Yachts' Space Squeezed at Panama Canal
by David Wilson
After the Panama Canal, the number one issue in Panama is tourism. Panama is being promoted as a top destination for retirees, snowbirds and nature tourists. Panama's Tourism Ministry is spending money to visit Spain and other European countries to promote tourism. The local yachting community has been promoting Panama as the safest, friendliest and best reprovisioning stop in the Caribbean area.
However, the recent actions of the legal entities in Panama are having quite the opposite effect. The new policy in Panama Canal waters is apparently to run visiting yachts out, discourage them from lingering and fine them if they do. As of this writing, the Maritime Authority of Panama (AMP) has sent launches into the free anchorage area and threatened the yachts there with eviction and fines, giving them until the end of September to leave or find space in one of the "Authorized Facilities" (see list below).
The La Prensa newspaper of September 15 ran an article outlining the recent enforcement of some previously dormant rules covering yachts in Panama.
The La Prensa article, which was submitted to the newspaper by the AMP, says that foreign yachts are no longer permitted to anchor in Panama Canal waters, except in The Flats on the Atlantic side, and lists the only "Authorized Facilities" at which yachts are allowed to stop. The actual choices are severely limited.
Anchorage "F", known as The Flats, continues to be an approved anchorage according to the port captain. However, the AMP is adamant in saying that yachts are not allowed to anchor anywhere else in Panama Canal waters, and this would include the two formerly designated anchorages on the Pacific side.
The Panama Canal Yacht Club at Cristobal on the Atlantic side has limited dock space. The expansion plans of the Panama Ports require the removal of the first two full docks, thus eliminating about 45 slips. This will minimize the space available for transiting yachts.
Club Náutico Caribe is a tiny place for two(!) local boats in Colón (on the Atlantic side).
Club de Yates de Gatun, in Gatun Lake, has been closed as a yacht club for many years as it is the current stopping place for commercial cruise ships. The cruise ships now come into the Canal, stop at Gatun Lake, off-load passengers, and turn around and go back out.
Diablo Spinning Club is a dry-storage area for trailered boats. This facility has no facilities for ocean-going vessels or any boat that remains in the water.
Miramar Intercontinental Marina is part of the Miramar hotel and private. The hotel will rent a slip, but the rates are so high as to discourage anyone from even asking. In addition, there is no water around the marina area at low tide.
Club de Yates y Pesca is also private, and provides slips for local powerboats and dry storage for small boats. It shares the same water area as Miramar Intercontinental Marina and is accessible only at high tide. There is not adequate water depth or space for visiting yachts.
Gamboa Resort, in the Canal, is only accessible by small powerboats that can get under the eight-foot-railroad bridge and there is no provision for visiting yachts.
Pedro Miguel Boat Club is located in the Canal on Miraflores Lake. While it is world famous as the friendliest full-service yacht club in Panama, in reality the Panama Canal Authority has closed it. (A few boats are currently in the Club, but once they leave they cannot return.) This represents a loss of about 60 slips and dry storage positions.
The Balboa Yacht Club at the Pacific end of the Canal has moorings. However, in recent weeks the ACP has asked that at least the outer row of 11 moorings, and possibly 69 more, be removed. This will further reduce the number of available moorings, leaving little or no space for visiting yachts.
Fort Amador, on the Pacific side, is a private marina with a limited number of slips and equally limited moorings. Almost all of these slips are owned and occupied by local yachts. A few slips and moorings are available to transients.
As you can see from the above, the selection of actually available yacht club/marina berths for visiting or local yachts is tiny. Add to that the fact that the AMP is not allowing yachts to anchor anywhere in Panama Bay, and you have a situation that makes it difficult, if not virtually impossible, for yachts heading to the Caribbean from the Pacific to stop even to make arrangements to transit the Canal, let alone reprovision, tour Panama or handle emergencies.
