Tom's Panama Canal mini howto. Written Feb 2008, may be wrong, dodgy, illegal, out of date and subject to entropy.
EDIT: 2010, the Panama Canal YC has been demolished, no decent landings exist on the Colon side. Your probably going to have to go to Shelter Bay Marina.
Call Cristobal Signal station on VHF 12 before entering Colon harbour. Our books said 16 and we got no joy on 16.
You will need:
Passport photos (colour photo copy will do clump all the passports onto one sheet and cut out), some photocopies of your port clearance at least 3. Some copies of your ships papers. $11 bucks per Crew member for the visa. As well as the originals passports etc.
Optionally one of those McDonald's employee smiles helps..
The yotty taxt drivers will take you around all the offices via the copy shop/photo me for $20 possibly $30. We used "Dracula" 6577-2718, nice guy. Taxis aren't allowed to hang in the YC, so they wait outside the security hut a few yards away.
- Go to immigration in the Panama Canal Yacht Club, end of the shower/laundry block. (or shelterbay)
- Go to the photo copy shop (we managed it after immigration anyway)
- Go to the immigration office in town to get visa, this is $11 bucks and a photo.
- Go to the Port building, with your port clearance, and then the office down the hall for cruising permit. (Costs some money)
Ok not must you clear in, you must clear out of Colon to Panama City before you leave Colon Port captain). In fact I believe you can clear right out to the Galapagos. We didn't oops. It caused some trouble in Panama City. (EDIT: 2010 - this is a fearful mess. If you can clear out to Galapagos fine if not you will have to Clear IN at the Balboa end. AGAIN. Grrrrrrrr.
First you will need to arrange "measurement", I suspect this is normally a telephone job, our taxi took us to the office. The base of the big communications tower in the harbour. Taxi said (ahem) we could do 8 knots.
Before the measurer come see you you will need to have got 4 lines of 125ft. No really. Knotted together won't do. They can be hired of Roger in the yacht club office and others such as Dracula (taxi driver) can sort it.
When measured got to the bank and pay. VISA accepted. Cash is Accepted, but MasterCard is not. The Fee for boats under 50ft that can do (ahem) 8Kn is $600. But you must leave a $850 deposit to be returned later, hence Visa is best.
After you've paid you call up an arrange the departure date. Your measurement is Valid for a month. Call marine Traffic control probably on (507)2724202
Apparently it costs more if you can't do 8 knots. Drac got in there and said 8 before we could answer. Some one has told us you can get in trouble for lieing now. But on neither occasion was it necessary for us to do 8kn so your probably safe.
Choosing your method of transit. Apparently if you choose more than one option your more likely to get an earlier slot. Going for the against a tug only is most likely to cause delay.
The Canal its self.
Once your booked, you will need to ring up and confirm on the day your transiting, if your not already out on the flats you will need to move out and anchor and get set up.
If you have solar panels you need to cover them up or they may get smashed by a flying monkey's fist from a line handler. I'd stop your wind generator spinning for the same reason.
Sort your lines out. Going up is hardest. On the foredeck its a case of coil the long lines neatly and feed them under the rail and put a nice big bowline, with a good tail on it in the end. Where its ready to feed out. Often the aft end of the boat has Biminis etc and is difficult to get at. On most boats the rope can be fed through the eyelet in the middle of the cleat and round a primary winch. So long as this a good lead to the winch this seems to work very well.
Your "adviser" will be dropped off by the pilot boat. Don't let the word advisory fool you he's a pilot and you do what he says!
It is likely that you'll be getting under way early evening at the earliest. Don't worry every inch of the canal is buoyed and the locks flood lit.
As you approach Gatun Locks the Advisor (they have their own radios) will form yachts into rafts. It will probably be 3 yachts in a raft behind a big ship. The advisers have clearly decided that things are much smoother if they tell one boat to do warps and the other springs. You will be told which side to raft and which lines to use.
