We transited the Panama Canal last January from the Caribbean to the Pacific and much of it is still fresh on my mind. Out total cost was $640 for transit cost plus $250 for an agent. You do not really have to hire an agent... but we felt it was worth it.
Most people who go from the Caribbean to the Pacific use an agent because you really do not want to be walking aound Colon looking lost. Colon is an aptly named, law-less city. The Panama Canal YC no longer exists and I think that after what you'll have been through in reaching the calm waters within the massive breakwaters, you'll enjoy the comforts, hot showers & pool at Shelter Bay Marina. We checked in for a month during the end-of-year holidaze at a discounted rate and enjoyed sharing $5 jugs of draft beers by the pool with our fellow sailors. And there's a fantastic jungle walk that'll take you to some impressive, overgrown gun batteries overlooking the entrance of the canal zone. More on that stuff later...
Most people going from the Pacific to the Caribbean do not use an agent because the Panama City (aka Emerald City) is safe & straight forward for arranging transit. But I'd still hire a taxi because it does involve a bit of walking... and it's a hot place.
We had already checked into Panama at the San Blas Islands and this made our check-in much easier & cheaper once we arrived in Colon.
Get started with arranging transit right away and get it behind you. Shelter Bay has a daily bus service to Colon. Make a reservation and arrive early because it can fill-up. Take your passports & boat papers with you. The bus stops at a shopping mall where I was lucky to meet a fellow named Carlos (ph 6529 7448) who looked over my papers. He agreed to take me to all of the necessary places to arrange transit, supply four lines, a dozen tires (wrapped in plastic) and everything needed to make it all happen. He charged me $250 USD for his services. Others paid as much as $1000 because they hadn't cleared into country yet. Clearing in at San Blas cost $195 USD. Carlos offered to get a crew of line handlers and would even come along and act as boss if we desired... at extra cost.
Once the ball is rolling, an Ad Measurer will meet you and come aboard the boat to look at paper work and will physically measure the boat. He comes alone and will need you to hold the end of the tape. They are easy to deal with and will cut you some slack if you measure 53 ft... as we did. Just know where the end of the tape needs to be to measure 49.9 ft. Vessels less than 50 ft cost $500, vessels greater than 50 ft cost $750 (i think). The admeasurer will tell you the cost, and will explain the three ways a yacht can go through the canal. Choices are "center lock", "wall tie" or "along side a tug". Request center lock and they'll most likely raft you with another similar sized & type boat. The admeasurer will give you more papers and be on his way within 30 min.
Next - you go to the one and only bank and let them swipe your Visa Card (Visa ONLY for some reason) to show that payment has been made. Go directly to the APC office and you will then be placed in the transit queue for the next available slot.
We wanted our family to come and join us and act as line handlers and chose a transit date a little over three weeks later so they could get cheapest air fares. If you want to pick a transit date BE SURE TO MENTION THIS DATE AT EVERY STEP during the paperwork process. Once you have been placed in the transit queue for next available slot BE SURE TO REQUEST YOUR PREFERRED DATE and they will then reconfirm the date.
It took us three consecutive days to get everything locked into place from the time I got into Carlos' car at the shopping center in Colon and everything went smoothly.
Carlos gave me the four 125 ft lines required right away. Be sure to lay them out on the dock and make sure they're in good condition and have large eyes spliced on one end - as I needed to exchange two of 'em. He came by with the tires a few days before our transit date. Be sure to have your fuel tanks full. There's a fuel barge in Shelter Bay and a fuel dock at The Balboa YC & Flaminco Marina on the Pacific side.
On the Big Day - the port control guy called us on VHF and directed is to proceed to "The Flats" and stand by. You can anchor if you wish or just tool around and kill time until your pilot arrives. Pilots speak perfect english. You'll be expected to feed them.
Our pilot directed us to follow another yacht (friends of ours) and we rafted together just outside the first lock. The bigger, more powerful boat had the "senior pilot" who was in charge of the raft. In our case, our friend's boat was ten ft longer and therefore three side lines went to him and we only had to deal with one stern line to the wall.
Make sure to cover your solar panels with a thin sheet of ply wood because one of our panels would have certainly been shattered by the first monkey fist thrown to us!
When maneuvering within & between locks while rafted... the pilot may ask you to come ahead fast or slow in order to keep the raft centered in the locks. YOU DO NOT WANT TO COME IN CONTACT WITH THE WALL!. So don't let your cousin take in what seems to be excessive slack! If your lines go slack on one side - it means you're getting close to that wall! Repeat the commands back to the pilot so he knows that you know what you're doing. Calmly point out any concerns you may have if the pilot doen't seem to be on top of the situation. Make sure the pilot knows when you are or are not tied to anything.
Most of the canal is within Gatun Lake. There are three locks on the Atlantic side in close sucession and four locks spread out on a broad distance on the Pacific side.
We rafted and entered the first lock at about 1930 and entered the lake (85 ft above sealevel) at around 2300 hrs. We broke the raft and were directed by the pilot to a pair of giant mooring bouys. They were foam sided and we tied-up side to along side of one of them... where the pilot got off onto a waiting launch. Just as we'd settled down, another pair of yachts appeared and tied along side the bouy opposite of us. Two giant foam bouys, each sandwiched by a pair of yachts for the night.
Next morning, the pilots arrived at 0700 and we were underway immediately, motoring across the lake passing giant ships going the opposite direction.
We rafted-up and ented the first "down" lock at about lunch time, got secured in the center and spent the next two hours down locking and were returned to the Pacific after eight years absence at about 1430.
We proceeded to the Balboa YC and were able to hand-off our tires to a waiting boat (at a cost of $1 each) and returned our lines to Carlos, who had done the transit with us aboard another boat... and we proceeded out to an island anchorage , seven miles distant, for the night.
There were no moorings available at the preferred Balboa YC, so we anchored and dropped our family at a dock near the Playita Anchorage and we were done with the canal transit.
You can haul out at both Shelter Bay or Falminco Marina. It's easier to get boat work and things done on the Balboa side. We used Taxi Tony for all of our shopping trips - phone 6520 0272. He has a van and is VERY helpful at $10 per hour.
We lingered in the region, back & forth to the lovely Los Perles Islands for two more months and finally set off for the Galapagos Islands, where we were granted 23 delightful days in that unique and rarely visited part of the world.
Be sure to spend some time up the Chagre River - six miles from the canal zone on the Atlantic side. Beautiful serinity.
Feel free to write a PM for more info regarding Panama... or anything else for that matter.