08:55N 79:31W Panama Canal
Conor & Marion Wall
Thu 12 May 2011 05:25
We arrived in Colon from the East and entered the port through the smaller entrance after calling Port Control on channel 12 on the VHF radio for clearance. We made our way to the Club Nautico on the east side of Colon town and dropped our anchor in a depth of approximately 3 meters with some very large commercial vessels at various locations alongside the concrete walls and on mooring surrounding us. Club Nautico has basic facilities. There is a clean shower and toilet, a bar, a very reasonable restaurant, fuel and water and a jetty to tie the dinghy to in safety. A few locals seem to keep an eye on everything and there is a man permanently manning the entrance to the club along with a security guard with a pump action gun. We paid 5$ per day to tie our dinghy to the dock but no charge for anchoring. The club in itâs glory days was and still is mainly for game fishing boats of which there are still a handful left.
As we already had our cruising permit and immigration papers that we got in the San Blas Islands we were now only obliged to complete Port Authority paperwork to be fully legal again. We got a $3 taxi ride to their offices about two miles away on the other side of Colon. He dropped us at the wrong place but we soon found out where to go. Third floor offices opposite City Bank and you enter the building via a yellow metal gate at the corner of the block. Climb three stories and find the third office along the hallway and that is the Port Captain. No markings on doors or buildings to give any indication. We should have prepared in advance some photo copies of passports, crew list, cruising permits etc. but we didnât so a âlackeyâ ran off and got them done after relieving us of some more dollars. The official was pleasant and and efficient and the âfreeâ paperwork completed within a very short space of time. We were legal once again.
We exited the building into a very run down part of Colon and should have arranged a taxi but instead decided to walk back through the town to get a feel for the place. Colon is a very dangerous city by all accounts and it is not wise to walk anywhere. Everywhere you go people stop you and say donât go that way or this way and point us to the safest way. I must confess I did not feel threatened but Marion and some of the other boating people certainly did. The city is heavily policed and every shop has their own security guards always armed to the hilts with pump action guns etc. On our way back from the Port Captains office I noticed that we were being shadowed by two police officers in bullet proof vests and very large guns. As we went in and out of shops I noticed that they waited on street corners for us and were obviously looking out for our safety. By the end of our stay in Colon I too was concerned for our safety and made sure that I was always fully alert to my surroundings on my various trips into the town. Always walked fast and kept a good lookout over my shoulder.
We did some provisioning in Colon as there were a couple of large supermarkets only a short distance from the Club Nautico site.
To arrange transit through the canal we formed a group of about six other yachts and got in touch with an agent called Tito. He had been recommended to us by earlier travellers who had used him. It is not essential to use an agent but if you do not use one you are likely to get put on the waiting list and we heard stories of people having waited up to two months to transit. Even using the services of an agent you could wait a long time to pass. Everything seems to depend on the the âAdvisersâ that are assigned to every sailing boat that transits. The âAdviserâ is a person who gets on to your boat before you enter the canal and he stays with you until you exit at the far end. There would appear to be a shortage of âadvisersâ as most of them have full time jobs and the advisor bit seems to be only part time. Our timing co-insided with a major holiday and a lot of the advisers were on leave or so we were told.
However firstly we had to be measured by an other official called the âadmeassurerâ. Part of the requirements for every yacht is that we each must have lines of at least 150 feet long and there must be at least four âline handlersâ per yacht, the helmsman does not count as one therefore a minimum of five crew plus the adviser. To make arrangements for this we first had to visit the Canal administration offices in a building that looked more like an air traffic control tower with very heavy security to get into it. The agent made the arrangements and three taxis took us and the group there. Paperwork completed we now had to wait until the following day and at a pre arranged time we were to phone and find out when the âadmeasurerâ would be able to measure our boats. Finally we needed to take our boat to a pre arranged anchorage and wait for the admeasurer to come. That was all arranged for 10th March 2011. Following much paperwork and form filling on board Toucan and a quick measure of the overall length with a tape measure we were ready to go to the next step.
The next step is to pay $1500 in cash, no credit cards accepted, to the canal administration account at City Bank and once that was done we could phone the administration offices to arrange a date to transit or more to the point to be told when we could transit. The system is not very user friendly for the yachts and indeed they seem to make everything as difficult as possible for us.
Friends of ours were arriving from Christchurch to do the canal with us and trying to arrange everything to fit into place was a very difficult task however it worked out and Trevor and Jacky joined us on Friday the 18th March for the transit which started on the 19th. We now had three line handlers plus the helmsman so one person was needed. Some days earlier Marion and I had done a dummy run through the canal on another yacht called âRemedyâ and helped them make up the required numbers for line handlers as well as to give us the experience of what was to come. Ian from âRemedyâ now returned the favour and joined us for our transit. For those yachts that do not have friends to help make up the numbers one must hire the line handlers. There appears to be plenty of people willing to do this for a small fee varying from $40 to $100 depending on who you employ as your agent. The whole system seems to be designed to extract as much money from the poor yachting community as possible.
Just wanted to let you all know that we are alive and well and currently awaiting our turn to go through the Panama Canal to the Pacific. We did a trial run yesterday and today with another boat going our way (got a bus back) and I must say it is a pretty impressive canal. The locks are massive and some of the ships passing through are so big that there are only inches on either side for them to manoeuvre. We were put into a lock with a fairly large ship but had plenty of room behind it. Sometimes you raft up three abreast and enter the locks as a floating raft.There are three locks up on the Atlantic Side and three down of the Pacific side. Yesterday we did the 'up' bit and moored close to the locks in the lake and today we travelled the 35 miles or so canal and down into the Pacific.
Now having done it once the whole experience should be more relaxing when we go through with 'Toucan'.
On the 19th we were to be at the pre arranged anchorage and were to contact the control tower by radio to confirm our time of transit so we went around to the pre arranged place in the early morning to be ready. There were two other boats that would transit with us as it turned out. Normally the transit through the canal from the Atlantic side start in the late afternoon and it is usually dark by the time you reach the first set of locks, we were fortunate enough to be called at about 1500 and by the time we got underway it was still bright, it was bright also as we entered the first and second locks but by the time we got the third lock and into the Gatun Lake it was dark. Our companions were a Swedish boat and an American boat and we rafted up three abreast with the Swedish boat in the middle and us on their starboard side and the Americans on their port side. Manoeuvring the raft into and out of the locks was a little tricky but we soon got the hang of it with the guidance of the advisers. Once through the third lock and into the lake we made our way along with the other boats to a holding buoy a few miles into the lake where our adviser left us and where we would stay for the night.
The following morning at 0600 a new advisor arrived to take us through the canal and out through the locks at the Pacific side. We set off straight away and covered the 35 miles or so distance by approximately 1400 hours.There was a bit of waiting around before we could enter the lock system but soon we were underway. Christopher and other members of the family had been monitoring our progress at home via the live web cams both on the Atlantic side and now on the Pacific side and have recorded the event for us. Going through the canal was fun and we had great banter with Christopher via text messages while he watched us live on the web cam. At one point he told us that the gates had closed behind us and I had to tell him that we knew. Certainly an experience to remember.
There is a 6 page document called Autoridad del Canal de Panama, procedures for securing a handline transit of the Panama Canal which makes very interesting reading for anyone interested. I am sure it is possible to download or look at these rules and regulation from the web.
We were anchored at Los Brisas del Amadore on the Panama City side of Flamingo island before dark.