Small craft (up to 38.1 m / 125 feet of LOA) arriving at Balboa on the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal and at Cristobal on the Caribbean side are boarded by a Panama Canal boarding officer to clear the vessel. After the vessel is cleared, the skipper and crew may come ashore. If the vessel will be transiting the Panama Canal, the following procedures must be completed within then days prior to the desired transit date:
Contact the admeasures office (+507 272-45798) at the Pacific or (+507 443-2293) at the Atlantic side to make arrangements for admeasurement and to be cleared. “Admeasurement” is the process of determining the tonnage of a vessel. The tolls are calculated based on the Panama Canal (PC/UMS) Net Tonnage or the length overall of the craft. In Balboa, the admeasurement office is located on the first-floor of building 729. In Cristobal, is located on the second floor of building 1000 inside the port area.
After the admeasurement clearance, the admeasurer will inspect the vessel for transit requirements. He will discuss with the skipper the requirements for transiting the Panama Canal. A few of these requirements are:
- 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
- Four (4) line handlers in addition to the master/skipper
- One (1) anchor
- Adequate fendering
- Sanitary facilities
- Magnetic compass
- 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 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 her transit (whereas small crafts up to 125 feet in LOA cannot) subject to slots availability per day and its cost, which is additional, would be US$10,500 provided the slot is requested and granted.
Before transiting, it will be necessary to make a deposit with the local agent (recommended) 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.
It is advisable to have an agent, hopefully, able to handle all types of services, in order to avoid heavy delays in transit.
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.
Generally, small crafts transit southbound to Gamboa or northbound to Gatun anchorage on the first day of transit and complete their transit the following day.
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, 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.
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.