The Triton

Cruising Grounds

Transiting Canal just as impressive as imagined


Imagine being on a yacht when the Panama Canal didn’t exist and cruising to the other coast was on the itinerary. The impact the canal has made for boats, yachts, cargo ships, and whatever else that needs to get through has been significant. Many yachties will experience it at least once in their career.

It takes preparation for all crew members to get ready for the canal. I was lucky to be on a yacht this summer that passed through the canal after a three-month shipyard period in Ft. Lauderdale. What is even cooler is that we were fortunate to have an owner who wanted his yacht to go through it during day time for him and his guests to see.

It took about eight hours to cross from the Caribbean side to the Pacific side. We anchored right outside the entrance of the canal next to many cargo ships as we waited our turn. Deckhands got the yacht ready with fenders, lines, etc. A good amount of canal workers boarded our yacht to assist with the transit. I suggest having blue diamond or another type of floor cover around the main level decks. These men come onboard with their shoes on. We also had beverages ready to offer to the pilot as she boarded the yacht.

The sundeck was the spot to be as we made our transit through. Guests were busy taking pictures and time-lapse video, taking in the experience of a lifetime. Time-lapse videos are the way to go when having an adventure like this. I was able to have my GoPro camera mounted on the mast the whole time, 3,000 photos later.

Panama Canal at night

Panama Canal at night

The interior team was busy on the inside looking out the window as we washed dishes, glassware, and got ready for the next meal. Wherever we were, the other stews and I tried to incorporate it into the table decorations. So you can imagine modeled boats down the middle of the table, heaving in and out of a beautiful bouquet of flowers from Panama. But, we all did get a chance to take a break and head up to the bridge to take pictures and see it for ourselves.

It was interesting the see how the canal workers heave lines and connect to the mules, the rail vehicles that hold the yacht in the center so no damage occurs. Be aware of the other workers in the mules as we had one that was either miscommunicating or not paying attention. Lines may need to be loosened or tightened due to the amount of water in the canal. Unfortunately, a mishap can occur where a line can snap, or worse.

For those yachties who haven’t yet experienced the Panama Canal, I suggest writing it on the bucket list and checking it off. I learned about it in school, and I was part of a business presentation on it in college. Now I can finally say I have seen it with my own eyes and cruised the Pacific Ocean for the first time as well.

Melissa McMahon is a stew from Long Island, N.Y. (

Transit takes planning, gifts

On the north side of the Panama Canal is Shelter Bay Marina, a simple choice prior to heading south. It can provide fuel and transportation, but not much else. There is a small bar/restaurant, which is limited but considering that it’s the only game in town, not bad.

It is often windy in the afternoons, so large vessels should try to arrive/depart at any other time. It is a tight entry and marina for yachts over 180 feet. There is a small boatyard next door for those vessels that need light services.

Yachts should not cross the water to Colon. Even the guidebooks state visitors will be robbed during daylight hours.

On the south side of the canal, Flamenco Island has a top-notch marina that for the past five years has told me that it will have a dock big enough for us next year. We anchor off and run the tender in and out with no problem.

Panama Canal

Panama Canal

For the transit, we use Alex Risi from AYS Panama. What a lovely human being. He’s been able to assist us with provisioning, transit documents and schedule, organizing the movement of our towed tender via trailer and other arrangements. Fuel is cheap here.

Transiting vessels must have drinks available for line handlers while they are on board. It’s a requirement of the transit. In most cases, five people will work the bow, five on the stern, and one supervisor who roams. Therefore, I recommend coolers with six drinks in them, fore and aft. We have seen workers stuff their coats with all available drinks as they depart. (They would surely sink if they fell in the water.) One group even tried to take the cooler. The yacht crew will be offered items to buy such as commemorative coins and cigars, etc.

The pilots have been fabulous, very friendly and talkative as well as helpful. Tips, shirts, etc., can be given (and will often be asked for, sometimes in advance) but it is up to each captain. I have and I haven’t and noticed no difference in service.

Yachts need to request a daylight transit if guests are aboard, but be aware that fees may double. Protect the bow rails with carpet taped upside-down. Line handlers use cables that they will haul right over the caprails to then attach to the yacht’s soft lines or straps.

There are live-streaming cameras at the north and south locks so yacht crew can let friends and family know what time to start watching. Have a poster/sign ready to show.

Make sure to read the fascinating history of the canal prior to entering. Not only is it amazing but captains can share info with the guests. My favorite was “The Path Between the Seas” by David McCullough‎.

— Capt. Mac McDonald of M/Y Lady Lola

Comments are welcome below.

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