Transiting the Panama Canal without an agent – Colon, Cristóbal (Atlantic) to Balboa, Panama City (Pacific)

While I’m sure there are many reasons you might want to use an agent to organize your Panama Canal transit, I found it frustrating to be told that was the *only* option.

I’d heard the same thing 8 years ago, when we brought the original Brio through from the Pacific to the Atlantic side. I did a little digging and felt like I *must* be missing something — it’s one form, one trip to the bank, and a few phone calls… and people were paying $400-$800 for that? That’s a big chunk of our cruising budget that I really didn’t want to hand over if we didn’t have to… Here’s my write up from 2014, if you’re curious:

Fast forward to this trip, and again I was willing to be wrong — maybe it really was impossible to do from the Colon side? Maybe getting to the bank would be so sketchy I’d happily pay $500 to not have to make a taxi trip. Maybe something had changed?!?

Nope. Nothing has changed.

I realize people may disagree with my view — especially from the Colon side — but for those who would like to try to transit the Panama Canal sans agent, here’s version 2.0 of “more than you ever wanted to know about the canal” (as of November 2022):

The short version:

  • Email form 4405, form 4614 (both linked above), a scan of the captain’s passport and a scan of the boat’s documentation to
  • Call the Admeasurer’s office: 507-443-2298
  • Get your form from the Admeasurer and take it to Citibank along with your stack of cash ($2900 in our case)
  • Call the canal office to get your transit date: 507-272-4202
  • Organize lines, fenders and line handlers. We liked Stanley Scott a lot – you can text him at 507-6523-3991
  • Call the canal office to confirm your time, pick up your advisor at the flats, and go do the thing!

The long version:

November 7, 2022: Download form 4405 and 4614 from the pan canal website: (I also linked it above).

Tip: “Mad about Panama” ( is an excellent resource through all of this.

Leave the SIN blank on 4405 (that’s your Ship Identification Number, and you most likely don’t have one yet). Do your best on your last 10 ports — no proof will be requested, and I know it was hard to remember that far back. The bank information on 4614 is how your buffer gets returned to you, so do a good job of filling it in accurately! Google is your friend for Swift codes etc.

Include a copy of the captains passport and your boat documentation and email all of that to

Tip: We initially emailed — that email is apparently not in service anymore.

Tip: It’s worth calling the Admeasurer’s office within 1-2 hours after you email the forms, as they process your documents very fast. They speak English. The Admeasurer’s office number is 507-443-2298 and they’ll let you know if anything is missing from your forms.

Tip: We couldn’t figure out for the life of us how to dial a Panama number. Turns out we needed to dial “00” before the “507” number. We tried 1, 001, etc and finally Google saved us. This is what I’m saying — we are not technical wizards and even we could figure out this thing eventually 😉

After sorting out the correct email, the Admeasurers office told us to call back the next morning at 7:30 am for our measurement appointment.

November 8, 2022: Jon called at 7:30am. We expected this step to take a few days, but Jon was told “the Admeasurer will be there between 8am and noon”. Wow! Cue the mad cleaning up in preparation of the Admeasurer’s arrival.

The Admeasurer wanted to see the boat paperwork, check our cleats, and hear our confirmation that we would have 4x 100-foot lines, sufficient fenders, and four line handlers in addition to a skipper.

Not quite big enough to be a line-handler

Once he is satisfied, the Admeasurer gives you a form confirming the details and the amount you will need to take to the bank. For boats under 65’ this is $2900 — $1060 of this is a buffer that will be returned to you.

Tip: If you haven’t started already, now is a good time to begin withdrawing cash. This might actually be the hardest step in the whole process, as many of the ATMs I encountered would only give you $250 at a time — AND they charged $5/transaction!

Pro tip: Because we somewhat knew what we were in for, we took $3000 out in the US before we flew to Panama. If you have the option to get US cash before you arrive, it might make your life easier later!

November 9th was a holiday so banks were closed — there are lots of them!

