By Rebecca Waters
Over 150 recreational boats are backed up on the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal with wait times of up to 2 months for transit. Officially, the delays are due to the arrival of an unusually large number of commercial ships, about 50 a day, up from the 38 expected at this time of year. However, speculation is rife as cruisers worry about crossing the Pacific before cyclone season sets in.
Some people claim that workers are on a "go slow" order in an attempt to negotiate higher wages (canal workers can't strike). Others note that cruisers pay a lot less for their transits and, if delayed, are more likely than commercial-vessel crew to spend money and support the local economy. That could be a motive for a slow-down. Another theory is that falling water levels resulting from deforestation are limiting the possible number of transits through the canal. It seems likely that each of these elements is playing a part.
Regardless of the causes, cruisers are looking to alternatives; one is paying $5,000 for overland transit and another is sailing the long way around to the Pacific. The organizers of the Clipper Race, due to reach the canal soon, shortened the Santa Cruz-to-Panama leg of the race to ensure that all participants could move toward the canal as soon as possible and convene as a group. They are currently negotiating transit with the local embassy. Blue Water Rally organizers, who managed to get their entire fleet through in 48 hours in February, are already contemplating new approaches for their next transit, should delays continue.
There's not much that individual boats can do but wait. Agents are powerless in easing delays. Some sailors are extending their down-coast cruising and others are leaving their boats and returning home. The majority are sitting in marinas, hoping for an earlier transit time to open up.
Posted May 19, 2008