he can speak English. Tito brought the lines and fenders to us 2 nights before our transit; he will also deliver to boats waiting in The Flats Anchorage. We paid all costs to him that night – total $94 broken down into $60 for the lines, $3 for each tyre and $10 to cover the cost of transporting our lines and fenders back from Bilbao to Colon. We hired 8 tyres to supplement the 8 fenders we carry on board and would suggest that for a 46 foot yacht such as ours this is the minimum you would want. The tyres came wrapped in plastic and they left no marks on our hull. Tito was also able to arrange a fumigation certificate for us which we needed for our subsequent arrival in Galapagos, and he secured us a mooring buoy at Balboa Yacht Club for after our transit. Tito is very much the man in the know!

If you hire from Tito you will return the lines and tyres to him via the taxi boats at Balboa Yacht Club. You will need to call him from your boat as you approach the Pedro Miguel Lock so he can make the arrangements for an appropriate time. He will tell you to wait at the entrance to the Yacht Club, radio for “Tito in Bilbao” on channel 06 and advise the taxi boat who responds where you are waiting. You will pay $1 per tyre as a fee to the taxi boat for the transport of the fenders, lines and any line handlers; you will be unlikely to see Tito himself here. It is a handy way to manage both the return of the hired items and efficiently enable your line handlers to get ashore. If you are taking a mooring buoy at the Yacht Club, all of this can be done once you are on your mooring buoy. You will need to radio the Yacht Club on channel 06 in order to be shown to the correct buoy.

It is worth noting that some agents now supply large fenders instead of tyres apparently due to tyres still containing metal strips causing problems when inadvertently caught in the locks. The tyres we hired had their metal removed.
 

6. Finding line handlers

Each vessel must have a skipper and 4 line handlers. You can hire local line handlers for between $100 – $150, either through Tito or by answering adverts on the marina noticeboard. There is also a website for finding line handlers, www.panlinehandler.com, but it does not seem very well used. A far cheaper and more sociable alternative to hiring local handlers is to try to meet fellow sailors who are looking to complete a transit as line handlers as practise for their own transit. We wrote a notice for the noticeboard in the marina and were lucky to meet 3 Swiss sailors who were looking for experience as line handlers.

Your line handlers will be with you for your whole transit, which when going from north to south will include spending a night on Gatun Lake. Therefore you will need to advise them what bedding you want them to bring and plan to provide sufficient food and drink for them throughout the trip.
 

7. Preparing for your transit

On the day of your transit you will need to prepare your boat by tying your fenders and tyres along the sides, coiling your 125ft lines ready and securing / putting away any loose items on deck.

You are expected to provide a hot meal and bottled drinking water (not from you boat’s water tanks) for the Advisor who will be joining you so make sure you have this all ready. I recommend having a simple, tasty meal pre-cooked which you can heat up quickly on demand as needed. Several boats, including us, received trainee Advisors on board as well so make sure you make extra quantity just in case. Although not specifically stated in document 4352-i, apparently if the meal is deemed not to be satisfactory the Advisor can request a meal of his choice from ashore, to be brought to your yacht via a pilot vessel, all at your expense!

If you are staying in Shelter Bay Marina, allow about an hour for your 4.5nm trip to The Flats Anchorage where you will await you Advisor. The anchorage is a buoyed area, centred around position 009° 20.59N, 079° 54.78W.

In February 2014, all yachts heading north to south through the canal were starting their transit in the evening. There were 2 transits per evening when we did ours which means up to 6 boats, typically starting from the anchorage from around 5pm onwards, but delays do occur and you may need to wait.
 

8. Getting your buffer deposit back

Assuming all goes well with your transit, the Panama Canal Authority will return your buffer into the bank account you detailed for them in Attachment to 4614. Our deposit was returned within a week of our transit.
 

Panama Canal Authority documents

Form 4405-i: Registration form
Form 4352-i: Procedures
 

Other useful links

Panama Canal Authority: www.pancanal.com
Shelter Bay Marina: www.shelterbaymarina.com
Balboa Yacht Club: www.balboayachtclub.com.pa
Adina blog describing our transit: www.yachtadina.co.uk/panamacanaltransit
Adina blog summarising the history of the Panama Canal: www.yachtadina.co.uk/panamacanalhistory

 

4 responses to “Transiting the Panama Canal without an agent”

  1. Thanks so much for publishing this valuable information on your website. I was struggling to find the correct form for applying for transit so it was great to find your link. Happy sailing.

  2. Julie Otter says:

    Hi, my name is Julie on the S/V KAINOS. I am interested in transiting the P. Canal in 2015. I pretty well understand the costs except for one area. By the way your article is great and very helpful!!!!
    My question is: Our fees for checking into Panama are close to $500 USD. I am aware that this is for a year. We will only be in Panama a short time. Is this $500 on top of the Canal transit fee deposit of $1,875.00? Thank you Julie

    • tom_partridge@yahoo.com says:

      Hello Julie

      Fees to visit Panama are indeed very expensive and the bad news is that the check-in fees are on top of the transit fee – see http://www.noonsite.com/Countries/Panama/?rc=Formalities for full details. If you get chance the San Blas islands are well worth visiting.

      We wish you all the best with your transit – it’s a great experience, enjoy it!

      Kind regards Tom and Susie

  3. La Cigale says:

    Hi guys,

    We’re currently in St Lucia and are starting to look at crossing the Panama Canal and were struggling to make head or tail of it all until we came across your site. This is by far the most instructive thing we’ve found, so a huge thank you from all of us on La Cigale.

    Best wishes,

    The La Cigale crew

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