November 10th: we took the Shelter Bay shuttle in to Cuatro Altos shopping center in Colon. We bought a huge load of groceries, and then asked a random taxi to take us to Citibank and then to Shelter Bay. He said this would be $25 which we thought very fair — it’s usually $20 just to return to Shelter Bay.

Tip: Citibank is in the Port of Colon, is open Mon-Fri, and is not the most common taxi destination. I had data on my phone so I could pull up Google Maps and show the taxi driver where we needed to go. It’s the only Citibank in Colon.

The bank would only allow one person inside, so Jon took the paperwork from the Admeasurer, his passport, and the cash in while Zephyr and I sat in the taxi and waited. The bank employees did not speak a lot of English, but they understood what the form was and why Jon was there.

This took longer than we’d expected — in total Jon waited about 45-minutes to get it all done. Someone at the canal office wasn’t answering the phone, and the bank needed confirmation before they’d take our money. It wasn’t difficult, just took a little extra patience — especially since we had a taxi full of groceries and a 4-year old to entertain outside!

Since the bank took so much longer than expected, we gave the taxi driver $40.

We called the Admeasurer’s office that afternoon to see if we could get our transit date. They gave us a different number to call – the canal office – at 507-272-4202

We needed to wait a little longer, but when we called at 8am the next morning they told us we could transit the next day if we wanted! We weren’t ready, so we requested Monday, November 14th. They conditionally confirmed that this was possible, and told us to call back on Sunday afternoon to confirm.

At this point it was time to organize lines, fenders, and line handlers.

Lines and fenders:

Gone are the days of ugly tires wrapped in plastic bags!

I WhatsApp messaged Stanley Scott, who speaks very good English, at +507 6523 3991. I had found his number in the Panama Cruisers Facebook group. He delivered lines and very nice fenders to us at the marina the very next morning for $140. This fee included retrieving them in Panama City after our transit. Stanley was excellent, and I believe he can also help you find line handlers if needed.

Pic showing blue floating lines and giant fenders – on the mooring in Gatun Lake

We had friends who had flown in to be our line handlers, and additionally we paid a Panamanian friend of a friend $100 to be our 4th line handler.

Tip: While we waited for our transit date, I tried to cook a few things ahead of time. You MUST make a hot meal for the advisor (hot food on a hot day makes no sense to me, but Advisors have the option to reject your cold meal and charge you $350 to have a hot meal delivered, so it’s worth knowing!). It’s a LOT of mouths to feed for two days, so having a few things ready ahead of time (muffins, snacks, pasta sauce, etc) really helped.

Sunday, November 13th: Called and confirmed our transit would be Monday afternoon.

Monday, November 14th: Called the canal office in the morning to confirm that we should be out on “the flats” by 2pm, and the Advisor would be delivered by boat to us around 4pm. We anchored and enjoyed a few sun showers while we waited.

We were meant to transit right away, but we had checked “no tugs” on our form (meaning we didn’t want to raft up to a tug) and at the last minute the ship we were supposed to go through with decided it needed a tug to come with it. This meant we couldn’t transit at that time. The Admeasurer had recommended we not go with a tug due to the potential for damage, so while we were a bit annoyed to have a 3-hr delay, we were also grateful to not have any damage to our boat!

While we waited for the next ship we tied up to the old ferry dock. There was 7’ of water at the wall. Our Advisor, Amado, was excellent and helped make the whole process stress-free. We had hot dinner while we waited, and put the kiddos to bed which was actually a win!

When our ship came we followed him in and tied center-chamber. In the busier season you’re usually rafted to other boats, but we were completely alone both days — this makes maneuvering easier (you can steer your own boat easier than a big raft up) but it also means every one of your 4 line-handlers will be actively busy the whole time.

The only trick for us was this meant there were no extra hands for the two kiddos — so just a side shout out to the preschoolers who self-entertained for the whole canal experience!

