How to transit the Panama Canal in your yacht - preparation, costs, top tips and more from Behan Gifford for a smooth crossing from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean

Cape Horn sailors and ditch diggers sacrificed all to make the path between the Atlantic and Pacific easier for the rest of us. It is a surreal situation to find yourself floating in a small yacht alongside a giant ship in a box of water 25m above sea level. Entering the canal was thrilling, stressful, and awkward. Descending the last lock was euphoric. The Panama Canal is a gem to treasure.

Considering the alternative routes, the canal is a blink between oceans. Yet a smooth transit benefits from advance planning. Our research began about three months in advance after we learned how seasonal congestion can increase the waiting time from arrival in Colón to an assigned transit date. Most of the year, four to six days is typical. During the high season from late January through May, six to 20 days is the range from completion of measurement and fee payment until an assigned canal transit date. For South Pacific-bound boats, December until mid-January is a sweet spot for minimal delay.

The slowdown escalates with the arrival of the World ARC rally. Having waved the fleet off in Colombia we decided to spend a few weeks of leisurely sailing through the turquoise waters of Panama’s Guna Yala instead of adding to the spike in transiting vessels. Hiring an agent was our answer to first staying in tune with the length of the delay, then having an advocate who could help us find a slot to get through sooner during the peak-season waiting period.

An agent will help you through the paperwork and can sometimes get you an earlier transit slot All photos ©Behan Gifford/Sailing Totem

We arrived in Colón, Panama, followed by blustery tradewinds and rolling seas that finally abated behind the canal zone’s massive breakwater. Mooring options are few on the Caribbean side of the canal: there are a couple of designated areas for anchoring among the commercial stacks and cargo ships, but they come with security risks and limited options for going ashore. Boats waiting longer than a few days often sail either to nearby Portobelo or further afield to the Guna Yala (San Blas islands) or Bocas del Toro. The lone mooring option on the Caribbean side is Shelter Bay Marina, where we berthed our Stevens 47 Totem to await transit.

Step one: Get your boat measured

Our agent, Erick Galvez with Centenario, met us shortly after we tied up in Shelter Bay to confirm the process. A friendly face at the dock and perfect English softened the news of delays. You have to go through measurement and payment first before entering the ACP system to get a transit date assigned – a transit date cannot be reserved in advance.

Galvez accepted our payment and scheduled an Admeasurer (measurements for transit are only done by an official representative of the Panama Canal Authority, or ACP) for the next day. If you choose to do paperwork yourself, it’s a call to the Admeasurer’s office (English is spoken by all canal officials) to arrange a time and location for your boat’s measurement.

Our assigned transit date meant two weeks in the marina, but Erick’s efforts sourced multiple opportunities for earlier slots. In the end doing rigging jobs for Pacific-bound vessels sweetened the deal of a longer stay.

Heavy duty fenders are essential for rafting up

Step two: Pay canal fees

Galvez took care of payment as part of his agent services, providing a receipt outlining fees. If you’re organising your own paperwork, the Admeasurer provides a form which you take to Citibank and pay. The biggest variable is based on the size of your boat. Under 50ft, the transit toll is $800. For boats 50-80ft, the fee is $1,300. Length is a true ‘length overall’ including bowsprit, pulpits, davits, etc. Totem’s documentation shows our LOA at 46ft 8in but we exceeded 50ft when measured from the front of our anchor to dinghy davits. Deflating the dinghy edged us just below the 50ft mark of the Admeasurer’s indisputable tape.

In addition to the ACP charges, a buffer fee of nearly $900 is due. This is a bond to cover potential fines or additional charges which could be incurred by missing an assigned slot, being too slow, needing a water taxi for line handlers, or other events. An agent covers the buffer fee for you.

For do-it-yourself transiters, the fee (like other official canal tolls) can be paid by credit card, in cash, or bank wire transfer at Citibank along with other standard fees. The buffer will be reimbursed after a successful canal transit is completed.

Our all-in cost to transit the canal (including non-canal specific formalities) was a little over $2,000: this included visas, cruising permit, and clearance fees. It’s a lot of money, but Cape Horn and the North West Passage present inconvenient alternatives and the necessary gear would have set us back more than that!

Every step of the process with Canal authorities was above board, the only flaw being a port captain in Colón who claimed an error in our original entry formalities required a $20 fee to correct. As it was one hour from our scheduled departure, we were stuck without any option to dispute it – delaying transit could incur an ACP fine. It is one of the only times in our decade of cruising we’ve knowingly paid an ‘unofficial fee’.

The new Agua Clara/Cocoli looks were opened in 2016 for the largest shipping, but yachts and smaller vessels still use the smaller Gatun/Miraflores locks

Key Costs:

Transit toll < 50ft, $800; 50ft+, $1,300

Inspection $54

Security $130

Agent $350-500

Line handlers   $100/person (or seek volunteers from other transiters)

Lines/fenders $50-$250

Fender return $12

Cruising permit $197

From the Caribbean, the Bridge of the Americas marks the gateway to the Pacific Ocean

Step three: Organise transit logistics

Four line handlers are compulsory aboard, and four lines meeting canal transit specifications are required. You’ll also want robust fenders.

