Monday, March 7, 2016

Panama City & The Panama Canal

The Panama City skyline lured us in after sailing (actually motoring) through the night from Playa Benao.   Thanks to Captian Jake we had an uneventful trip.  In typical Panama fashion the wind did pick up right on the nose as we approached within 10 miles of the canal zone.  We were on high alert as we tried to decipher if the giant tankers and cargo ships surrounding us were actually underway or anchored.   Most were anchored awaiting their pilots to transit the canal.  It’s still an uneasy feeling motoring by knowing how small we are in comparison.  Would they even see us or feel the impact when they smooshed us like a gnat?  I doubt it.

Our anchorage of choice was La Playita.  We threw the hook down in a spot on the outside of the anchorage with a view of the Bridge of Americas.  It was the perfect viewing spot to watch the traffic coming and going from the canal.  On the other side of the anchorage, we could see the magnificent skyline.  We paid the La Playita Marina a $57 weekly fee to use their dinghy dock.  By the way, that’s $57 for the week whether you actually use it for 7 days or 3 days, you pay for the whole week.  They give out different colored wrist bands each week and they watch you like a hawk to make sure everyone in the dinghy has one.  From the dinghy dock, we had easy access to the causeway, taxis, and the bus route.  After a few days, the novelty of the view did wear off as we rock and rolled from the wakes of the passing ships. 

We arrived on a Wednesday afternoon and quickly began our orientation of the city.  We had our friend, Zia, flying in on Friday and my parents coming the following Tuesday.  The goal was to get through the canal with everyone on board before their vacations ended.  Ideally we wanted to be transiting the canal the following Friday which gave us 9 days to check into Panama (yes, we were in Panama for a month without checking into the country) and go through the canal procedures in order to be scheduled to transit.  We were immediately informed by other cruises that we were very “ambitious” and that it can’t be done that quickly.  Rule #1, never tell Jake and Danielle that it can’t be done.  

Ships at anchor, waiting to transit the canal.

I should write an e-book titled How to Transit the Panama Canal Without an Agent and charge people for the information that I’m about the disclose.  I would say that a very high percentage (maybe 85%) of cruising boats use an agent to transit the canal.  They pay anywhere from $300-$600 to hire an agent that will check them into the country and do all of the necessary paperwork and communications with the canal authority for the canal transit.  When I first heard about the agent thing, I immediately questioned it.  Why do I need to pay someone to run to a few offices for me and make 2 phone calls? Am I required to have an agent?  No.  Then I guess I’m going to keep my money, thank you. 

So here is what we did: The day after we arrived in Panama City, we bypassed checking into Panama and went directly to the canal office instead.  There was a cab waiting in the marina parking lot.  We told him what we needed to do and he knew right where to take us.  The cab driver walked us into the canal office and waited as we spoke to the gentleman at the desk.  He spoke perfect English as we filled out one single form that included our boat name, length, speed, etc. (Step One) We handed the form over to the gentleman at the desk.  He asked when we wanted to transit.  We told him ASAP.  He scheduled us for admeasurement the next day.  Easy cheesy.  The form we filled out can also be downloaded and emailed to the canal office.  We felt that the in person contact helped speed up the process though. 

Step two is the admeasurement appointment.  We were given a window between 10am-12pm for the admeasurement guy to come out to Ohana.  You are required to have 4 - 125’ lines and 8 fenders onboard for the admeasurement.  We rented some for $100 from the taxi driver that took us to the canal office the day before.  We did have friends that did not have their lines and fenders for their admeasurement appointment and they were just fine.  The admeasurement guy was dropped off at our boat at 10 am.  He spent approximately 40 minutes on board asking questions and filling out paperwork.  He verified that we had lines, but did not measure them.  He measured the length of the boat and went over some basic information about the transit.  Other than that he didn’t seem to know much.  He did love our cat though and took pictures of her.  Weird.

