Transiting The Panama Canal By Sailboat

The Panama Canal, called “the path between the seas,” is the easiest route from the Caribbean to the Pacific. Completed over 100 years ago, it is a man-made marvel of engineering. Transiting the Panama Canal by sailboat is a bucket-list activity for those trying to circumnavigate, or get between oceans.

The land divided, the world united.

Motto of The Panama Canal

Hiring an Agent Versus DIY

It takes a lot of paperwork to get through the canal! We used an agent to alleviate some of the work. As Panama Posse members, we get a discount on the Canal agent. It saved us a lot of time, paperwork, and hassle. While it may be cheaper, if you don’t use an agent, you have to pay everything in cash. This means multiple trips to ATMs, which have very low maximum daily withdrawals. ATMs aren’t easily accessible outside of Panama City.

How Much Does it Cost?

Transiting The Panama Canal on a sailboat isn’t cheap, even for a boat under 65 feet! Here’s a breakdown on current pricing to transit:

  • Transit Tolls up to 65 ft 1,600.00
  • Transit inspection              75.00
  • Canal Transit Security fee            165.00
  • Canal EDCS                            75.00
  • Fenders & lines rental        75.00 (no tires)
  • Bank charges                     60.00
  • Agent service Fee               350.00 
  • Cruising permit    235.00 
  • Line handlers for transit   $100 each (1 captain + 4 line handlers over 18 years old)
  • Landing equipment and line handlers after transit at the Balboa yacht club  $12

All prices are in USD (Panama $ is tied to US) and cost us, with our Panama Posse discount, $2,275.

Transiting the Panama Canal by sailboat is not cheap, but it’s a truly unique experience, and gets us to The Pacific a lot faster than any other way!

Before Transiting the Canal

After you’ve paid, you can’t just drive your boat up to the entrance to the Panama Canal. You’ve got to do some advance planning and preparation.

Boat paperwork

First, you need to provide paperwork before going through the Panama Canal. We always have to have our boat papers proving we own Sava on hand when we arrive in a new port, and we also needed them before transiting the canal. Boat papers include basic facts about ownership, boat type, and measurements. Passports with entry stamps and Sava’s crew list were also sent along. Additionally, I submitted a list of our last 10 ports of call, which took us all the way back to Antigua and Bonaire in 2020! Finally, we needed proof of Covid vaccine or negative test, which is common these days.

Getting measured

Even though we submitted all the facts and figures about Sava, we still needed to get her measured before we could even reserve a date for transiting the canal. We emailed our agent on a Friday to make an appointment to be measured. Our timing wasn’t the best as it was the week before Carnival, and even though the formal festivities were cancelled due to Covid, it still meant holidays in Panama.

The measuring takes minutes. We waited most of the morning on our boat, doing other projects and taking turns staying aboard, and we were the last of 15 boats he hit that day. He came onboard with a measuring tape and measured Sava from bow to stern. Easy.

getting the boat measured
Measuring Sava before our transit

Setting a Transit Date

After the measuring was done, our agent asked us if we would like the first available date or a specific date in the future. We asked for the soonest, which was a little over a week later. We could have asked to be on the waitlist for an earlier date, in case another boat cancelled, but as we had friends flying in for the transit, we stuck with the set date. Once we had the transit date, March 12th, we had to wait until the day before to learn if it would be a one day transit, beginning at 430AM! or an overnight, beginning in the afternoon. On the overnight, you spend the night moored in Gatun Lake, between the seas.

A sailboat moored in Gatun Lake between the seas
A sailboat moored in Gatun Lake, Panama

Arranging Crew

As you saw in the list of costs, hiring crew, or line-handlers, is a possibility. Some Panamanians make a living, or at least a side-hustle, out of crewing on different boats and assisting them through the canal. Many different cruisers chose this option, either fully staffing their boat with 4 professionals or supplementing their crew.

Lucky for us, we had friends who wanted to join us for the transit. It’s a cool experience, especially if you’re a boat person. Brian and Deb from S/V Sea Forever, and our friend Peter, came aboard Sava for line handling duties.

TIP: If you are planning to take your own sailboat through The Canal, sign up as a linehandler on another boat beforehand. We gained excellent experience doing this for our friends on Anixi in November, and felt confident and relaxed when we took Sava on the transit.

captain and crew transiting the canal
Sava’s team to transit The Panama Canal

Last but not least, everyone pays for an advisor. The advisor communicates with the people on shore at the canal to arrange our safe transit, so is a crucial component of a Panama Canal transit by sailboat. Our advisor has done it for years! In total, each sailboat needs the Captain, 4 linehandlers, and the advisor, so 6 people on board while transiting the canal.

Lines and Fenders

The day before the transit, we received delivery of the equipment we’d need for transit: 4 loooooong lines and 8 big fenders. The lines were to connect us to the canal walls, and the fenders to protect us from the canal walls and other boats in the canal. These were delivered to us on our boat at Shelter Bay Marina.

Posing among lines and fenders for the Panama Canal
Brian and I posing among our lines and fenders

Transiting The Panama Canal By Sailboat

Transiting the Panama Canal by sailboat is daunting. But, once you get into the moment and tackle what has to be done, it works. The Canal has been operating for over 100 years, transporting boats daily, 24/7, so they know what they’re doing.

For us, it went like this:

After the advisor boarded, we motored to the entrance to the first set of locks, Gatun Locks. We nested up to another sailboat, Broadsword. We passed our bow line and stern line to Broadsword, which they attached at their bow and stern, respectively, and we attached their spring line (in the middle) to Sava’s bow and stern. This way we had multiple points of connection and were very stable.