An agent will organise all of these, or you can source them locally yourself. The morning VHF net, marina bulletin board, regional Facebook groups, and the cruiser’s Coconut Telegraph will connect you with local suppliers.

Line handlers are commonly recruited from other cruising boats. Joining a boat to transit is excellent preparation for taking your boat through, and a way to pay it forward when it’s time to find your own handlers.

If you don’t find volunteers, experienced Panamanians can be hired for around $100. Whoever comes aboard, make sure they know how to tie a proper knot and have basic boat sense, and will be ready to work instead of take pictures.

Lock lines must be must be a minimum of 125ft long and between 7⁄8-11⁄2in (23-38mm) diameter. While most boats will gravitate towards standard fenders, the budget option of plastic-wrapped tyres are a fine alternative for protecting your hull from the rough concrete wall or your lock neighbour.

Final preparations to ensure a smooth transit include anticipating meals, snacks, and beverages for the duration.

Transit typically takes two days, the night spent tied to a large buoy just outside the channel in Lake Gatun.

In addition to line handlers, your crew will include at least one canal advisor (occasionally there’s a trainer/trainee pair). Hot meals are expected by the advisers, as is bottled water and cold Coke. Snacks should be available for the duration.

Step four: Time to go!

“Cristobal Signal Station, Cristobal Signal Station, this is sailing vessel Totem.” After weeks of anticipation and planning, this VHF call to inform the port entry co-ordinator of Totem’s location marks the start of our canal journey. We were assigned a one-day transit: the sky was just beginning to lighten when Totem’s advisor, Roy, was dropped off by water taxi. Roy proved to be a significant asset for ensuring a safe transit. Cruising boats are most commonly rafted in pairs or a trio to transit the canal as a block, and Roy directed our raft’s formation. Totem was designated centre boat (making Roy the lead advisor for the raft) based on propulsion ability.

We knew we liked Roy when he dryly commented, “Perfect, now we have big fenders to protect us,” upon seeing two aluminum-hulled Ovni cruising boats approach to raft up.

The canal is roughly 37 miles long, most of which is the waterway of Lake Gatun and Culebra Cut between the trios of locks at each end. Entering from the Caribbean side, three sequential chambers of the Gatun locks lift vessels up around 90ft. Howler monkeys in the jungle nearby greeted sunrise as we approached the first lock behind a large ro-ro car carrier.

Each yacht has an advisor (dropped off by water taxi) and each raft has a lead advisor

When the lock doors close and water level changes, line handlers tension (or loosen) the lines according to the adviser’s instructions. It’s harder than it sounds and requires close attention. One of the boats next to us was inattentive with easing and caused the raft to shift, a potentially dangerous situation for the boats. The crew realised and scrambled to secure the line, and twice nearly caught hands in the process. So much better to keep focused on the role!

Our raft remained intact through the first three locks, then separated to cross Lake Gatun and proceed through the cut towards the Pacific side locks. This was the longest part of the transit, a time for us to relax and enjoy a meal. March is dry season; we could relax in the cockpit for this part of the journey, learning from our adviser about his experiences and appreciating the sights: our history buffs anticipated seeing the crane named Titan that was taken as a Second World War prize, and the animal lovers aboard worked at spotting birds, monkeys, and crocodiles (a 3m croc swam alongside us in the Culebra Cut).

The adviser isn’t the captain – you’re still responsible for boat and crew –but our number one takeaway to transit safely is that it’s essential to work tightly with the adviser. They understand the lock conditions: some instructions may seem odd, like directions to turn the boat to point towards a lock wall, but it’s for a reason. There could be a four-knot current deflected by the wall, and their goal is to prevent the raft from spinning out.

Leaving the Miraflores locks behind, Totem motored towards the Bridge of the Americas and the Pacific Ocean. This marked our return to the body of water where our journey began, the last leg of our circumnavigation, and the final weeks aboard as a family of five before our eldest heads for college. A momentous event, suitably witnessed by a monumental creation.

For the Totem family, transiting the Panama Canal marked the closing stage of a round the world voyage

Tips for a smooth canal transit

• Keep decks clear. Move or stow items to keep the area around bow and stern cleats as clear as possible.

• Ensure all fairleads are fair to start. Re-leading takes time you may not have if currents start spinning the raft.

• Stern lines took the most load. Consider running them to a cockpit winch with the stern cleat as a guide to provide better control and mechanical advantage.

• Prep line handlers well. Hold a crew meeting. Make sure they understand how critical it is to be alert: they should not expect to use a GoPro or post on social media during transit.

• Repeat instructions from the adviser. It confirms you have heard and are responding to the action called for. It may serve to clarify the adviser’s intentions when issuing rapid instructions.

• Engage your adviser. Talk through manoeuvres in advance, asking for clarification on next steps and understanding actions they will want you to take before they need to happen. 

• PAY ATTENTION! The lead adviser (who is not necessarily on your boat) may call for rapid engine and/or steering changes.