The different advisers have different conning styles. The adviser in the middle boat of the raft will probably take charge, shouting forward neutral reverse etc at the various skippers.
If your centre boat in the raft you will probably only have to use your engine to move it forward. The 2 boats on the side will have to handle lines.
As you come into the approach to the locks. Line handlers on shore will hurl heaving lines at you. They won't miss. Its a good idea to duck, if they hit they're gonna hurt. Tie the heaving lines on to the long warps, making sure they lead right and be ready to feed your warps out. The Line handlers will walk you into the chamber and then pull your warps out and hook them on a bollard for you.
Line Handling on the way up.
The water coming into the locks is very turbulent. White water rafting for yachts. As you go up you need to haul the lines in. On the fore deck this is archived by waiting till the boat is forced towards your side of the lock, and pulling the slack out. When the the boat wants to go the other way you need to lock the line off, I mean several trips around the cleat. Just tailing it on 1 turn round the cleat is not enough. This is worry-about- ripping- your- cleat out stuff. See bellow.
Gatun Locks on the way up. Note the bar taught line and look at the water bottom right corner.
Assuming your using the trick with the primary winches the stern should be easier as you can wind if necessary. Watch out for a tail wind, which can happen. This will be the stern line handlers problem.
If you have a ship in front it will drive its main screws to drive it between locks. You must have your forward lines locked of securely at this point see right!
We got a reading off the log of 2.5 knots at this point.
You will be taken just outside Gatun Locks and told to either anchor or come along side giant plastic buoy.
Next Morning an adviser will come back on board and take you through the banana boat channel (cutting a few miles of the main channel route). Your target time at Pedro Miguel locks will probably be 12:00 noon. Provided the adviser is not late this can be accomplished very easily with out 8 knots. Anyway what are the odds of the other yachts your grouped with making 8 kn?
Its simply a case of follow the Buoys till you get to the cut at the end of the lake.
Is narrow but in the process of being widened, that means the banks are cluttered with barges dredgers etc. It can get quite tight.
Approaching Pedro Miguel Locks may be tricky, the wind will have go up blowing you down onto the locks and it was buisy both times.
However going down is much easier. The wind from behind means keeping the stern lines taught. but its still just a case of feed out line as you go down. Turbulence is massively reduced form the way up.
After the single lock at Pedro Miguel the line handlers will throw of your lines. Retrieve 'em before thy go round the prop and motor in a raft across Mirraflores Lake. There are 2 more down locks at Mirraflores. Then its pacific level.
Note: The Pacific can have up to 5 meters of Tide!
The Pacific side
Toddle along out under the bridge of the Americas, looking out for sunbathing crocs. The pilot boat will take your adviser off about the bridge. Line handlers and rented lines can be taken a shore at Balboa Yacht Club, they till take tier fenders off you for a dollar. whistle at the club launch and he'll come over. You will have to organize the return of the lines to who ever you got them from at Colon. The can be carried by mates on the Bus. The Bus Station is a taxi ride from Balboa YC. 2 dollars officially, we paid 5.
Bus station doesn't do it justice, its the size of Gatwick airport and much cleaner. The mall next to it has board shorts for $4.99! The posh bus to Colon is $2.5, you pay on the Bus, but you must put 5 cents into the turnstyle to get to it.
moorings can be bought at Babloa YC, or you can motor out to Isla Flemenco and anchor. Isla Flameco is marked in the panama guide and our charts as deserted, it was like that, now it has an extra walled in harbour and a marina. Loads of restaurants shops etc.
Checking out of Panama City.
Assuming you didn't forget (ahem) to clear out of Colon, then you can vist immigration upstairs in the mall at Isla Flemeco, get your passports stamped and "zarpei" (port clearance). If on the other hand you don't have a zarpie from Colon, you will have to got to the Port Capitan amongst the containers in Balboa and do some fast taking. We managed it eventually. Though our paper work says we magically went from Aruba to Panama City with out passing through Colon. Amazing isn't it?