Nesting up to other boats in the Panama Canal
Nesting up to other boats in the Panama Canal

We liked nesting to another boat for two reasons: one, we had company for the experience, and two, we didn’t have to do all that work! If you’re the only sailboat through the passage, every line handler is working the whole time. This way, we only had to handle the lines on the starboard side, while our nested boat handled port side.

Forget what port and starboard is? But that’s easy! Refer to my boat jargon for help!

After the first set of locks we motored to a mooring ball in Gatun Lake where we ate dinner, had a mini celebration that we’d made it a quarter of the way. Then we tried to sleep. We all woke up early, had coffee and some fruit and banana bread, and Francisco came back on board before 8am and had us motoring away. The lake and the distance between the locks takes several hours to cover, so we tried to stay out of the sun, read, rested, and took turns piloting Sava. Once we got to the Pacific locks, we were close to the end: The Pacific Ocean.

linehandler duties

Linehandlers are very important to keeping the boat stable in the locks of the Panama Canal.

The linehandlers retrieve the monkey balls that are thrown by the canal workers, attach them to the boat lines with a bowline, and control the lines as needed during transit.

Canal employees throw monkey balls to Sava during our Panama Canal transit

As I mentioned, we only had to worry about two lines, the starboard lines, so Peter and Deb handled the starboard bowline, and Brian and I the stern while Captain Brian drove.

A sped up view of Brian retrieving the monkey ball and securing it to a line on Sava

Basically, the linehandler secures the line so nothing moves until the lock gates close. Once the water starts flowing in to bring us up into the lake, the lines need to be tightened accordingly. When the water emptied to exit us from the lake at the Pacific Side, Brian and Peter had to slack the lines to keep us on place. No one wants their boat scraping the sides of the canal, so keeping the lines in control is important.

Passing the Miraflores Visitors Center
Passing The Miraflores Visitors Center near the Pacific Ocean

The Locks

In total, Sava transited 6 locks in the Panama Canal. From the Caribbean to Lake Gatun, we transited the 3 upward locks in about ninety minutes. The last locks include one, a short motor, and then two final locks together to bring us down into the Pacific Ocean.

The gate closing on Gatun Locks

Being tied up to the docks while hundreds of tons of water was being added to the lock (from the Caribbean side) and removed (Pacific side) was incredible.

What surprised me is that we were stunningly stable! We couldn’t feel the water surging or dropping underneath. The only way we could tell it was happening was by looking at the depth chart on the side, and/or looking at the view, which disappeared as we entered, and reappeared as we departed, the canal.

Looking into The Pacific from The Panama Canal
Looking into The Pacific from The Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is one of the top tourist attractions in Panama. In fact, as we neared the end of our transit, we approached the Miraflores Visitors Centre, where people were waving and taking photos of us. It was pretty weird to be part of the sights! You can also watch boats go through the canal on their webcams, and one of our friends sent us a shot of our transit!

Sava in The Panama Canal
Webcam view of Sava in The Gatun Locks the first night of our transit

A Great Transit

So many things can go wrong, and we heard a LOT of horror stories in the weeks leading up as we waited in the marina for our transit date.

Since completing the transit, we’ve heard more horror stories: of boats crashing into each other or into the wall, and of huge surge from the big ships exiting the canal after the sailboats were untied.

Ship in Panama Canal locks
The ship behind us in the locks

But our transit was stress-free and fun! We are so grateful.

We are now in the Pacific Ocean. It took us less than 24 hours to cut through a country and get from The Caribbean to The Pacific in our little 46 foot monohull. It seems like magic.

How Long Does it Take?

If you’re assigned the 430am time, the trip takes a little over 12 hours, from what I hear. We were given a 3PM time, but didn’t actually start until close to 5PM, and were out into the Pacific at approximately 3:30PM the next day. When we did it with our friends in November, it took a little over 24 hours.

It’s Done

So far, the Pacific doesn’t feel that different from the Caribbean, but we haven’t moved yet. We know we’ll be back to dealing with tide tables soon, but the most important is preparing ourselves for our biggest challenge yet: an ocean passage.

We were exhausted when it was done and spent a couple days just catching up on sleep and turning the boat back into our home. While we do feel a sense of accomplishment, we’re not spending a lot of time reflecting on it. We’ve got to get ready for the next adventure!

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Author: Mel

Living aboard a sailboat, scuba diver, cat parent, cyclist, blogger, love the water and exploring new places.

7 thoughts on “Transiting The Panama Canal By Sailboat”

  1. Great blog, thanks. Transiting the canal is on my bucket list. I’ve always wondered what the costs were.

    1. You’re welcome, Sven! Price is the first question I got asked a few times, so thought I should include it. Hope you get to do the transit one day soon! If you’re in Panama near Shelter Bay, go on the Facebook group, or post it on the physical wall at the marina. People are always looking for line handlers, and now is the season.

  2. Wow! This seems like an incredibly memorable experience. I grew up sailing so I know I would really enjoy this kind of trip. I love how adventurous you are!

  3. Amaaaazing post! I was looking forward to this one so I am so glad you shared! It is pretty surreal to see your teeny boat with the huge ship right behind you! It is a very costly trip, but wowza, what a cool adventure!

  4. you got a typo, scary one (I was like, “fuck it that’s too much I’ll sail around”

    * Transit Tolls up to 65 ft 1,6000.00 (sixteen THOUSAND dollars)

    1. Thanks for catching that and letting me know, slick. I’ve fixed the typo. Do note that prices rise periodically, so what we paid in 2022 may not be the same next year. Hope you get the chance to go through! It’s a cool experience.

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