Thursday, March 28, 2019

Panama Canal preparation

For boats that want to transit the canal it is not simply a matter of showing up at the entrance to the canal and waiting your turn to go in. It takes a bit more preparation than that.

One of the first thing a cruiser has to decide is, do we use an agent or do the paperwork ourselves. The main reasons people choose an agent are 1) the agent will handle all the paperwork and the scheduling 2) worry about language differences, 3) worry about getting your deposit back and 4) worry about carrying large amounts of cash in Colon, a city with a reputation of being on the sketchy side.

We had discussed the probability of getting an agent for all of these reasons, but in preparation we encountered several friends that were doing it without an agent. Listening to their experiences we became convinced that we could save the $350 and do it ourselves. Considering that transiting the Panama Canal is already a costly endeavor, any savings are greatly appreciated. (I will list some of the costs later)

Step one is to get the boat measured. The tolls for the transit are based on the overall length of the boat, and the magic number is 50 feet. Under 50 feet in length the toll is $800, 50 feet and over is an additional $500, bringing it to $1300. We have had several friends bemoan the fact that they had to pay the extra fee, either because their boat was too long, or extra parts sticking out (bowsprit, anchor and anchor roller, solar panels or dinghy davits) put it over the limit.

Our admeasurer at work

The title from the person who comes to measure is "admeasurer". Our admeasurer showed up early in the morning and got right to work, measuring length and beam. Our length is 49.76 feet. That's less than two inches from the dreaded 50 feet! It is a very important two inches!

Also part of the admeasurer's job is to determine how we will travel through the locks. There are basically three choices, center chamber, rafted up or sidewall. Center chamber means that your boat is in the center, four lines ( two forward, two aft) holding the boat in the center of the lock. Rafted up means you are tied to another boat, or two, and all the boats in the raft move together through the locks. Sidewall is similar to rafting in that you are tied to another boat or two, but unlike rafting on of the boats is tied to the side of the lock, and the other boats maneuver in the locks to tie up to the first boat. This is the trickiest because all positioning and tying has to be done in tne confines of the lock, and the boats do not travel together from lock to lock, so at each lock the boats tie and untie.

The more configurations you are willing to do, the greater the chance that you will actually get to transit on the day that you are given. If you are less flexible then you will have to wait until there is an opportunity to transit the way you requested. We said that we would be willing to transit in any configuration, hopefully increasing our odds of a quick transit.

When the admeasurer was done with her calculations and her questions: 

Which configurations are you willing to do? (Any)

Do you have sufficient line handlers (not yet)
Will you have meals available for the advisor (yes)
Do you have a toilet (yes)
Do you have sufficient lines and fenders (not yet)
Do you have the ability to anchor (yes)
Will you have sealed bottled water for the advisor (yes)
Do you have an emergency horn (yes)
Have you signed the waiver that says that nothing is our fault and we can blame any problems on you (not exactly worded that way, but that was the gyst of it) (yes)

We answered all the questions to her satisfaction, and our prize was a piece of paper with Rhapsody's SIN, Ship Identification Number. This stays with Rhapsody if we ever sell her and the next owners would not have to get her remeasured, or if we transit again we are all set.

The next step is paying for the transit. This is probably one of the biggest reasons that people go with an agent. An agent makes it all simple for you, both in the payments that need to be made, and in getting your deposit back. Those of us choosing to do it without an agent have a different game to play. The money has to be paid, in cash, in person, at the Citibank in Colon that does not have an ATM.

We were staying in Shelter Bay Marina, a distance of 46 miles to Colon, but certainly not as the crow flies! Fortunately the Marina runs free shopping buses twice a day to Colon. We signed up for one the next day and made our way to Colon. We needed over $1800 in cash to give to the bank, and not only do ATM's have limits on how much you can get (usually in the $200 - $500 range), but also our home banks put a limit on how much we can take a day. The shopping bus stopped directly in front of a bank with three ATMs (two actually working) and a helpful guard standing by. With his help we were able to get all the money we needed, it just took 4 debit cards (two each) and two machines each to get around the limits imposed on our money.

Money in hand we got a cab to take us to the bank ($3), we also asked him to wait for us and bring us back to the pickup for the shopping bus. $3 each way and a $1 tip and he was happy. Inside the bank, hats and sunglasses removed, the forms were pretty straightforward, obviously we were not the first people to be doing this! We got the proper stamps and our papers were filed so that later that day we could call
 to get a transit date. 

The date we were given was 10 days later, on a Saturday. We were told to  call on Friday  morning, the day before our scheduled transit to get our designated time for the following day. Transit could be any time during the day, a 5 am leave time for a one day transit, or a 5 pm leave time for a two day transit with an overnight in Lake Gatun, the man-made lake in the center of the canal.

Next we had to line up additional line handlers. A boat is required to have 4 handlers, 2 bow, 2 stern, in addition to the person captaining the boat. That means we needed three other people. You can hire professional line handlers at $100 each or find volunteers. It is usually pretty easy to find volunteers because there are plenty of people willing to help out, either because they want to check it out before they take their own boat through, or they just want the experience of transiting the Panama Canal.

We were very fortunate to find some cruisers that we had met in Santa Marta who were not taking their boat through, and just wanted to see the canal from the inside. We had a very international crew, Fiona and Terry from the Isle of Man and Rommy and Gerard from the Netherlands. All experienced cruisers, and all fun to be with. 

Step 57, or whatever step we are on now, is to rent lines and fenders. Boats transiting the canal are required to have four lines 1" in diameter and 125 feet in length, way longer and thicker than cruising boats normally have on board, as well as large fenders to protect the boat from the walls of the locks, or other boats you are rafted to.  There is quite a trade in the rental of these items, with prices running from as low as $70 to the highest we heard was $225. The average is $100, which is what we paid, but I probably did not negotiate as much as I should have! 

The sign of getting ready to " cross over", blue lines and big fenders.

It is easy to spot the boats that are about to cross over to the other side. Blue lines and either orange or white fenders appear on board and the owners are scurrying around getting everything ready.

Final steps in preparation, food and lodging for the crew. We have to clear space in Rhapsody to sleep four other people and prepare food for 7 people for two days. The advisors that come on board do not stay the night, but they do expect to be fed well, the threat that hangs over the head of the cruisers is that the advisors have the right to have food delivered to them if they are not satisfied with what they are offered, and the food delivery inside the canal or at the lake could cost a hundred dollars, or more! Certainly incentive to make sure they are happy!

With everything ready, now it is time to wait and wonder. When do we transit? AM or PM? One day or two? Will the crew be happy? Will the food be satisfactory? Will the weather be ok? ( No delays for weather!) And during all this, it is important to remember:

Next up, our transit

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