Can All Boats Sail The Panama Canal? Here Are The Facts

If you plan to pass through the Panama Canal, you will need to be aware of the necessary requirements which include vessel size, costs, and other considerations.

Can All Boats Sail The Panama Canal?
Here are the maximum dimensions for boats on the Panama Canal:

Measurement Maximum Size
Length 950 ft.
Width 161 ft.
Height 190 ft.
Draft 49.9 ft.
Cargo 120,000 tonnes

Here’s everything you need to know before crossing the Panama canal.

7 Things To Know Before Traveling Through The Panama Canal

If you are planning a trip through the Panama Canal, there are things that you will need to know so that you can be prepared.

Some requirements of travel must be completed days before travel. This means that you cannot simply head to the canal and expect passage.

Knowing what to expect will help your trip through the Panama Canal go smoothly and will allow you to be prepared for the requirements for travel.

1. Vessel requirements:

Most recreational vehicles will most likely not exceed the vessel requirements that are set forth by the Panama Canal Authority.

The requirements are published by the Panama Canal Authority. They include:

  • Length:
    Overall your vessel should not be over 950 ft. in length. There are a few exceptions for commercial vessels and the new set of locks will allow ships up to 1,200 ft. in length.
  • Width:
    The width requirement is no larger than 106 feet. The new locks allow a width of 161 ft.
  • Draft:
    The allowable draft is 39.5 ft. in Tropical Fresh Water (TWF). This requirement is set by Lake Gatun which determines the maximum draft. The new locks allow for a draft up to 49.9 ft. but due to rainfall they often limit draft to 44 ft.
  • Height:
    The hight of your vessel is limited to 190 ft. from the waterline to the highest point of your vessel. This is the same for all sets of locks due to the Bridge of the Americas.
  • Cargo Capacity:
    Maximum cargo on the canal is about 52,500 tonnes during transit. This is due to draft limitations. The new locks allow for 120,000 tonnes.

These requirements are set for cargo and commercial vessels and it is likely that you will not come close to these requirements.

2. Get your vessel weighed and measured:

Before you can get a transit date, you need to get your vessel measured and weighed. This needs to be done in advance and your transit date is not guaranteed to be the next day.

This step allows the Panama Canal Authority to make sure you meet all requirements and they can take note of any possible issues with your vessel while traveling through the canal.

3. Pay your costs:

Paying the canal fees is a very important step when passing through the canal.

All tolls that you need to pay for the Panama Canal are due at least 48 hours in advance.

Like getting your vessel weighed and measured, you need to pay your fees before they will let you travel through the canal.

The transit toll can vary and takes into account the size of your vessel.

The cheapest toll ever paid was 36 cents in 1928 by Richard Halliburton who swam through the canal.

The most expensive toll was paid in 2016 after the new lock system was put in, and totaled $829,000.00.

The key costs of transit through the canal can include:

  • Transit toll:
    • A vessel under 50 ft.: $800.00
    • A vessel between 50 and 80 ft.: $1,300.00
    • A vessel between 80 and 100 ft.: $2,200.00
    • A vessel over 100 ft.: $3,200.00
  • Inspection fee
  • Security fee
  • Line handlers
  • Lines or Fenders
  • Fender Return
  • Cruising Permit
  • Passport check-in
  • Passport visa

These costs can vary based on boat type, the number of passengers and other factors. You will need to be prepared that this journey will not be cheap.

It is a good idea to know what your cost is going to be upfront and whether or not you can afford it.

4. Transit logistics:

You are required to have four line handlers and four lines aboard. The lines must meet the canal specification requirements.

If you cannot find any line handlers you can hire experienced line handlers for around $100.00.

You will want to have robust fenders on board to protect your vessel from any damage caused by bumping around in the locks.

You will also need to plan for meals, snacks, and beverages throughout the trip. The travel time for the canal is between 8-10 hours but the entire experience can take up to two days.

You will want to ensure you have enough aboard to last you for the maximum travel time.

5. Piloting your vessel:

It is worth it to know that only a Panama Canal Pilot who is hired by the Panama Canal Authority is able to captain a boat through the canals.

This means that when a ship enters the canal, a Panama Canal Pilot will board your vessel and have full control over the boat until it exits the canal.

You could also be assigned an advisor that directs the safest way through the channel. Recreational boats often travel together and the advisor will decide the formation.

Listening to the advisor and confirming that you understand can be a great help to both you and your advisor.

6. Sharing locks:

As a small private vessel, you will have to share a lock with a larger ship. It is not cost-effective to operate the locks for the small vessel fee that you will be charged.

The locks each have two lanes that allow for multiple ships to pass through but they often cannot handle large vessels going opposite directions.

This means that the direction of the locks is switched approximately every 6 hours.

As a smaller vessel, you will be given the last priority for travel. Often, small ships are accommodated at night with two-way traffic.

7. Hire an agent:

Because of the requirements and complexity involved with traveling through the canal, some people opt to hire an agent to help them with the logistics.

Agents can help you with the logistics and deadlines that are required for traveling through the canal. This includes notifying the Panama Canal Authority 96 hours in advance of your travel.

They also help complete the required paperwork, payments, and scheduling. After the payment has been made and paperwork turned in, it can take anywhere from 3 to 7 days to process.

Agents handle everything about your trip through the canal including:

  • Booking the transit and getting you into the system.
  • Arranging the Asmeasurer to measure your vessel.
  • Arranging the necessary line handlers.
  • Sorting out paperwork and copying the necessary documents.
  • Delivering the necessary lines and fenders.
  • Guaranteeing your bond payment. This includes covering the bond.
  • Arranging confirmations of timing for your transit.
  • Handling the immigration and customs required.
  • Obtaining your cruising permit.

There are two types of agents that you can hire for your Panama Canal details. These include official and unofficial agents.

Official agents are registered with the Canal Authorities. Their fees may be more expensive but this includes insurance against problems, and they can help assist you if any issues occur during transit.

Unofficial agents are people who understand the procedures needed to get through the canal. They know where the offices are located and what needs to be done to travel. They are often cheaper but they cannot assist you with any problems that might occur during transit.

If you think you can handle the arrangements yourself, an agent is not required to travel through the canals.

Facts Sailers Should Know About The Panama Canal

Most recreational vehicles should be allowed to pass through the Panama Canal. However, there are limits and restrictions on the allowable vessel size to pass through the canal.

These requirements are determined by the width and length of the available locks, current water depth, and the height of the Bridge of the Americas.

These requirements have been in effect since the canal opened and have influenced ship design for all ships that mean to pass through the canal. These include cargo ships, naval ships, and even passenger ships.

The Panama Canal was opened in 1914 and has been operating for over 100 years. This passage connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, stretching through the Isthmus of Panama.

The Panama Canal consists of artificial lakes, channels, and locks.

The Panama Canal has a system that is comprised of 3 locks which allow for the travel from sea level to 85 feet above sea level or vice versa.

The canal is approximately 37 miles long.

In 2006, the third set of locks was created allowing bigger ships to transit through the canal. These locks were larger and deeper. The new set of locks allow ships that are longer and larger to pass through the canal.

In Conclusion:

Traveling the Panama Canal requires preparation, time, and money. The system is complicated and involves deadlines that must be followed.

Your vessel should be allowed to travel through the canal system, but based on the type you will likely be given last priority and have to travel with larger ships through the locks.

Make sure you are ready for the costs associated with traveling through the canals system as well as the time it will take.

Despite all these factors, traveling through the canal is the adventure of a lifetime. You really will get a sense of adventure and history traveling through this system, that will stay with you for the rest of your life.

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