Transiting the Panama Canal
Catch 22 in Panama - Adventures in Bureaucracy
Update from the Farley Mowat
Sea Shepherd campaigns do not just engage illegal fishing operations, pirate whalers and poachers. We routinely have to wage bloody red-tape skirmishes against bureaucrats around the world. Sometimes the rubber stamps pound unmercifully and the sheer volume of forms threatens to overwhelm. Years ago these paper shuffling swivel servants used to frustrate me. But I have learned to tolerate them with quiet contempt and patient amusement.
Report from Captain Paul Watson
Sometimes the engagements with these bureau-rats are unbelievably ridiculous. It has been three years since the Farley Mowat was last in the Atlantic. During that time, our intrepid ship and crew have been engaged as far north as Vancouver Island, as far west as Hobart, Tasmania, and as far south as the Ross Sea and in between to the enchanted islands of the Galapagos, the treasured isle of Cocos, the marvelous island of Malpelo, the exotic islands of French Polynesia, the remote Cook Islands and the Hawaiian islands.
Now we are back in the Atlantic with an agenda of campaigns before us. The pirates of ecology have arrived back in the Caribbean.
It was, however, a battle to cross that Isthmus ranking up there with Balboa for difficulty. He just had a mere jungle to cut his way through. We had the horror of red-taped Panamanian swivel servants and the Ridiculous Brown Clowns.
The transit of the Canal was an amazing adventure in bureaucracy.
We arrived on the morning of the 24th of June after an evening of sailing through one of the most incredible lightning storms that I have ever experienced. It was a nonstop artillery barrage of electricity that ranged so far and wide that the night sky was illuminated constantly and interspersed with crackling, web-like eruptions of bolts that arched and cracked across the sky from north to south from horizon to horizon.
As the skyline of Panama City rose from the sea the next morning, our radar alerted us to the numerous ships sitting at anchor in the Bay, ships ranging from tankers to freighters, car carriers to container vessels. Sailboats large and small, yachts ranging from vagabond live-aboards to billionaire gin palaces. And to add fearsome dignity to the flotilla of commercial flotsam, there was the USS warship Ticonderoga.
Having been here on many occasions, I took the Farley Mowat to our usual anchorage between Canal entrance buoys 4 and 6 off Flamenco Island to await clearance.
To save funds we decided to act as our own agents. This used to be no problem but as with everything else, the Canal has become more complicated over the last years.
Although we arrived in the morning, it took until 1730 Hours to be boarded and granted clearance. Having already been measured from previous transits, we were cleared and advised to report to Citibank in Balboa the next morning to pay the transit fee and we were scheduled for 1745 Hours the next day on the 25th of June.
Our first problem is that we had a film crew on board that needed to depart to get a flight back to Canada the next morning. But they could not leave until Customs and Immigration were cleared.
But we needed to go ashore to clear Immigration.
We received permission to launch a zodiac inflatable to go to shore where we found a taxi to take us to the Port Immigration office that was open around the clock.
There we found one grouchy man in a very small office busily watching American wrestling and not in a mood to be doing business. The three-person film crew wanting to depart was Canadian, and we found that Canadians and Americans required visas. The cost was $10 but the catch was that the visa office was closed. Fortunately, film director Patricia Dolman spoke good Spanish and she was able to talk the man into stamping them into the country with a promise that they would get visas at the airport prior to departing.
When Patricia asked about Customs the man looked at her like he was annoyed. "Do I look like customs? I'm immigration."
Patricia said she would check with Panamanian Customs at the airport. The Immigration officer just mumbled and returned to watching professional wrestling.
Having gotten them legally off the ship, Alex Cornelissen and I returned to the ship to prepare to bring the four remaining departing crew to shore the next morning.
It was not to be. As we were preparing the boat the next morning, a police boat arrived to inform us that we were not authorized to take a boat to shore and "wrote me up" for a violation.
I had never seen these police uniforms before and discovered they were a new security force known locally as the "Brown Clowns." The United States had given them a few dozen inflatable patrol boats, some uniforms, guns and money and instructions to protect the security of the Canal Zone. It is sort of an exported Homeland Security auxiliary force assigned to Panama and paid for by U.S. taxpayers.
When I contacted the Port Captain he said that he had only given us a one-time permission to go ashore and it would be henceforth forbidden.
"But how can I pay the transit fee in Balboa, disembark and embark crew without a boat to go ashore?"
"You can hire a launch to pick you up and bring you back," he answered.
The problem with this was that it was $500 per hour to hire a launch and we had to pay for the travel time to reach us and return which was over an hour in itself. The estimate for getting ashore, embarking and disembarking crew and returning would run close to $2000. This was unacceptable.
But as I was pondering the problem, a Canal Zone launch arrived with a Panamanian Engineer to inspect the ship prior to transit.
