Panama Canal Transits For Yachts & Super Yachts

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Procedures for Transiting

Small crafts (up to 38.1 m / 125 feet of LOA) Prior arriving to Balboa (at the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal) or Cristobal (at the Caribbean side), Pre-arrival information is to be submitted to the PCA’s system, preferably, through an authorized agent.

This information is reviewed by the PCA Admeasurement Unit and once verified and approved, the boat will be allowed to request a transit date. This requested transit date will be subject to the current number of small crafts waiting for transit and will be programmed based “first come first served” basis, and the way of “lockage” for transiting the Canal, the skipper selects (Center chamber, sidewall, alongside PCA tugboat or nested). Small crafts cannot obtain a booking slot to transit on a specific date.

The above-mentioned admeasurement department will inspect and determine the tonnage of the boat. The tolls are calculated based on the Panama Canal (PC/UMS) Net Tonnage or the length overall of the craft, thus, it is very important to provide accurate dimensions of the boat through certificates.

A few of the requirements for transiting the Panama Canal are:

  1. Four (4) serviceable mooring lines not less than 38 m (125 ft) long and not less than 2.2 cm (7/8 inch) in diameter
  2. Four (4) line handlers in addition to the master/skipper
  3. One (1) anchor
  4. Adequate fendering
  5. Sanitary facilities
  6. Magnetic compass
  7. Navigational lights

Additionally, the vessel must be able to maintain a speed of five (5) knots under her own power.

Boats over 125 feet will transit assisted by locomotives (instead of 4-line handlers) and soft lines are attached to the locomotive wire; 2 at each side for a total of 4 that will keep the vessel centered in the chamber inside each set of locks. This is to prevent wires to get in contact with the Yacht and avoid any damage. The locomotives do not pull the vessel and the craft will enter the chamber using its own propulsion.

This size of vessels has the option to pre book the transit (whereas small crafts up to 125 feet in LOA cannot) at a cost of US$10,500 subject to slot availability; this additional transit expense is only charged provided the slot is requested and granted. Pre booked transit would be a straight passage in tandem with another commercial ship, scheduled to commence during the afternoon completing early AM hours of the following day.

Before transiting, it will be necessary to make a deposit with the local agent to cover tolls, pilotage, wharfage, admeasurement charges (if any), and any other charge which may be levied against the vessel by the Panama Canal Authorities.

The skipper will be given a tentative date for his scheduled transit by Marine Traffic Control or thru the local agent. Nevertheless, it will be his responsibility to call MTC to confirm the pilot time or to make any changes. It is very important that final arrangements be made no later than 24 hours in advance of the tentative schedule time. However, arrangements for transit may be made earlier and reconfirmed or canceled on the day preceding the start of the transit without incurring any delay charge.

It is advisable to have an agent, hopefully, able to handle all types of services, to avoid heavy delays in transit and/or issues with local authorities.

Regularly, and mostly for small crafts, the transit consists in a 2-days passage where boats, depending on traffic conditions, can be moored at Gamboa tie-up station or anchored at Gatun Lake resuming the following day.

Navigation Permit

All small crafts, boats and yachts require to have a valid navigation permit to sail across Panamanian waters (great when planning to visit local islands and touristic destinations), this permit is valid for 1 calendar year, after it expires, a new one must be issued. The navigation permit is requested to the Panama Maritime Authority, by providing a series of specific documentation and information, the issuance of the permit takes from 5 to 6 business days, and we consider is better to obtain it with an authorized agent.

Physical features of the waterway

The Panama Canal is 83.5 km (45 nautical miles) long from deep water on the Atlantic side to deep water in the Pacific. It was cut through one of the narrowest places and at one of the lowest saddles of the long isthmus which joins the North and South America continents. The original elevation was 95.1 m (312 ft) above sea level where it crosses the Continental divide in the rugged mountain range.
The Canal runs from northwest to southeast with the Atlantic entrance being 53.8 km (33.5 miles) north and 43.4 km (27 miles) west of the Pacific entrance. The airline distance between the 2 entrances is 69.1 km (43 miles).

It requires about nine (9) hours for an average ship to transit the Canal. During this brief time, the passengers aboard have an opportunity to see one of the modern wonders of the world in operation. Its principal physical features are the Atlantic and Pacific terminus, short sea level sections of the channel at either end, three sets of twin locks, Gatun and Miraflores lakes, and the Gaillard cut.

A vessel going through the Canal on the Atlantic to the Pacific side enters the channel as it passes the breakwater which protects Limon Bay and the port of Cristobal.

The sea-level section of the Canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific side is 11.7 km (6.3 nautical miles) long. This section of the channel is 152.40 meters (500 feet) wide and runs through a mangrove swamp which is only a few feet above sea level in most places.

A ship is raised or lowered 25.91 meters (85 feet) in a continuous flight of three steps at Gatun locks. Each lock chamber is 33.53 meters (110 feet) wide and 304.80 meters (1,000 feet) long. The length of Gatun locks, including the 2 approach walls, is 1.9 km (1.2 miles).

