Rod Heikell's very informal site on sailing around bits of the world and an eclectic collection of things nautical or nearly so.

Panama Canal & San Blas

A page of general info on the Panama Canal and the San Blas Islands from the Skylax blog, old articles and new musings.



'Crossing an ocean in a small yacht is a bit like living your life backwards. At the beginning you die, then you get fitter and younger, and then when you arrive you have an orgasmic celebration and the idea that life is just beginning.'

Douglas Graeme

Panama Canal Yacht Club closes
Panama Canal 2008
San Blas Islands 2008

Panama Canal Yacht Club closes


Panama Canal Yacht Club is closing

There will be a lot of sad cruisers around when the news that the PCYC is closing, nay has been demolished by the port authority, and officially will exist no more from April 1st. Even sadder is that new cruisers will have little alternative to Shelter Bay Marina now PCYC has gone. Where will cruisers anchored in the Flats Anchorage be able to leave their dinghies safely? Or have a beer, or an all-day breakfast or chilli beef, or talk and trade...

Go here  to the SSCA forum for the whole sad story


Panama Canal Yacht Club - this photo says it all

And less than a year ago we were sitting here drinking beer, planning the transit through the canal, gassing, getting taxis into town and the supermarkets, filling up the water cans... less than a year ago and now this club, loved by yachties over its 80 year history, is gone.


Panama Canal 2008

Panama Canal 2008

From the Skylax blog 22-04-08

Note the PCYC has now been bull-dozed (see above) but yachts can still use the Flats anchorage or go to Shelter Bay Marina.

In 'The Flats' anchorage at Colon

Wi-Fi in the PCYC...


Change of plan


We were halfway to the San Blas Islands when Pete on Penyllan emailed us with news we didnít need but were at the same time grateful, in a grudging sort of way, to get. There is an eight week waiting list to go through the Panama Canal he told us, so we are going to go direct to Panama and get on the list and then cruise off to the San Blas.


A slight change of course had us headed for Colon (pronounced Col-lone) to do the same thing. We left St Maarten on the 10th April and arrived in Colon seven days later, a nice easy comfortable trip covering 1180 miles in seven days and eight hours. We didnít really get into 160 mile plus days until a few days had gone by and we were boat-fit againÖ and our body clocks had adapted to the 3 on 3 off routine through the night. We ate too much, caught no fish (again) despite Lu investing a small fortune on a Penn reel, new 200lb nylon and enough lures to stock a small shop, and as per usual we just held on while Skylax and Mole the autopilot did the work.


So here we are sitting in the Flats anchorage in Colon with 50-60 other boats and thatís not counting the boats in the Panama Canal Yacht Club (PCYC), Shelter Bay Marina over the other side and boats cruising the San Blas while waiting their turn. It seems the canal authorities make a lot more money out of big ships going through (and Pana-Max, the biggest ship that a lock can take, is very big) and so only a dozen or so yachts are being let through every week. But there are rumours around that more will be let through soon, so we are hopeful though itís still looking like June or at best the end of MayÖwe live on the ripe smell of every bit of cruiser gossip that goes around.

 NOTE: Teeto will still help yachts in the anchorage in the Flats despite the destruction of the Panama Canal YC (see above). Alternatively he operates from Shelter Bay Marina as well.

At the PCYC Teeto is the man most people use to organise the transit and he, or more usually one of his employees like JC or Lucian do the running around. So we signed up with Teeto JC, our man on the ground proved to be efficient and courteous and whisked us through the whole process pretty quickly. Basically it goes like thisÖ

1.        You go to the PCYC where there is a handy dinghy dock which costs $2 (all prices are US dollars) a day to tie up your dinghy and you can also fill jerry cans with water there (included in the price). You get a receipt.

2.        Just along from the dinghy dock is the immigration office where you get stamped in. They will want to see your boat docs, exit papers from the last port and of course passports.

3.        While wandering up to immigration one of Teetoís helpers will button-hole you and ask if you need help to do the transit. Now some people do it all themselves, but for $35 itís great to be driven around the various offices in an air-conditioned SUV Ė worth every cent I reckon.

4.        You go first to the Panama Canal Office where you present your papers and get an appointment with the admeasurer (why admeasurer and not measurer I donít know), which is usually the next day. Then you go to the port office to get a cruising permit ($69 for three months). Then off to another immigration office to get a visa ($2). In between times JC, who drove me around, organised colour photocopy passport pics (from the passport), talked about Colon and all sorts of other things.