The mooring you tie to for the night is very close to the Colon locks, so we had a short motor after our three locks and then gratefully tied up for the evening. Our alternator wasn’t making power and the propane was being funky, so we had a few boat challenges to tackle overnight 😉

Tuesday, November 15th: Our second Advisor was dropped off at 7:30am. We set off for the Gatun Lake crossing — about 28nm — and tried to provide constant snacks and drinks to all 8 people onboard (two kids + 6 adults).

Harold, our second advisor, was a wealth of Panama Canal fun facts, so that made the long motor day entertaining. We were slightly too fast crossing the lake (words I never thought I’d say!) so we tied to a mooring to wait for an hour just before the first lock.

Locking down is much less stressful than locking up, and a daytime transit was nice too. We did have some serious rain and lightning, but when those gates opened on the Pacific I felt nothing but joy to be back in “my” ocean!

The Pacific Ocean!!!

The Advisor was picked up just before Flamenco anchorage, and then we continued around to Las Brisas. Our line handler jumped ship, and Stanley came the next morning to pick up the moorings and lines (as arranged ahead of time — his communication was stellar!).

Here’s a quick recap of the costs:

  • $2900 in cash to Citibank – $960 is returned, $1840 is your true cost
  • $140 lines and fender rental
  • $100 for a line handler
  • $40 taxi from grocery store to Citibank and back to Shelter Bay
  • So $2120 was our total true cost, but the experience was priceless 😉

Portland, Maine to St John’s, Newfoundland (a delivery)

Newfoundland is one of those destinations we’d quietly whispered about for years… maybe, one day, if the boat projects ever ended and the stars aligned… so when the opportunity came up to deliver a J-46 from Portland, Maine to St John’s, Newfoundland — with a leisurely schedule and the route up to us — we jumped on it!

For those who are not as familiar with the area, here’s a little overview map of our route and some of the highlights along the way. This turned into quite the long post, but I just couldn’t cut back on the photos!!

Side note: We have not abandoned our boat, Brio II 🙂 We’ll return to her in Panama this fall, after a summer with my family on the west coast… but I had to write up this not-so-little trip summary before I forget it all!

Leg 1: Maine to Shelbourne, Nova Scotia (240 nm)

We left on June 10th, and started with a nice little shakedown sail to Richmond Island. It’s one of those anchorages that’s never all that comfortable (the swell seems to always find its way in) but it was a good day-sail and we figured Zephyr would enjoy stretching his legs and chasing some sheep.

Knowing we had limited time, we decided early on to prioritize getting to Newfoundland as quickly as we could while also making a few nice stops in Nova Scotia.

Shelbourne was an *excellent* first stop. It’s a port of entry (that *just* reopened!) so we could clear Canadian Customs, we figured we could get there in one night, and it meant we avoided having to time the currents at Cape Sable.

The folks running the Shelbourne Yacht Club could not be nicer, and the 10-minute phone call clear-in was our easiest foreign country check-in to date!

As an added bonus, we met s/v Manzanillo – a French family with another 4-year old boy onboard. They were headed in a similar direction, so we exchanged whatsapp contacts and hoped to run into them again.

Leg 2: Shelbourne to the Bras d’Or Lakes via Le Have Islands, Lunenburg, Louse Harbour and St. Peter’s Lock (292 nm)

Leaving Shelbourne, our first stop was the Le Have Islands. The parents of my childhood cruising friend have settled here, so we couldn’t sail by without stopping to say hi! The fog was thick but the anchorage was settled, and we slept very well after a pizza party with our friends.

We intended to hop over to Halifax next, but the genoa had other ideas. We were beating into a beautiful 15-knot breeze when the head webbing snapped. All hands on deck! Jon quickly got the sail down and stuffed inside while I tried to steer the boat through the seas as *gently* as possible. We really didn’t want to lose the sail overboard, but we also really didn’t want to ship a greeny while the forward hatch was open.