The engineer was American and I knew him from our transit back in 2000. His arrival meant that I could not go ashore to pay the transit fee until he completed his inspection.
He told us that a Greenpeace ship, the Esperanza had come through recently.
"They don't like you," he said. "I said that I knew you and thought you were alright, but they told me you were militant, reckless and a troublemaker."
"What did you say?" I asked somewhat amused.
"And you people are not?" he replied with a laugh.
He said that Greenpeace had people arrested for illegally boarding ships in the Canal to protest so he though it was amusing that they were calling Sea Shepherd such names.
"What can I say?" I replied. "Greenpeace seems to have trouble with enemy identification."
"You will be a happy to hear that I threw the book at them for compliance," he said.
Finally after three hours, the inspection was completed and we were cleared for transit.
It was half past noon and the bank would close at two o'clock, and I could not take a boat to shore.
I called the Port Captain again and pleaded my case, telling him that I had an hour and a half to reach the bank to pay for transit and if I could not pay by that time, I would be stuck there until Monday morning before I would have the opportunity to pay again.
His answer was to again deny me permission to go ashore.
A few minutes later, I received a call from the Panama Canal authority saying they had not had confirmation of payment. I told them that I could not get ashore because the Port Captain had denied permission to use our boats to reach the shore.
They reminded me that failure to pay would cancel our transit schedule.
I then called the Port Captain to ask permission to swim the one-mile to shore but he denied that request also.
Then an idea struck me. On the other side of the Canal Zone was the Flamenco Yacht Club and it was not technically in the Canal Zone but within the jurisdiction of Panama City.
I informed Flamenco station that I was lifting anchor and then proceeded to move the Farley Mowat around to the other side of Flamenco where we dropped anchor and took a boat ashore with the departing crew.
Jared Rubin and Jordan De Vaan took responsibility for getting the departing crew to Immigration while I would rush to the Bank to pay the transit fee.
On shore we met embarking crewmembers Dr. Jerry Vlasak, Tim Midgley and Ron Colby. Jerry and Tim jumped into a taxi with me to go to the bank as Jared rounded up three taxis for the crew to go to immigration.
I left one crewmember with our inflatable.
We made it to the Bank just under the wire and paid the $5,089.00 to transit the canal. The actual cost of the transit is only $1,877.00 but after you add in line handling costs, locomotive costs, inspection costs, a new security fee, rental of a location identification device and a few more incidentals, the bill had risen considerably. The security fee apparently was to help finance the Brown Clowns. In other words it was costing us about $300 for the privilege of having them deny us the right to use our boats to get ashore to pay their fee.
Then it was back to the Immigration office at the Balboa Yacht Club. It was not really an office, more like a poker table at the end of the dock. There we found Jared and Jordan arguing with the lady from Immigration.
Apparently, she needed photocopies of each passport, which she got after Jordan found a copy machine at the dock office. When we arrived she was demanding visas, but the visa office had told Jared that the crew needed to clear into the country first to get the visas and once they received the clearance stamp they could return to the visa office to get the visa.
The immigration officer lady was arguing that the visa was required before the entry stamp could be given and told Jared to take everyone back to the visa office.
Jared argued that they had been explicit in demanding the entry stamp first because they could not issue visas to people who were not officially in Panama.
Finally the lady immigration officer, more in exasperation than anything else stamped all of our passports including Jared, Jordan and myself.
We were then able to legally discharge the crew and said good by to crewmembers Emily Hunter from Canada, Cathy Davies from New Zealand, Bernadette Leewangh from the Netherlands and Tobias Weissenmayer from Germany.
The time was now 1500 Hours and we were told that the ship had to be in position at 1645 and ready to receive a pilot at 1745.
Jordan, Jared, Tim, Jerry and Ron and I grabbed two taxi's taxis and hustled ourselves back to the Flamenco yacht club only to be greeted by two officials from the Port of Panama City. One was with the Port Authority and the other with Agriculture. They demanded to be brought out to the ship to clear the ship into Panama City because we had left the Canal Zone.
We then proceeded to go to our small boat when we were met by the Yacht Club manager who told us that we were not allowed to come to shore at the yacht club until we had cleared immigration.
"We just cleared Immigration." I answered.
"Yes, but you were not allowed to land until you cleared immigration and you landed before clearing immigration," he said.
"Well, the problem is that we need to go to shore to clear immigration and we could not have cleared unless we came ashore and now we are clear so what's the problem?"
That seemed to puzzle him so he responded by saying that we still needed to pay for the use of the dock and directed me to the office to pay the landing fee.
The fee was only $11.25, but it took 20 minutes to write the receipt.
It was now 1600 Hours.
We rushed back to the ship. The two officials came in and I made a point of bringing them to our galley instead of my cabin. My cabin was well ventilated whereas the galley was as hot as a Turkish bath. They began to sweat immediately.
"Do you have any cold drinks?"
