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: https://www.cruisersforum.com/forums/f15/panama-canal-pacific-to-atlantic-lessons-learned-and-tips-to-pass-on-125008.html

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 OPTT-ARA@pancanal.com
  • 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: https://pancanal.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/FORM-4405.pdf (I also linked it above).

Tip: “Mad about Panama” (http://madaboutpanama.com/transit-the-canal/book-your-transit/) 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 OPTT-ARA@pancanal.com

Tip: We initially emailed OPTC-ARP@pancanal.com — 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 😉

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