Step three is to pay for your canal transit.  Our admeasurement appointment was on a Friday and banks are closed over the weekend so we decided to wait till Monday to pay.  For boats under 50’ the upfront transit fee is $1875 in cash only.  That’s a lot of atm withdrawals when your limit is $300/day.  From the $1875, you get $891 back as long as you don’t damage anything or delay the canal operations.  Therefore, our total fee after the deposit refund was $984.  We went on Monday to the Citi Bank with a form that the admeasurement guy had given us and handed over a wad of cash.  The bank then emails the canal office letting them know that we have paid. The $891 was deposited via direct deposit into our checking account less than 2 weeks after our transit.

Step four is to call the canal scheduling office after 6:30 pm on the day that you pay to be scheduled.  Jake called Monday night.  They asked when we wanted to go.  He said Friday.  They said okay you can go at 8 am and told him to call again the night before to confirm.  And that’s how it’s done!

Anyone that found this information useful please feel free to deposit a “thank you” fee into our boat donation fund.

When transiting the canal you are required to have 4 line handlers onboard in addition to the captain.  Zia and myself were line handlers on the bow and Katelyn and my dad where handlers at the stern.  Mom and Hannah were in charge of photography and keeping the crew fed and hydrated.  An adviser from the canal also comes on board to babysit everybody and make sure that we don’t screw anything up.  You are required to feed the advisor a “hot” meal and have bottled water for him.

We were center locked the entire transit.  At first, this was intimidating to us.  Being center locked means that all four line handlers are working and you have two lines on port side and two lines on starboard side connected to the canal walls.  Everyone has to be on their toes so that we don’t accidentally run into the walls and damage our boat.  Sometimes the current in the locks can be so strong it flips the boat around backwards.  All in all we did just fine.  The bow team found it more difficult to down lock then up lock.  We had to keep the bow centered at all times which involved constant communication between Zia and I.  A lot of sailboats are tug tied when they go through.  This means that they tie up to a tug boat that is tied to the walls.  When you are tug tied the line handlers don’t really do anything.   When all was said and done, we were happy to be active during our transit.  We were also very proud of Katelyn for being so excited to take on the responsibility of being a line handler.  She did an awesome job!

The "crew" of Ohana - Dad, Mom, Zia, Hannah, Katelyn, Danielle, Jake

Mom and Dad going through the Panama Canal.  Bucket list - check, check

Captain Jake and the stern line handlers - Kate and Dad

Going into the Miraflores Locks.  We had a container ship in front and a tug with a sailboat tied to it behind them.
Motoring towards the Centennial Bridge
We arrived in Lake Gatun around 5pm and tied up to this mooring buoy for the night.

The next day we had time to kill before the 2nd adviser showed up
so we took advantage of some fresh water showers.

Ships in Lake Gatun waiting to transit the locks to the Atlantic,

Day 2 waiting to down lock in the Gatun Locks

Gates opening in the first set of Gatun Locks

Holding on to the lines as Jake motors and the canal guys walk our lines into position

Huge freighter behind us in the Gatun Locks

Bow line handlers working hard

Almost there!  One more lock till Ohana is in the Caribbean!

Here is our timeline of our Panama Canal transit:

2/24/16 - Arrived in Panama City
2/25/16 - filled out initial form at canal office to start the process
2/26/16 - admeasurement appointment
2/29/16 - made payment to Citi Bank for canal fees
3/04/16 - transited the first 3 set of locks (Miraflores & San Pedro)
3/05/16 - transited the last 3 set of locks (Gatun Locks) and entered the Caribbean

Here is a cool video from the webcam in Miraflores Locks showing Ohana going through.  We are the teenie, tiny sailboat at the end.

Upon exiting the canal, we dropped off our adviser and headed to Shelter Bay Marina for a few nights before heading to Bocas del Toro.

A note on checking into Panama:  We found Panama to be one of the most expensive countries so far to check into.  As an American citizen you can fly in or bus in to Panama and receive a 90 day visa for free.  Because we came in on our "yacht" we had to pay for Mariner's Visas - $105 per person (ouch).  Hannah was free thank goodness.  We also had to purchase a cruising permit for the boat, another $120.

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