At that point continuing to Halifax was out of the question, so we pulled a u-turn and sailed back to Lunenburg where North Sails Atlantic Sail Loft offered that they could get the sail fixed same-day!

A quick trip up the mast to retrieve the halyard, some on-deck gymnastics getting the sail folded up, and then the real dilemma: how to carry the rather large, rather heavy sail the few blocks from the dinghy dock to the sail loft.

Enter: the LL Bean rolling suitcases. My parents hate these things — we have two of the beasts — but these suitcases have been with Jon and I for a verrrry long time.

With the sail ratchet-strapped to the frame, they did the job as a rolling dolly perfectly.

With the sail repaired and back onboard, it was time to check the weather. Ah yes. We could leave — right then — or stay in Lunenburg for another 3-4 days. As much as we loved Lunenburg, Newfoundland was calling our names. So at 6:30 pm we upped-anchor and set off for as far along the coast as we could make it in one night.

The upside of cruising in June is that you have a LOT of daylight. Nights were really only 6 hours long, and I never tired of Jon asking if I wanted “the first night watch or the second one?”.

When morning broke, we spotted another J-boat sailing on the horizon, and you know what they say about two boats sailing… and so ensued some of the most exhilarating sailing we had on the whole trip, flying along with 20-25 gusting 30 on a broad reach.

We swapped radio plans with our new friends and settled on Louse Harbour. The charts make the entrance seem quite unappealing. We consulted the cruising guide and a few Active Captain reviews, and Louse Harbour’s entrance was totally fine depth-wise — but it was FULL of fishing traps strewn across the entrance with 15-30′ of floating line, making for a real maze of an entry!

Louse Harbour was worth the effort though, including stomping around on shore and getting to know the crew of s/v Boreus a little better.

The next day was equally foggy, but we were determined to press on. The short sail to St. Peter’s Lock was not fun. The seas were giant, the fishing floats were endless, and the fog was relentless.

Trying to spot fishing floats in the fog — with seas big enough that the floats are underwater at some points, and lazily on the surface at others — is no bueno.

When we finally crawled in to St Peter’s and tied up to the lock wall, we were pretty worn out.

St. Peter’s lock is super fun — I’m still not sure if we went up or down, and after the Panama Canal it’s a complete non-event. The marina around the corner offered a wonderful stop to refuel, celebrate Jon’s birthday, and have our first Tim Hortons coffee!

Leg 3: The Bras d’Or Lakes

I’m not sure they really count as their own leg, but the Bras d’Or lakes definitely deserve their own little write-up!

The novelty of sailing on completely flat seas with a fresh breeze and stunning scenery all around did not wear off. And nearly no boats! We still aren’t sure if it’s because we were early in the season, or if they just don’t get very busy — but we felt like we had the whole place to ourselves.

At the suggestion of the St. Peter Marina manager, we anchored in Maskell’s Cove and had it completely to ourselves. Zephyr and I had a (verrrry quick) swim, we explored the beach, and we thoroughly enjoyed a blue-sky, fog-free day.

From here we needed to time our exit through the Great Bras d’Or narrows. What a pain! I’d been trying to research the best time to make this exit for weeks, and “The Google” had nothing but conflicting advice. The cruising guide was also a bit of a joke – “exit as close to slack as possible, as fearsome waves build when the wind is against the tide”. Thanks, that’s great, but how do we calculate slack? Other guides suggested that the current ran opposite to the tide at the narrows. What?!

In the end, our friends on Manzanillo – the family we’d met in Shelbourne – saved us. They were one day ahead, and radioed back to let us know that the current predictions were dead wrong and they had to stop and wait for the conditions to improve before they could exit. I did a little math based on their experience, and concluded that we could leave the following morning and expect favorable current with light SW winds.

For anyone trying to leave the Bras d’Or lakes: The advice to leave 2-3 hours AFTER low tide in Sydney proved useful. I have no idea why Sydney’s tide station is the reference, but it worked out for us. We had ~2 knots of positive current flushing us out of the lakes, and completely flat seas which was good because the narrow channel was once again FULL of floating line and buoys.

