We had heard a bunch of horror stories about crossing the canal, but we just went across last week and had no problems. If you are doing the transit from North to South (Caribbean to Pacific), here are some tips.
1- Don't hire an agent. We did and after doing so we found out from some friends that we met that the paperwork is no problem. The agent promises that he can get you through faster, but unless there is a huge number of boats waiting when you arrive, or if you are in a huge hurry, it doesn't seem to be worth the money. That, and now that we are on the Pacific side, we can't find him.
2- Find volunteers for line handlers. The Transit Advisors are provided by the Panama Canal Authority as part of your transit payment. They are friendly and very experienced and tell everyone on board exactly what to do and when to do it. Instead of paying $55 a day for locals, just ask around the yacht club for people that have line-handled before. There are a bunch of bored cruisers that are just hanging out and are happy to do it for a few rounds of beers. Of course, you may not want to trust your boat to someone that hangs out in the bar from 10am to midnight. . .i understand.
3- Test out your lines. Unless you carry 4 125 foot lines of 1 inch Nylon, you are going to have to borrow or rent lines. We tied on our lines and fed them from cleats, up through the bow chocks. We failed to notice that there was a splice about half way down the line we attached to the bow on the port side. This splice increased the diameter of the line by about 1/2 inch, which subsequently jammed going through the chock. We had to do some serious inter-lock maneuvering to prevent ourselves from getting slammed into the walls because the 125 foot line quickly became 75. We were able to adapt to this, but while trying to tie up in your first lock ever is a bad time to learn it. No splices. Splices are bad.
4- Borrow your tires. Lots of guys offer you tires to tie to your boat, and I'd recommend doing so. It's just that you get charged $2-$3 per tire to 'rent' them for a day or two and then when you get to the other side, you get charged $1 to get rid of them. Find people that have just transited and ask for their tires. You won't have to pay the rental, and they won't have to pay the return fee. And don't suggest that you will just "throw them in the ocean" when you get to the other side. They don't take kindly to that.
5- Don't stress too much. It turned out to be one of the coolest parts of our circumnavigation. It was exciting and scary all wrapped up together. We had a good friend watching the webcam in the Miraflores locks and were able to yell at the guy in the control tower so he would point the camera at us. We have a video on our website
of our transit and a bunch of pictures.
If you have any questions about our experience, you can find contact info on the site at www.svsohcahtoa.com