"No," I said with feigned apologies.
"How about cold water?"
"Just warm water, I'm afraid."
It worked and they completed the paperwork in 15 minutes, and I forked over $35 for clearance and another $10 for agriculture.
"You must report back into the Canal Zone for clearance again," the Port official said.
Finally we were ready to go and began to raise the anchor only to find it was caught on a bunch of wires picked up from the bottom.
It was 1630 Hours. Jordan was over the side on a harness dangling over the water and armed with an angle grinder valiantly attempting to free the anchor.
Ten minutes later we were free to proceed but we still had two miles to go to reach our previous anchorage.
At 1645, still underway, the Canal authority radioed to ask our location and to see if we were ready to transit.
I responded by saying we were at anchor (which we were not) and we were ready to transit.
Ten minutes later we arrived and dropped anchor at our previous anchorage.
One of the crew asked if I was going to report our arrival.
"I will if they ask but unless they specifically ask, we never left, " I replied.
At 1745 the pilot arrived and at 1800 Hours we were on our way to the Miraflores Locks to begin the transit to the Atlantic.
It was a beautiful trip through the locks and the Canal although I was extremely tired from non-stop battles with bureaucrats.
At one point it was a little disconcerting to see a Norwegian liquefied gas ship pass under the new trans-Canal suspension bridge as a shower of welding sparks fell down upon it like rain, especially so since we were right beside it.
At four in the morning, we dropped anchor in the Flats near Cristobal. We had arrived on the other side but we were not free of the bureaucrats.
We needed a Zarpe or Clearance to proceed to the next port. The cost of a Zarpe is only $1.50. It's just expensive getting to the point where it can be obtained.
Our first step was to ask permission to put a boat in the water. After getting a clearance from the Brown Clowns, we were free to go ashore. It appeared to be more lenient on the Atlantic side.
But it was Saturday which meant the immigration office at the Cristobal yacht club was closed. Tim Midgeley and I hired a driver and proceeded to the Port to the main immigration officer but when we arrived, there were police and firemen all around and the gates were closed because of a toxic chemical spill from a ship.
But the immigration officer was outside the gate and for $20 agreed to go back to re-open the office at the yacht club.
Once again, I presented passports and was told that visas were required. The visa office was closed, but he agreed to stamp us out of the country -- but only the passports that had been stamped in. The other crew could come to the yacht club but no further, which meant only those who had survived the lady immigration officer the day before and had received a stamp could go into town.
The driver then took the immigration officer, Tim and myself to the Port Captain's office where we were asked for a clearance from Panama City. I showed him the clearance that I had paid $35 for, the day before.
"This is not a proper clearance. You need a cruising permit. They should have issued a cruising permit to you. All vessels longer than 48 hours in Panama must have a cruising permit. The cost is $77.00."
I told the Port Captain that I had been to Panama many times and never had to purchase a cruising permit and besides we had been in Panama less than 48 hours.
The Port Captain replied, "They issued you the wrong clearance in Panama City, you need to be cleared again and then you need the cruising permit because you may stay longer than 48 hours."
"But I do not intend to stay longer than 48 hours." I replied.
"But what if you do, and if you do, you will need to come back here to get a cruising permit and we are closed tomorrow and you will not be able to go anywhere until Monday, so you will need a cruising permit."
Sometimes, you just have to know when to change course and go with the current. We had been there for over an hour at this point, so I said, "Okay, give us what you need to give us so we can go."
The Port Captain looked hurt, "I don't want you thinking that we are only asking for your money and trying to take advantage of you. Those people in Panama City should have done their job properly. We are only trying to make sure that everything is done for you the right way this time."
"Much appreciated, " I said, "please proceed."
An hour later and $20 for a new clearance, $77 for the cruising permit and $20 overtime brought us to the stage where we could purchase the clearance to proceed for $1.50.
The Port Captain said, "The Zarpe is only $1.50."
"Such a deal!" I replied in a mock New York Jewish accent.
And then onto the streets to purchase provisions for the ship accompanied by Jerry Vlasak and Ron Colby who had his video camera with him.
The streets of Cristobal have deteriorated since before Noriega days and a bunch of gringos shopping attracted attention quickly in a city where stabbings, shootings, kidnappings and muggings were routine.
We noticed that two Brown Clowns were following us. The driver said they were there to protect us because gringos did not usually shop at the street markets.
Just before we left however, one of the Brown Clowns asked Ron if he had a permit to film.
I answered, "No, Turismo only."
The driver said that the cop thought we were making a movie.
"Yea, three loco gringo amigos would be a good name for it."
We secured the provisions at great prices and made it back to the zodiac inflatable just in time for a major tropical downpour which saved us the need to take a shower on our return.
Finally at 2100 Hours on Saturday, we weighed anchor and the Farley Mowat aimed her prow towards the Caribbean and out to sea.
Balboa had it easy.