Gatun lake and dam

Gatun lake, through which the ships travel for 38 km (20.5 nautical miles) from Gatun locks to the north end of Gaillard Cut, is one of the largest artificial bodies of water in the world. It covers an area of 423 square km (163 square miles) and was formed by an earthen dam across the Chagres River adjacent to the Gatun locks. The two wings of the dam and the spillway have an aggregate length of about 2.4 km (1.5 miles). The dam is nearly 0.8 km (.5 mile) at the base, sloping to the width of 30.5 meters (100 feet) at the crest which is 32 meters (105 feet) above sea level, or 8.1 meters (20 feet) above the normal level of Gatun Lake.

A man-made ditch for ships

Because of its historical background, no part of the Canal trip is more interesting to the vessel´s passengers than Gaillard Cut. During the Canal construction period, it was called Culebra Cut but was renamed for Col. David Dubose Gaillard, the engineer who oversaw this section of the Canal work.

This portion of the channel is 13 kms (7 nautical miles) long and through rock and shale for most of the distance. It was here that the principal excavation was required, and the devastating slides occurred during construction and soon after the canal was opened.

Type of Lockages

A) Center Chamber lockage: this is the preferred type of lockage. The vessel is held in the center of the chamber by two bow and stern lines. This type of lockage’s requires fours meter (125 feet) recommenced size not less than 2.2 cm (7/8 inch) in diameter.

B) Sidewall lockage: this type of lockage uses two of the required 38 meters lines to hold the vessel alongside one sidewall in the chamber, recommended size of not less than 2.2 cm (7/8 inch) rope. The walls of the locks are rough unfinished concrete, which can cause considerable damages to vessels not properly protected by fenders; damage to masts or rigging on sailboats may also occur, if the turbulence causes the vessel to roll and strike the sidewall. Sidewall lockage’s are not recommended for yachts.
This would be the only option if the intention is to avoid a partial transit however the craft must be able to make a speed of at least 10 knots.

C) Alongside a Panama Canal tugboat: this type of lockage, when available, also uses two of the required 38 meters (125 feet) lines, recommenced size of not less than 2.2 cm (7/8 inch) rope. Availability of this type of lockage depends on the ship’s traffic of the day, and as such cannot be scheduled in advance, but is an option only.

D) Nested: same as center chamber lockage but with two or three boats rafted or nested.

On up lockage’s particularity, much turbulence is encountered. All lines should be inspected for conditions and should be sufficient size and strength to hold the vessel under heavy strain. We recommend at least 2.2 cm (7/8 inch) in diameter. Lines with splices or knots are generally not acceptable. Such lines cannot easily pass-through chocks or around cleats or bitts and are prone to jamming. Regardless of the type of lockage planned, every vessel must be equipped for center chamber lockage, especially regarding the number of line handlers and number of mooring lines.

Following ship into chamber, the crew passes the first bow and stern lines to line handlers on the approach wall at position no.1
At position no.2, crew passes the second set of bow and stern lines to line handlers on sidewall of chamber.
At position no.3 all lines are made fast on board and ashore for chamber flooding operations.

Adequate fendering must be available on board to keep the vessel from making direct contact with the rough concrete of the chamber walls. Fenders should be sufficient in number and size to keep vessels breathed off the lock wall under turbulent conditions. It is the skipper’s responsibility to have enough fenders on board and to have them properly placed.

Sufficient experienced and capable crew members must be on board to provide four-line handlers and a competent operator at all times. Chocks and bitts or cleats should be inspected to make sure all fittings are in good conditions and fasteners well secured. They will be under heavy strain during the transit. The area around these fittings must me clear of gear so that the lines can be safely and efficiently handled.

Remember, it’s your vessel. If it is damaged due to the faulty or insufficient equipment or improper handling of boat or equipment by the crew, the loss of time and expense will be yours. Try to have your vessel is top shape and with a well experiences and informed crew while transiting.

When asked, be sure to tell the admeasurer the correct top speed that your vessel can sustain. There can be hazardous currents associated with the transit, and it is important that your vessel be able to always maintain a safe speed.

Vessels that cannot sustain a speed of at least five (5) knots, and vessels without properly operating engines should make the arrangements to be towed to through the Canal. A Panama Canal Authorities can perform the towing services with all towing charges to be paid by you.

If you are unable for any reason, to commence your scheduled transit, your vessel will be charged a delay fee, unless the transit was canceled prior to close of regular business hours on the day immediately preceding the scheduled transit. the delay fee is about US400 and is assessed due to the unnecessary call out of a pilot or transit advisor.

Flooding Lock Chamber

Large 1.2 meters (4 feet) diameters wells in floor admit water from conduits into the chamber. Great pressure boils surface and fills huge chamber is less than 15 minutes.

If your vessel is operated from an open cockpit, an awning must be rigged. This will keep the operator, pilot and crew out of the sun and rain during transit. the vessel must maintain its schedule, regardless of weather conditions.

Your cooperation with canal official will not only save you time and expense but will result in a much smoother and more pleasant transit for all concerned.