The Scoop on the Shortcut

Find out what's new for yachts transiting the Panama Canal.

EVEN WHILE THE Panama Canal’s massive expansion project has endured repeated delays, the good news is that hundreds of yachts are still transiting from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and vice versa. No need to change your travel plans.  Photo 2

The new Third Lane is being built by the Republic of Panama to entice the world’s newest, largest cargo vessels — called Post Panamax (PP) ships — to transit Panama’s canal. Why? Because PP ships can carry four times as much cargo as the previous ships, called Panamax ships because they were the maximum size to fit through the Panama Canal. Panama stands to earn billions annually in tolls as the international shipping industry uses its new Third Lanes.

The two new mega-ship locks are situated very close to the existing locks, which will continue to service all other vessels up to 900 feet in length — including recreational boats. On the Pacific side near Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks, the new Third Lane is called Cocoli, (Coco-LEE), and on the Atlantic side near Gatun Locks, the new PP ship lane is called Agua Clara, meaning clear water. After seven years of logistic delays, lawsuits and construction on a gigantic scale, the Third Lane locks are now slated to welcome their first Post Panamax ships in May 2016.

Recreational boats will continue to use all the older canal locks (Miraflores, Pedro Miguel and Gatun), but they will have to share the rest of the Panama Canal’s waterway with the new Post Panamax ships, which aren’t very agile. (Visit for full details.) The bigger new ships, 1,200 feet in length and fully loaded, are going to be cumbersome and require multiple tugs around them at all times, so more-agile yachts must be able to make good speed and plan to stay out of their way.

Dredging and reconstruction work in the Galliard Cut and Gatun Lake occasionally hinder the prompt scheduling of yachts (called “hand lines”) that request the normal one-day transit from one ocean to the other. Hiring a ship’s agent has helped eliminate this scheduling delay, according to the Marine Traffic Scheduling (MTS) office.

photo 3Previously, yacht owners who requested a “split transit” — transit only partway across in one day — were charged a sizeable “delay fee,” but that delay allowed them to anchor overnight in Pedro Miguel or Gatun before continuing their transit the next day. During this past year of Third Lane construction, however, some requests for a split transit have been dovetailed into the increased dredging schedule by the MTS, so no delay fee was charged. But don’t count on that.

Several popular overnight anchorages within the Panama Canal are no longer available.

The sleepy little cove southeast of Gatun near the terminus of the old Banana Cut is now unrecognizable; it’s the new entrance to Agua Clara, the Third Lane.

Barro Colorado Island’s lush and friendly Smithsonian Institute field office was closed when it and several other smaller islands nearby in Gatun Lake were literally gobbled up by bulldozers and dredges; they’re gone, in order to straighten the route for the larger ships.

The elegant new Gamboa Rainforest Resort is a nice mid-transit respite built in the Old Plantation style; with permission to split your transit, an evening ashore from this anchorage is quite nice.4 Panama Canal 2016

Yachts will keep to the original route through the Panama Canal — mostly. For example, all ships and yachts scheduled to transit northbound will enter Balboa and go beneath the Bridge of the Americas. But soon after that, the Post Panamax ships will peel off to port to enter the new locks of Cocoli, the first Third Lane. That leaves yachts and regular Panamax ships steaming straight ahead, to up-lock through the one lock at Miraflores, steam through Miraflores Lake and then up-lock again through the two chambers of Pedro Miguel Locks.

Now, the PP ships join yachts from port and all of them steam beneath the majestic Centennial Bridge and enter the narrowest part of the Panama Canal, the infamous Culebra Cut. Widening of the waterway required the unfortunate destruction of the town of Culebra, and reinforcement of the shoreline continues here, where boats pass the Continental Divide.

Five miles onward, yachts and ships reach Gamboa, where the channel widens. Boat owners with permission to split the transit might get to turn starboard and leave the channel to go anchor for the night below the glamorous Gamboa Rainforest Resort. If not, continue through the jungle-clad San Pablo Reach and enter the south end of Gatun Lake at Frijole, where the mountainous shoreline recedes.

Photo 1Here, in the middle of a vast freshwater lake, terra-form engineers had to remove several whole islands in order to straighten the 21-mile channel, to accommodate the less maneuverable PP ships, and they dredged the bottom of the route down to about 100 feet.

Instead, boats now turn north-northwest and for 21 miles head straight toward Gatun Locks, while PP ships begin to angle a bit to starboard, so they can line up to transit Agua Clara. The approach to Gatun Locks is only about a mile west of the approach to Agua Clara Third Lane, so yachts again may joust with the PP ships.

After yachts down-lock through three chambers of Gatun Locks and head north into Manzanillo Bay, they’ll be joined by PP ships that have just down-locked through Agua Clara merging from starboard. And PP ships that are about to up-lock will be southbound in front of yacht operators.

Yacht owners now need a Cruising Permit (about $200) for the boat and a 72-hour Mariners Visa (about $100 per person) to transit the canal; both are available in the Albrook Immigration office at Balboa, formerly known as Diablo Migracion. The Mariners Visa is not the same as the regular tourist card, which you probably got at your first port of entry into Panama.

The basic transit fee is now as follows:
• $800 for yachts under 50 feet LOA
• $1,300 for yachts 50 to 80 feet
• $2,000 for yachts up to 100 feet
• $3,200 for yachts over 100 feet

If your boat does not have AIS installed, you must rent the canal’s portable AIS device for your transit, which costs $161 per day.

If you have an unexpected delay during transit, the Authority of the Panama Canal ( ACP) n ow allows yachts a four-hour grace period to help you to sort out problems, before you lose your spot in the transit schedule and incur the non-refundable $471 delay fee.


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