With the closure of Pedro Miguel Boat Club, Panama lost 30 in-water slips as well as extensive dry storage for ocean-class cruising yachts. Added to this, the proposed losses at the Panama Canal Yacht Club of 45 slips, and at Balboa Yacht Club of between 11 and 80 moorings, will result in a total loss of between 106 and 175 yacht berths, as well as loss of all the anchorage areas except The Flats. If 80 moorings are removed from the Balboa Yacht Club, where my boat has been based since 1998, it will leave us with only 44 - not enough for our members, let alone visitors!
The further elimination of any more slips or anchorage space will virtually eliminate any possibility of yachts using the Panama Canal area as a tourist destination.
A Bright Spot
There is one bright spot on the horizon: Shelter Bay Marina is just completing its first 38 slips, which should be available next month. Shelter Bay is located at the west end of the western breakwater inside Limón Bay at the Caribbean entrance to the Canal (www.shelterbay.com).
Away from the Panama Canal, nothing has changed. The two marinas in Bocas de Toro are still available, and more marinas are in the planning phase. Anchoring is still permitted in the San Blas islands, Las Perlas, etcetera.
The Impact of Yachts on Panama's Economy
In recent times over 1,400 international yachts have visited Panama every year, most of them spending time in Canal waters. These long-term tourists stay from a week to several months in Panama. To Panama this means:
Spending their money to re-provision their boats with food, fuel, equipment, and other goods and services.
Making major repairs and taking care of routine maintenance before transiting the Canal.
Leaving their boats here for extended periods to enjoy Panama's many natural wonders, as well as making international flights into and out of Panama.
Spending thousands of dollars each month in Panama - money which goes directly to Panamanian businesses for goods and services.
Visiting yachts represent long-term tourism dollars to Panama. For example, 200 yachts, each with two persons aboard, over 365 days, represent 146,000 tourist days per year. Panama businesses currently benefit by, at the very least, US$4,800,000 in yacht-related expenditures per year. Every shop owner and service provider in Panama who does business with yachts must be outraged at the current threat to this volume of business.
Stakeholders Not Consulted
Currently, the Government of Panama seems to be making its yachting rules in a vacuum. It has not asked the people in the yachting sector for information or assistance in promulgating regulations, rather it has issued draconian orders and threatened removal of yachts, arrests and fines.
The Government of Panama needs to identify the specific issues that visiting yachts raise, document those and create appropriate legislation to deal with them, rather than reacting to occasional incidents.
Security is an obvious issue for the Panama Canal and everyone wants to ensure its safety; the crews of the yachts recognize instantly anyone that shouldn't be there. By maintaining good communications with the yachting community, potential threats to the Canal could be identified.
Under the current conditions, if it were not for the fact that many yachts must transit the Panama Canal, few would come to Panama at all. The yachts that have to transit the Canal will continue to come, but will not stay and spend money. Many that normally cruise up and down the Pacific and Caribbean coasts may just pass Panama by. On the other hand, yachts will enjoy extended stays in neighboring Central American, South American and Caribbean nations, as those countries are actively courting the international yachts as visitors.
Pulling the Welcome Mat?
A number of years ago, when Venezuelan legislation became inhospitable to visiting yachts, the result was a mass exodus. Where over 2,000 yachts had once visited Venezuela in a season, their crews making extensive repairs and refurbishings, reprovisioning and touring the country, the next season very few boats visited. The reason for the change in Venezuela was an arbitrary tax applied to yachts. The following season the yachts all went to Trinidad, which has benefited with the growth of a now huge yachting industry. Trinidad regularly boasts over 1,500 yachts at any one time, contributing tourism dollars to the economy. Venezuela has since re-welcomed yachts with friendlier legislation, and is again reaping the rewards.
While we here in Panama were, until very recently, confident that Panama would one day outshine Trinidad in yachting tourism, we no longer are. We know that once harm has been done to a destination's reputation for yacht-friendliness, it takes time for the yachts to return in their former numbers.
Editor's note: The situation vis-a-vis yachts in Panama Canal water is in flux. We'll bring you updates as information becomes available.
To see the La Prensa article (in Spanish) visit www.prensa.com
David Wilson is the author of A Captain's Guide to Transiting the Panama Canal in a Small Vessel, available from firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright© 2005 Compass Publishing