Skip to main content

Cruisers face weeks of delays at Panama Canal

With a backlog of commercial vessels, only six recreational boats can transit every other day

With a backlog of commercial vessels, only six recreational boats can transit every other day

Hugh and Heather Bacon had just finished a 10-year circumnavigation with their Beneteau 440, Argonauta, their journey taking them across the Pacific to Australia, through the Middle East and the Mediterranean, and ending with a trans-Atlantic passage to the Caribbean. It was a fulfilling but grueling journey, especially for Heather.

“After a decade at sea, I had a strong desire to do other things,” says the 68-year-old from Calabogie, Ontario. “Hugh, however, plans to take Ar-

gonauta to the west coast of Canada. His plan was to go to Galapagos, Hawaii, Alaska and then British Columbia.”

“Was” is the key word here. Because of delays at the Panama Canal, Hugh will have to skip the Galapagos, and his wife may be forced to put off her cruising respite, which included some travel, study and volunteer work in Central America. A crewmember Hugh hired to transit the canal bailed after learning Argonauta would have to wait several weeks to get through.

“This has had a profound impact upon my life,” says Heather. “I am left with a conundrum: to send my husband off alone on a long voyage or scrap my plans and do another passage.”

The Bacons are among dozens of cruisers whose plans have been turned upside-down because of a backup of commercial ships at the north end of the Panama Canal, which has led to four- to six-week delays for recreational boats. “It’s a mess,” says Peter Stevens, manager of Delfino Maritime in Balboa, Panama, one of the agencies yacht owners hire to help with the paperwork and booking process to transit the canal. “People are going nuts. The wait is about six weeks southbound, which is unprecedented. It’s usually around a week this time of year. The canal can handle about 40 ships per day [one way], and we have a 90-ship backlog.”

A sudden influx of commercial ships in the second half of February, along with maintenance work on two of the canal’s locks — Pedro Miguel and Miraflores — at the height of the season has led to the backlog, according to the Panama Canal Authority. The average number of vessels seeking canal passage per day has increased from 38 at this time in 2007 to 43 this year, according to the authority.

About 14,000 vessels pass through the 51-mile canal each year, using the two sets of locks at the Pacific side and the one set at the Atlantic side. The locks lift vessels 85 feet to the canal’s main level. All three locks consist of two parallel chambers, which allow ships to pass in opposite directions at the same time.

To relieve the bottleneck, the Panama Canal Authority has suspended all routine maintenance at the locks, added crew at the locks and dispatched additional tugboats to assist ships approaching the locks. It has also limited the passage of non-

commercial vessels less than 125 feet to every other day, with a maximum of three vessels in each direction. “Normally, three or four yachts make the trip in both directions every day,” says Stevens, who at press time was handling 13 yachts (with an average LOA of 75 feet) stuck at the dock.

“Commercial vessels are being given the priority,” says canal agent Alex Risi of Associated Yacht Support Services in Balboa. “It’s very difficult to explain to yacht owners; they have schedules and will lose a lot of money if they can’t stick to that schedule.”

Bernard Blondeel, a Belgian who sails a 43-foot Taswell sloop, says the delay has cost him thousands of dollars. He requested a canal passage March 28 but was forced to wait until May 6 to make the trip, he says. “I had to cancel three flight tickets from Amsterdam to Panama for my crew who were supposed to arrive on April 2,” says Blondeel. “They have only two months free to sail with me from Panama to Tahiti. I was supposed to arrive in Tahiti beginning of June, now it would be beginning of July. It’s not only very frustrating, but it’s costing me at least $5,000 on extra costs — plane tickets, marina expenses, etc.”

Wolfgang Weber, who cruises with paying crewmembers aboard a 38-foot Gib’Sea, says he might go bankrupt. “I have been waiting for one week now — and another four coming,” says Weber, whose sole income is from the passengers with whom he sails. “I have to sail on a schedule, and that schedule is more than threatened. If somebody cancels, I will lose $700 per person per week or $2,800 per week if they all [four guests maximum] have to cancel.” (Turn to Page 31 to read a poem Weber has written about his ordeal.)

Yacht owners also pay hefty tolls based on vessel length to transit the canal: $600 for boats less than 50 feet, $850 for boats from 50 to 80 feet, and $1,100 for boats from 80 to 100 feet. Every boat also is charged an $850 “fixed fee buffer” in case additional charges are incurred during passage. The money is refunded if unused.

The delays have caused cruisers to shop around for canal agents, says Risi. “You can very easily lose a client, even commercial clients,” he says. “But everyone is getting the same treatment. The agents cannot get you through the canal any faster.”

Risi says cruisers had to endure three- to four-week delays a few years ago, but this year’s holdup is the worst he’s seen in his 22 years as a canal agent. “I don’t expect things to get back to normal until the end of the season, which is through the month of May,” says Risi.

The canal authority is asking for patience. “The canal authority continues to monitor the situation to ensure operational efficiency and the best service to our customers,” says Manuel E. Benitez, executive vice president of operation, in a news release.

Requiring a boat owner to wait eight weeks doesn’t qualify as good service, says Georgie Cunningham, who arrived at Shelter Bay Marina at the north entrance to the canal April 5. “We’re scheduled to go through June 3,” says Cunningham. “We will not make it home to Western Australia this year due to the holdup.”