Leg 4: The Fjords of the South-West Coast of Newfoundland: Cape La Hune, Francois and Morgan’s Arm

We chose a relatively benign window to cross Cabot Strait directly to Cape La Hune, and have no regrets. Cabot Strait has a bit of a reputation, and we were keen to arrive on the SW coast with plenty of energy for exploring!

La Hune

There are almost no words to describe the majesty of these fjords. Entering La Hune’s fjord through the fog, we had no idea what we were about to experience… it was jaw-dropping.

The waterfall in Deadman’s Cove was breath-taking.

The superlatives are not enough!!

We dinghied across the fjord to the “beach” on the western side and could see a few traces of the outport that once thrived here — stakes where houses had stood, and an old cemetery on the top of the granite rocks. We also got a peek at the cove on the other side — complete with its own waterfall, of course.

Francois (“Fran-sway”)

I had a small work project that needed to be uploaded, so we gambled that Francois might be enough of an establishment to have some form of wifi. The fog packed in and refused to let go, but we so enjoyed this charming town and its ~60 inhabitants.

The history of these outports is really interesting. At one point, Francois had up to 400 inhabitants and over 100 children in the school. Now there are 4 active students, and the locals say that when those 4 graduate the school will likely close. There was a post office and one store, and a small museum that we greatly enjoyed.

Morgan’s Arm – Hare Bay

It’s really hard to choose a favorite stop in Newfoundland — La Hune was amazing, and Francois was such a unique experience… but if pressed to just one, I think it would have to be Morgan’s Arm.

Caveat: It probably really helps that we had a picture-perfect blue sky day here. The weather definitely changes the feel of a place, so my real advice is if you get a clear day spend it in a fjord!

I lost count of how many waterfalls are in this fjord — you feel like you’ve seen the best and then it just… keeps… getting… better!!

The very best for last, of course… Morgan’s falls proper.

You can quite easily walk / climb the granite rocks alongside the falls, leading to a beautiful view of the fjord and the surrounding mountains.

If you’re feeling extra brave (we weren’t!) you can even bring your sailboat right in to the base of the waterfall. We probably would have tried if we’d been in our own boat, but when you’re delivering someone else’s very nice sailboat you really don’t want to arrive with any unexpected chunks missing 😉

Phew. Still with me? You’re a trooper. And we’re getting to the end…

Leg 5: St Pierre + Miquelon

I’d heard of “the French islands in the middle of Canada” for a while, but had never really looked at where they are. Well, turns out, they’re right off the bottom of Newfoundland, very conveniently located for anyone sailing the south coast.

We weren’t 100% sure we’d have the time to stop, but the weather lined up nicely — and we knew that Manzanillo would be there, and the boys were keen to play a little more if they could.

So off to France we went 🙂

The check-in process was a breeze — Customs and the local police were onboard within 10 minutes of tying up, they asked the usual questions, filled out the forms, and sent us on our way. Honestly we spent more time discussing which bakery had the best pain-au-chocolat than anything else! And there was no check-out requirement which made it especially easy to come and go.

The highlight of our stay — other than the duck foie gras, croissants, escargots, pain au chocolat, tartines, and scallops — was definitely dinghying over to Isle des Marins for a little exploring. The boys ran wild, and the island was the original establishment for St Pierre.

Leg 6: Sailing to Royal Newfoundland Yacht Club

The last leg — for us at least — was a big jump from St Pierre to the RNYC, just around the corner from St. John’s. The big attraction of this leg was sailing through the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, where we *hoped* to find ever-elusive puffins!

I struggled to get a good photo, but we did indeed find the puffins 🙂

And that’s it! A month of glorious sailing, lots of fog, a million photos, and incredible memories. We are so thankful we had this opportunity!!

And if anyone else wants their boat delivered somewhere super nice, you know who to call…

– The Brio Trio