5.        Then you are delivered back to the PCYC until the admeasurer has seen you.

6.        Our admeasurer Caesar, arrived next day, jumped off the big pilot boat onto the deck and measured the length of the boat. Boats over 50ft pay more and thatís all he was really interested in apart from making sure our horn (an aerosol job) worked. I then dinghied ashore to meet him in the PCYC where the paperwork was completed in the bar. You then take the relevant papers from the admeasurer to Citibank, JC driving again, and pay the canal fee ($600) and the buffer, a security deposit ($800) for any damage or transgression of canal rules. The buffer is refunded or not charged once you are through. One thing JC was firm on was that when they asked you in the Canal Office how fast your boat can go, you must say 8 knots. If you go slower than that then apparently the transit will coast an extra $1000. While I have seen the 8 knot figure on the official paperwork, I havenít really been able to nail down the additional $1000 surplus. Still it is no surprise that all the boats here, pretty much regardless of size, can do 8 knots.

Caesar measures up   Pilot boat

7.        You also need four 110ft lines of at least 7/8Ē diameter and fenders. Not surprisingly Teeto can provide the ropes ($15 each rental for the transit) and car tyres wrapped up in plastic to make sure you are adequately fendered ($3 each rental/we took 12). You can also hire a professional line handler at $110 for the transit and having talked to a few people, they are evidently very good and we may employ one. Normally other yachties here go through as line handlers to see what it is all about. You need four line-handlers apart from the skipper.

8.        So adding it all up we are talking around $800 for the transit (Skylax is 46ft) assuming you get your buffer deposit back, which nearly everyone does.


So tonight we will get a date, almost certainly sometime in June, though there is every hope and some indications that we will go through earlier than the given date. Meanwhile the beer and the food in the PCYC is very good and cheap. There are old friends here and new ones to be made. There are always a lot of shades of blue and this one is not bad at all.

AND THE DATE IS JUNE 23RD. But I'm optimistic, so is the canal authority that it will be two and possibly three weeks earlier. Still not great and that puts pressure on us (and all the others) to get through the Pacific before cyclone season starts (November but December really).


 See annotated Google Earth maps of Colon and Balboa


Colon to San Blas Islands

From the Skylax blog 09/05/08

Gotta get out of town


While Colon has itís attractions, and I do like the place, the anchorage in the flats is beset by wash and grime drifting over the docks and onto the yachts at anchor there. For most things in Colon you take a taxi, most rides are a couple of dollars, because there are parts of the city that are dangerous. In the time we have been here we have heard of at least three yachties who were mugged. You donít go out at night. That said Iíve walked into town a few times to send a fax, get petrol and some other little jobs, and as long as you are street-wise, stick to the main streets, and walk with a purposeful manner, it seemed OK.


Once we had sorted a few work things back in the UK via the internet and completed some boat jobs we hauled up the anchor and after a good half hour cleaning the chain off, set sail for Portobelo. This is the bay where Drake based himself while sacking Spanish cities up and down the coast and he reputedly buried at sea off a small islet at the entrance still called Isla Drake. The scourge of the Spanish Main, sacker of cities and privateer for Queen Elizabeth terrorised this coast and for centuries mothers would keep the kids in order by telling them El Terrible Drake is coming to get you. The Spanish then fortified the bay although that didnít stop Henry Morgan from sacking it nearly a century later.


We anchored under San Fernando fort where the jungle comes right down to the waters edge and howler monkeys occasionally can be heard at dusk. The town across the way has basic shopping although you wouldnít leave your dinghy over there at night.


The coast up to the San Blas has anchorages aplenty in small bays on the mainland coast and behind islands, though we only stopped overnight at Isla Grande. Although the weather is reasonably settled with light trades from the N-NE, at this time of year small lows come off Columbia bringing rain, lots of rain and thunder and lightening, but nothing wind-wise to worry about although you get occasional light westerlies.


You clear into the San Blas at Porvenir where the Kunas charge $12 per person to cruise around the islands. These are more cays than islands with fringing coral protecting anchorages. As long as the sun is reasonably high in the sky you can see the reefs and passages through  them. It is no place to rely on electronic charts.

 Puerto Yate

As soon as you arrive at Porvenir the mola ladies in their ulus, dugout canoes, arrive to sell molas. They are pretty insistent and you will often have two or three canoes holding on to the boat and mola ladies imploring you to buy their molas. Yeah, course we bought some. After that itís bon-bon and caramello request time for the kids in the canoes. Apart from one strident lady who told me to get out of the water, (I was cleaning the prop), and get some money to buy her molas, its all pretty amicable.

Home on the cays is a lot of wooden and bamboo buildings with a few more substantial coral block and limestone buildings and some of the alleys between the houses are so tight you need to stand aside to let others through. Toilet facilities are a little hut on stilts perched over the sea.

We sailed around the Lemon Cays, back to Porvenir and the other cays nearby and over to Chichime Cays. Iíve got to be honest here. There are only so many white coral sand beaches fringed by coconut palms that I can take. Three to four days is good for me before heading back to places that have a little more human activity going on and are in their own way just as beautiful. So we sailed back to Portobello and in a day or so will head back to Colon to give John on Quequeg a hand to go through the canal. You need to have four line-handlers apart from the skipper so other yachties generally give a hand to one another.


Create a Free Website