Submitted by Jim Lott
Panama and the Canal Yachts must contact port control on VHF Ch16 at Cristobal to provide intentions before approaching the harbour. The only places to go after entering are anchoring at ‘the flats’ near Colon or to Shelter Bay Marina in the northern corner of the harbour. Booking into the marina in advance is strongly recommended. The marina is very welcoming and the staff are very helpful and arrange for customs. Immigration has an office by the marina and are inclined to make addition “overtime” charges randomly. The marina staff is working to eliminate this behaviour. Marina costs are moderate and a discount is available if staying more than a few days. There is a free bus daily to a shopping mall at Colon and return, allowing about 2 hours for shopping. The bus travels across the top of two canal gates. The supermarket is very good and other shops rather basic. There is also a weekly bus to Panama City. The marina has an excellent sailmaker and other servicing is also available. A number of live-aboards offer engineering and advice. There is a travelift and hardstand. The marina has wifi, air-conditioned lounge and a swimming pool as well as a restaurant and bar. There is a list of agents available to do all the paperwork and arrange the canal transit. The agents also organize long lines if needed and line-handlers. There must be 4 linehandlers as well as the skipper on board. The marina keeps tabs on the agents who all charge a similar fee. Advisers (pilots) board at dawn at the flats and transits are normally completed in a day. Yachts must have an engine and be able to motor at 6 knots. Transit costs are $US700 for boats up to 50 ft and $1300 over 50 ft. Davits, bowsprits etc are included in the measurements and the measurers are pedantic. The advisors have a local small boat commercial qualification. Only superyachts have a pilot. For those who like to be independent, is possible to save some money by doing the work of the agents yourself. However, it is quite a hassle, takes a couple of days and involves carrying cash in Colon, which is not a safe place in many areas. About 80% of yachts now use Shelter Bay Marina and an agent. The agent we used had a van and following our transit, he took us all round Balboa when we stocked up for the Pacific voyage. He took us to the place we could buy 75litre plastic drums for extra fuel ($14 each), good bakeries and knew where we could buy whatever parts or equipment we needed. He charged $20 for the service which took 3 hours. For longer stays at Balboa the anchorage east of the causeway that leads to Isla Flamenco is popular and free. There is a new marina with travelift about 20 miles east of Balboa with good facilities reported.