Family Magazine

Panama Canal: the Cost for a Big Shortcut

By Behan Gifford @sailingtotem

Totem enters the Pacific

Totem rocks gently at anchor on the Pacific side of the Panama canal. There’s more to share about our transit, but “how much does it cost?” comes up frequently. Here’s what we paid to transit the Panama canal, with a breakdown of fees to help estimate what it could cost others.  It’s a lot of money, but let’s face it: Cape Horn and the Northwest Passage present inconvenient alternatives for sailing to the Pacific.

Fees levied by Panama’s canal authority, the ACP:

  • Transit toll: $800 (same all boats up to 50’)
  • Inspection by an ACP Admeasurer: $54 (fixed by ACP)
  • Security charge: $130 (fixed by ACP)

Fees for Panama formalities:

  • Panama cruising permit: $197 (fixed)
  • Panama visas: we paid $315 ($105/adult). Panama since stopped levying this fee. bummer for us!
  • Other formalities: $55

Other canal transit costs:

  • Agent fee: we hired Erick Galvez from Centenario for $350
  • Line handlers: four required in addition to the skipper/helmsperson. Our friends volunteered. $0
  • Lines/fenders: Rented four lines of 125 feet, and large fenders, through our agent for $75
  • Bank commission for ACP payments handling: $60
  • Water taxi tip for collecting lines/fenders: $12

Total fees necessary for Totem to transit the canal: $2,048.

You can pay a little less, and you can pay a lot more. Here’s how:

Boat size: The 50’ cutoff for $800 is a hard one. There is no lower cost bracket for shorter boats. From 50′-80′, the fee is $1,300. The Admeasurer brings a tape and measures the vessel’s extreme length. Got a bowsprit? Anything sticking off the transom like a solar arch? These are included in the length. We deflated our dinghy tubes to keep them on the davits (thinking a clear foredeck was safer for line handlers) and stayed barely below the 50’ mark.

Agent fees: You can save this expense and arrange transit yourself. Not rocket science, just takes time, and some precautions. Agent fees vary. We picked ours based on a mix of glowing referrals and competitive rate. An agent saves money in some ways (no buffer paid- more on that below; no taxiing around to visit officials – you don’t walk / take public transportation in Colon with a pocketful of cash, it’s not safe). Our primary purpose in hiring the agent was to have an advocate for our transit timing, so our friends visiting from the US could transit with us. That didn’t work, but once we were in Colon, he was an excellent advocate and presented short-term openings for us twice in our first week there (the waiting period during our peak-season stay ballooned to as much as 21 days from measurement to transit; we got through in 10).

Line handlers: Hiring a handler is $100+ and hires sleep on your boat overnight. Cruisers often try to transit on another boat ahead of their turn in order to see what it’s like, a nice tradeoff for everyone. You should pay their taxi fare in the opposite direction. Do make sure they know how to tie a proper knot and have basic boat sense, and will be ready to work instead of take pictures. A guy next to us worrying about his big DSLR nearly lost his fingers because he wasn’t paying attention.

Lines & fenders: we have line of sufficient strength and length on board, but it would have to be cut for canal use. The lengths are intended for use with our sea anchor, and then we’d want to replace that line. Standard dock fenders are not strong enough for the forces the canal may impose (also: having seen the concrete walls, would not want to subject them to it!). It’s possible to pay less (I heard $50) and get tires instead of fenders.

Panama Canal: the cost for a big shortcut

At least the tires are usually well-wrapped in plastic, and certainly durable

Bank fees: if you walk around and get all the cash (US dollars, and you do need cash, and it isn’t easy to get to ATMs in Colon, and you cannot safely walk for one block in Colon with that kind of money on you), you can probably save some of the bank commission (which you’ll then pay in taxi fees). We were happy to let the agent handle this.

Water taxi: your rented lines/fenders have to be returned, and the launch crew at Balboa Yacht Club on the Pacific side handles it for $12. One of the boats rafted with us stiffed them. Not cool.

Panama visas and cruising permit: the visa fee was eliminated about two weeks after we checked into the country. If we weren’t such rules followers, and sailed through Guna Yala without clearing in and waited until we reached the canal zone, we could have saved $315! Oh well.

Clearance fees: Outbound clearance fee: $35; “document fee” to crooked port captain in Colon: $20. Well hopefully you won’t have the unscrupulous Colon port captain who charged us a “pena” (penalty) I’m pretty sure was not warranted, to prepare a maritime authority document which our inbound clearance port that had not provided. The $35 outbound clearance fee is fixed, however.

Buffer fee: In addition to the other ACP fees, all paid in advance of transit, you must pay a nearly $900 “buffer fee.” This is a bond to ensure you don’t rack up charges from missing your slot, being too slow, needing a water taxi for your line handlers or whatever. If you hire an agent, he takes care of this buffer fee. That fee is eventually returned by the ACP, but between general distrust of the efficiency of the system, our intention to sail north from the canal ASAP instead of sticking around to make sure we got our money back, and a desire for advocacy in our timing and procedure for transit – we picked hiring an agent.

I wished to have a simple breakdown of the costs and how they varied to estimate our fees (we ballparked higher, but were basing off a boat that paid more – partly based on LOA, as their LOA crept over 50 although it’s “46 feet”, and partly based on agent charges). I actually expected our fees to be at least $3,000, so as bad as this sounds, it’s “good.” Although even if we paid less, the canal fees still make Panama the MOST expensive country we have cruised in to date – by a margin of hundreds of dollars!

That’s OK. We didn’t have the warm enough clothes to detour the long way in either direction anyway.

Panama Canal: the cost for a big shortcut

Tristan and Niall contemplate the Bridge of the Americas from the Pacific


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