Transiting the Panama Canal


By Tom Morkin

Don’t ever think a canal is a canal is a canal. It’s not so. Consider the two most important canals in the world. The Suez Canal is really not much more than a ditch in the desert. There are no locks or chambers. Boats never rise above sea level. The French under the leadership of Ferdinand de Lesseps who designed and built the Suez Canal, for the most part had to remove a whole lot of sand to make a ditch from the Gulf of Suez in the northern reaches of the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, a distance of 88 miles. A yacht crew wishing to transit is simply required to shell out about $400.USD, and motor for 2 days through a monotonous desert landscape under the watchful eye of a canal pilot.

In 1800 the French and de Lesseps turned their attention to Panama to make a route from the Atlantic to the Pacific. No doubt his confidence was fed by his success in Suez which made him a national hero in France. How hard could it be? The isthmus is only about 35 miles wide, compared to the 88 miles in Suez. Sure there are some hills in the way, but they shouldn’t be too big a deal. Right? Wrong!

After 20 years, some 80,000 deaths from disease and accidents and the loss of untold fortunes, it was abandoned. In 1904 the Teddy Roosevelt administration bought the assets of the failed venture for $40,000,000. Ten years later the first ship transited the canal. For the detailed canal story one can’t do better than David McCullough’s “The Path between the Seas”.


Some notable statistics about the Panama Canal:

  • Every year, the Canal handles more than 13,056 blue water ships from about 70 nations.
  • When travelling from the Atlantic to the Pacific vessels are lifted a total of 85 feet using three chambers to the man-made Gatun Lake, motor 29 miles across the lake and then are lowered a total of 85 feet in three more chambers to the Pacific. The 53,000,000 gallons of fresh water required to lift the boats 85 feet above sea level all come from Gatun Lake, which was created by damming the River Chagres.
  • Each chamber is 1,000 feet long, x 110 feet wide. Maximum allowed ship draft is 39 feet 6 inches in freshwater.
  • The average toll for ships is about $100,000. The Norwegian Pearl transited for $375,600 while a guy named Richard Halliburton swam the Canal in 1926 and got charged 36 cents based on his tonnage displacement!
  • Only crocodiles transit for free.
  • The locks have functioned (almost) flawlessly 24/7 for nearly 100 years. Here is one of many dredgers we saw, constantly maintaining and improving the Canal.

    • Some container and Cruise ships squeeze through the locks with only inches to spare on either side.


While the aforementioned facts are interesting for boat crews like Liz and me preparing to transit, there are some other canal facts that are considerably more riveting for us:

  • Each year about 1,400 yachts use the canal. Yachts less than 50 feet in length pay $650, over 50 feet the price is $850. Let’s say the average revenue per boat is $750, so that times 1,400 boats means the canal authority grosses just over a million dollars for yachts. They, we learned, pay out more than that each year in damages to yachts!
  • Should your boat break down and require a tow through the canal, prepare to mortgage the boat to pay for it. Two weeks before our transit a catamaran broke down half way through the canal and was charged $5,000 to be towed the last half.
  • If you have to anchor during your crossing it will cost $100 a day.
  • You can`t use your own dinghy to go ashore. You must use a canal authority launch which charges $175 for a 200 yard ferry service.
  • If you cause a delay in the canal for any reason you forfeit your $890 damage bond (buffer).


The moral here is: make sure your boat and engine systems are up to snuff.

And then there are the horror stories people love to share when they find out you are soon going through the canal.

We heard a graphic description of a line handler who lost part of her finger when she mishandled a line that was heavily loaded. We heard about boats sinking in the canal, getting dismasted, mooring lines parting, deck cleats pulling out, hulls cracking and on and on it goes. You just have to look at a sailboat ready to go through the canal. It looks like it`s going to war.

In addition to having all the boat`s fenders tied on, most boats will also have 12 old car tires on the side. On deck will be four lines at least 125 feet long secured to four cleats. All solar panels will be covered by either plywood or boat cushions to protect them from the monkey fists (hard balls with lines attached to them that are thrown to the boat repeatedly throughout the passage).

Not surprisingly, all these facts were fodder for my well nurtured free floating anxiety, but all those possible pitfalls were not enough to dampen Liz`s and my enthusiasm for the crossing. Fact of the matter is, most transits are without incident and most boaters thoroughly enjoy doing it.

I was surprised by the number of cruisers who have done the trip several times, usually as line handlers on others boats. All boats less than 100 feet must have, in addition to the skipper, four competent adult line handlers whose role it is to control the boat`s lines as the boat rises or descends in the locks. Certainly there are many like Liz and me who choose to act as line handlers on other boats to see how it all works before taking their own boats through.

Many just enjoy the whole 2 day experience of boating through an incredibly interesting engineering marvel as well as a beautiful lake in the midst of a lush tropical rainforest.

Before any vessel can use the canal it must be measured (the correct term is admeasured) to establish the tariff. Remember the charge for a boat under 50 feet is US$650, and US$850 for those over 50 feet. Our hope that the officious young admeasurer that boarded Feel Free with his measuring tape in hand might somehow find that over the 41 years of her life Feel Free may have shrunk a few inches to be become a Spencer 49 rather than the Spencer 51 she is purported to be. No such luck, he even insisted on measuring our anchor so we ended up with a Spencer 52 after all. He then went through the boat, checking our cleats and lines, ensuring we had a VHF radio, enclosed toilet, air horn. He also reminded us that we were responsible for providing our pilots with hot meals. Then he presented us with endless forms to sign which basically resulted in us agreeing that no matter what happened in the canal the Canal Authority was not responsible or liable. Finally, we doled out $1,750, $859 plus a damage deposit of $891 (buffer). And were told we could book our passage at our convenience.

But first we wanted to line handle on another boat. That chance materialized in the form of a very spiffy 57 foot catamaran, Nogal, skippered by an Aussie delivery skipper John Golden who was delivering it from Bocas Del Toro, Panama to Puerto Vallerta, Mexico.

We had an enjoyable and uneventful transit despite the torrential rain which lowered visibility so much that the big ships remained in the chambers until the rains abated to the point that they could safely navigate across Gatun Lake. Our entire transit took 22 hours from 5:30pm to3: 30pm the next day. Next time it would be aboard Feel Free.