Heavy traffic sees 150 yachts waiting 'weeks'

More than 150 yachts are in a marine ‘traffic jam’ on the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal, awaiting transit to the Pacific Ocean. Many have been told it will be ‘weeks’ – in one case two months – before they will be able to get through.

This delay could put them in danger of meeting the cyclone (hurricane) season in the South Pacific. One yachtsman is so concerned he is having his boat driven across the Central American isthmus on a low loader. YM Blue Water Letter writer, Rod Heikell and wife Lu, aboard Skylax are among those being held up.

Rod reports: ‘There are around 50 yachts in the Flats anchorage at Colon, another 30 in the Panama Canal Yacht Club (PCYC), 30 or 40 in Shelter Bay Marina and a similar number cruising the Atlantic Panama coast. All of us are waiting to go through the Panama Canal and things aren’t looking good. On Skylax we arrived a week ago and our given date for the transit is June 23rd, a nine and a half week wait. And the same goes for all the other yachts here except for anyone with a few thousand surplus dollars who can arrange a special transit.

‘Rumours are rife and cruiser chat in the bar at the PCYC can reach heated levels even in tropical temperatures. The pilots are on a go slow. The lock operators are on a go slow. The canal is not interested in yachts as it makes more money out of ships. The latter I’ve had whispered to me by staff at the Panama Canal Authority, though only a whisper you understand.

‘A lot of the yachties are getting concerned about crossing the Pacific to Australia and NZ before the start of the cyclone (hurricane) season in the South Pacific in November. Sure we can all do long passages missing the good bits and barring breakdowns arrive exhausted on the other side, but that’s not really what we had in mind for the coconut milk run. Some of the skippers here are taking drastic measures. One is getting his yacht taken overland on a truck and trailer. Another yacht is going to spend a season cruising on this side. Another plans to cruise Ecuador and delay for a season before heading out across the Pacific. And South African John is crossing back to the Azores and then down to the Canaries and across to Brazil to head down around the bottom of South America and eventually get into the Pacific that way. “Wasn’t in my plans, ” he said, “but the devil goes where the wind blows and that looks like the Magellan Strait.”‘

Manager of vessel transit operations for the Panama Canal, Abraham Saied, told YM that the peak time for canal transits is between February and April, but for reasons still being analysed the commercial traffic this year is much heavier than usual.
Groups of yacht transits have been dropped from two per day to one per week because they ‘impact negatively’ on commercial shipping transits, he said. ‘The yachts take time to raft up together and handling them through the locks takes 30 minutes or so longer than commercial ships.’ Normally up to 38 ships a day are expected at this time of year, but on some days up to 50 ships a day have been arriving. ‘We are taking one step forward and two steps back,’ Mr Saied said. ‘We are hoping to get the backlog through in the next few weeks,’ he added. ‘And traffic normally drops off during June and July.’

Blue Water Rally spokesman Richard Bolt, said: ‘This is worrying news. We make sure we go out and negotiate beforehand to make sure our yachts are not held up. This year we got all our yachts through in 48 hours.’