If you’re in Panama City, you will most likely want to go on a Panama Canal tour. This brief article is meant to reveal a true way to see the Panama Canal, and for better than free. It’s all about line handling.
You will most likely want to visit the Miraflores Locks one way or another. Once you arrive to Panama City, you will probably be bombarded with offers of tours. They don’t happen every day of the week, and if you purchase a ticket, it will run you upwards of 100 dollars per person.
Line-Handling on the Panama Canal
Why would you spend 100 dollars when you could do it over two days for free, and even have food and return transit to Panama City paid for? Well, if you’re there at the right time of year, and you’re willing to give a minimal amount of elbow grease, then you can line handle for sailboats.
From early February until the end of April and a bit into May, you can meet sailboats who are looking for help to get through the canal. For them, depending on the size of their boat, the cost of transit can run from 1000 dollars up. The rule is that they must have 4 people aboard in order to “line handle”. Line handlers’ job is to adjust the mooring lines in the boat’s cleats as the locks fill and empty of water.
Sailboat captains and crew help each other out line-handling on each others’ boats. Their other option is to pay locals 120 dollars each for the two-day journey. There are many horrible rules that cause them to have to pay even more money. Each local line handler must be supplied with individual drinks (they can’t offer them cups with contents poured from single bottles). They must be supplied with meals that they enjoy, otherwise they can order, in transit, a meal from the shore, which will run the captain up another 100 dollars. These are ridiculous risks with fees that the sailboats want to avoid.
For that reason, they are always happy to have offers of help. You will get to stay aboard the boat for the two days it takes to get to the other side. Your meals will be paid for, and so will the return trip via land (unless you find another boat to line-handle back). This is a true way to experience the canal, wherein you will not be surrounded by tourists snapping photos, but you will be an active member of its crossing.
Where to Go to Meet a Boat
If you are on the Panama City side of the canal, go to the end of the causeway. There, you will find two anchorages, one to the left called “Las Brisas”, and another to the right called “Playita Amador”. At the marina “Playita Amador”, at 8am every morning except Saturday, you can find a VHF radio in the cafe, turn it to channel 74 to listen in to the cruisers’ Net, and announce yourself and your intention to help line-handle across.
Before the causeway as you approach from the city, you will find Balboa Yacht Club. There, you can post an announcement on the billboard that you are in Panama City and looking to line-handle. Obviously this is not something you can schedule perfectly, and sailboats are not transiting en masse year-round.
On the Colon side of the canal, you can post a message to the Shelter Bay Marina billboard, which is located opposite the bay from Colon. You can also announce yourself on their Net and walk the docks. Visit the Shelter Bay Marina website to contact them. They will post your announcement for you.