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Sailboats head south through the Panama Canal – ‘Tis the season!
By Ilene Little
Starting in mid December tourists will see more sailboats than usual going through the Panama Canal. The difference in size between the huge freighters, cruise ships and the relatively small sailboats all vying for space makes for interesting sightseeing.
Rogelio ‘Roger’ de Hoyos owner of the website “Local Knowledge Panama” told me that it’s the weather that prompts sailors to weigh anchor on the Atlantic coast and head through the canal to the Pacific Ocean at this time of the year.
“They are taking advantage of favorable trade winds and currents to sail to the Galapagos and the Marquesas Islands,” he said, “so, when you see sailboats in the locks, you’re likely witnessing sailors heading off on long ocean voyages.
The world comes to Panama for the crossing between two oceans, and sailors come here for the same reason. This exotic country provides not just the gateway but also some of the best cruising waters on earth.
Hoyos is the “Go-To-Guy” cruisers rely on to help them with transportation, services and information. He is probably the most well-known service provider for sailboats coming through Panama. Cruising sailboats are his ‘bread and butter’.
According to Hoyos, most sailors choose Panama City to commission their yachts for long voyages. “So once through the Canal, I take groups of sailors to do their last-minute shopping at grocery stores, fresh food markets, marine chandlers, and I run crews to and from Albrook and Tocumen International Airport and from one ocean to the other,” he said.
Many boaters will spend a few weeks sailing the Pearl Islands prior to heading off on extended cruises. You can’t just pass by the beautiful islands off Panama’s Pacific coast without stopping to enjoy the beauty.
How Sailboats Move
Through The Locks
There are four ways a sailboat captain can choose to transit the locks,” said Hoyos, “they can choose to be in the center chamber, where the boat is held in position by lines in the center of the lock, away from the canal walls on both sides.
A second way is to be nested with other sailboats, perhaps two or three abreast, in the center of the canal. You can also tie up to a tugboat with the tugboat positioned against the canal wall. And the fourth way is to be up against the wall which requires big fenders for the protection of the yacht.”
You’ll likely see sailors who are transiting the canal for the first time lining up at vantage points, alongside the tourists, to observe how other boats are being handled in preparation for their own transit.
The transit process, Local
“If you plan it right, it’s possible to get your boat measured and receive the documentation to pay the transit fees and, upon payment, call Marine Traffic to schedule your transit date; all in the same day,” said Hoyos.
“How you plan the schedule of appointments and calls can make the difference between waiting three days in low season or from two to four weeks in high season before you’re on your way,” he said. High season is from December thru May.
I have always given sailors step-by-step advice on how to navigate the canal transit process,” said Hoyos, “but often the captain will say, ‘Roger, go with me so I don’t get bogged down in the process’ and I do that for them.”
“Now I’m taking the next logical step,” said Hoyos, “I’m starting the legal process to become an agent, someone who can represent the boaters without them being there. I can get it done faster, and they can keep sailing.”
Hoyos is a familiar figure on the Atlantic Coast of Panama. For 24 years, he worked at the Panama Canal Yacht Club. Since 2008, he’s been running a service like the pony express, making regular deliveries to sailors at marinas and yacht clubs on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.
“I’ve learned what cruisers do and what they need from Panama,” said Hoyos. Hoyos can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.