'Tis the season once more so it's high time we wrote here what we learned when we crossed the Panama Canal almost a year ago.
The first thing you should know is that organising the crossing yourself without using a Panama agent is VERY VERY EASY. Of course you will have much more fun in Panama in general if you speak some Spanish but for the canal crossing it is not necessary.
We crossed from the Caribbean to the Pacific so will speak about that, but it's just as easy in reverse, only that the offices and meeting points are different. We're also not going to get into the immigration and customs side of things as this is variable depending on where you check in and out, you can find more information on noonsite.
It is not necessary to stay at Shelter Bay Marina on the Colón side. You can anchor at the Flats, where you need to be to get measured in any case (but not get ashore there) or as we did off Club Nautico
09° 21'8 N 79° 53'65 W
Here there's also free Panama government wifi and easy access to all you need.
#1 First job is to have your boat details entered into the system. By far the easiest way to do this is to call the Admeasurers office (507) 443‐2293 (Cristobal, Colón side), or (507) 272-4571 (Balboa, Panama city side). They speak perfect English and Spanish and are extremely helpful and efficient. They will then arrange with you a time to be measured.
Another way is to email them this form or just the data from it to email@example.com. I couldn't find the straight link on the Canal website as it appears they are changing their system to something called MSP possibly only for the big ships. Then you have to call them anyway to arrange your measuring.
If you are crazy like us you can do it the hard way and visit them in person. This involves convincing the security to let you into the port site which they will try to refuse and then finding the office which most workers will assure you does not exist. It was fun but we wouldn't recommend it. Just call them. You can get a sim card or cheap phone in Panama. If you don't want to do this there are plenty of payphones or any small shop who sells phone top up credit may allow you to buy a top up and use their phone (what we did whilst arranging our times from the San Blas).
#2 Get measured at your allotted time and place, though note that the time they give you is a 'from' time, they will turn up when they get to you. The fee for the canal changes if your boat is over 50ft, Although we have an Alajuela 38, when you measure from tip to tail (bowsprit, transom hung rudder and Aries windvane) he came up with an impressive 48.5ft. No wonder we avoid marinas! We heard that they may fudge a little if needed as they're a very helpful and friendly bunch.
The measurer will go through a couple of easy forms with you, and let you know what is expected. If you tell them you don't have a holding tank you'll need to hire one (they won't check) and you need to tell them you can drive at 5 knots. They'd prefer you to go faster but if you can't they won't refuse you. If you have no engine you'll have to arrange a tow of some kind, sailing is frowned upon. If you're very slow you can discuss it and they'll arrange some slightly different timings for you. It's better to mention anything that you're concerned about to the measurer in person as they're very experienced and laid back.
#3 Next you have to go to the Citibank and pay, with the form the Admeasurer has given you. They can give you directions if you need. This is next to the big port security gates on the Colón side. In there they have a special person dealing with the canal, just ask. The total fee you need to pay will be $1,875 in cash (if you're less than 50ft). Of this $891 is a refundable buffer which you get back once you've gone through without problem (less any bank fees your end). You need to provide all the correct banking codes to arrange the repayment. The fees and codes needed are listed on this document. Our deposit did not come back straight away because one of our codes was wrong but this was easily solved by email. They are quick to respond and very efficient. As far as we can see not having to hand over this buffer is the primary advantage of having an official agent as they have an account arrangement. No doubt they would still charge you if you fell foul in some way.
#4 The bank will tell you when to expect the information to be through, most probably that evening at which point you are free to arrange your transit time. Call the Transit Scheduler on (507) 272‐4202. We called, arranged a time to our liking then at a later date decided to postpone, both times they were easy to deal with and helpful.
This form from the canal authorities (the same as the fees link) explains in detail all this plus other details. I read it because I'm that kind of person but if you're like Duncan, this is all you need to know.
We had an amazing two days crossing the canal, you can read about it here. We hired lines from a guy in Colón called George, he works with Tito 507 646-35009 They both speak English. They also provide tyres as fenders for $2 each, you will find some or be given some if you are around for a bit, you also need to think about what to do with them at the other side.
As you can read in our post we found three backpackers from putting up an advert in Captain Jacks in Portabello to help us as line handlers. This was a fun way to save money as they were delighted to have the experience. Fellow boaters would also be a good way to go. If you're at all rusty on locks then it would be a good idea to go through as someone else's line handler.
The two boats we went through with used local professional line handlers who appeared sadly to be thoroughly bored by the experience and spent their time playing on their phones. Whoever you use you need to pay attention to what they're doing, there's a lot of strength in the water flows. Your advisor will help you with this too. As everyone says, the key to a happy trip is taking it seriously and providing plenty of food and drink. Your advisor needs to be provided with bottled drinking water and an outside shaded area.
People will tell you that Colón is a very dangerous place. We loved it, walked around happily, with an eye out obviously. There is a big supermarket (Super '99) a short walk away from club Nautico. We tried to row over in our dinghy but sadly there's no access by it. Taxis in Panama are very affordable, it'd be a dollar if that's your preference. We thought it was the best place for bulk provisioning as it's so near, cheap and easy. The veg market in the centre of Colón was excellent too.
If you prefer you can do everything except get measured and pay from Portabello.
On the other side there are two anchorages, La Playita where the dinghy dock is expensive and Las Brisas where it's free but a bit more tricky. The buses into Panama city are amazing, get on one and sort out your card when you get the Albrook terminal and mall. Your return bus will be labelled Armador. The massive fresh foods market is another short bus ride round the corner, just ask. We provisioned there with sacks of beautiful stuff. Each bus ride is 25c of airconditioned joy and if you swipe your card on the way out your next bus connection is free!
Hope to hear that your experience is as trouble free and fun as ours!