How To Sail From California To Florida

How To Sail From California To Florida | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

August 30, 2022

Sailing from California is a 5,000-mile journey that can be accomplished safely with careful planning and provisioning.

The best way to sail from California to Florida is through the Panama Canal and across to the southeastern coast of Florida. You can also transit the canal and sail north to Texas and through the ICW.

In this article, we’ll cover the steps to sailing from California to Florida through the Panama Canal. We’ll go over the distance between California and Panama, how to transit the canal and two popular route paths from Panama to the United States.

We sourced the information used in this article from sailors who are experienced with the California to Florida route, along with trusted guides to transiting the Panama Canal.


Table of contents

First Stretch: Sailing from California to Panama

The longest portion of the journey—by far—is the stretch of ocean from California to Panama. Sailing to Panama is a minimum of about 3,500 miles or just over 3,000 nautical miles.

This stretch of ocean is covered by numerous reliable trade winds, like the Doldrums, which can be useful for much of the journey but become unpredictable the closer you get to Panama.

The weather on this stretch of the journey tends to be pretty favorable, as this part of the Pacific is free from typhoons and other regular tropical storms. The months of April and May to be most favorable.

Sailing from California to Florida Through the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal offers the shortest and safest route from the Pacific to the Atlantic. It shortens the route by thousands of nautical miles and completely eliminates the treacherous journey around Cape Horn.

But how do you sail through the Panama Canal, and how much does it cost? Here’s everything you need to know about getting a sailboat through one of the largest and most important canals in the world.

Doing the Paperwork for a Panama Canal Transit

There’s a lot of paperwork involved in a Panama Canal transit, and it’s usually easier to hire an agent to get it all worked out. The Panama Canal has a fee schedule for boats of different lengths.

For vessels less than 65 feet in length, you pay a base $1,600 transit toll to make your way through the canal and associated waterways. There’s an additional $54 TVI inspection fee and a $130 security charge.

If you don’t hire an agent, you’ll pay an $831 buffer fee which is returned if the journey proceeds with no accidents.

You’ll also need to rent lines and oversized fenders—your marina fenders won’t cut it in the Panama Canal. You can rent these from locals for around $100.

Additionally, you’ll need to find line handlers that will run between $30 and $100. Professional line handlers cost about $100 per person.

Panama Canal Agents

Most sailors who traverse the Panama Canal hire an agent. This can vastly streamline the process and eliminate language barriers and other things that cause problems and delays for private boats.

An agent costs between $400 and $500, and they’ll take care of just about everything. They’ll find lines and fenders, organize your trip, and cover all the fees and paperwork. They accept a lump sum for their services and transit fees, and they only expect a meal or two when they’re on board.

Arriving at the Panama Canal

After the first stretch of your journey south from California, you’ll arrive just outside of the Panama Canal. You’ll get in touch with your agent and anchor out or tie up in the bay awaiting transit.

Eventually, an agent will board your boat (if you hired one) and inform you of the plans for the transit. Typically, yachts will tie up to each other and proceed in twos or threes.

Here’s a tip. If possible, try to be the center boat in the tie-up. This exempts you from most of the line handling duties and gives you a buffer between the boat and the hard concrete walls of the locks.

Transiting the Canal

There are three sets of locks to transit through the Panama Canal. These locks raise your boat a total of 58 feet to reach the level of the large freshwater lake above. The locks fill in just eight minutes, and the process can be turbulent.

It’s essential to handle your lines carefully during the filling process, as the water rushing in from below bubbles up and causes currents that can throw your boat into the wall. The process is a lot safer on the Atlantic to Pacific route, as the turbulence doesn’t occur when the locks are drained.

Your line handlers on land will guide the boats through the canal, and you’ll probably need to use your engine too. This can be achieved with help from the other boats you’re tied up to.

Transiting Gatun Lake

Once you transit the three locks, you’ll arrive at the mouth of Gatun Lake. Gatun Lake is an artificial freshwater lake fed by rainwater and surrounding rivers, so the depth varies between seasons and years.

Usually, you’ll tie up for the night before departing and transiting the lake in the morning. For this step, you’ll need a good running motor. A pilot will board your boat sometime before departure to guide you through the lake.

Marine traffic in this lake is heavy. There are all kinds of ships—giant oil tankers, tugboats, container ships, warships, and others—and there are different routes for these vessels. Your pilot will navigate you through the lake, and you aren’t allowed to use your sails in most cases.

Eventually, you’ll reach the Atlantic Ocean, and you can resupply in one of the Panamanian coastal towns before embarking on the last stretch to Florida.

Sailing from Panama to Florida

For the next stretch, you’ll spend several days or weeks transiting through the Gulf of Mexico. The amount of time spent on the water depends entirely on the weather conditions and the speed of your boat.

There are a few ways you can go about this stretch of the trip. One option is a northwestern route to the coast of Texas, from which you can hop between Southern coastal cities through the Intracoastal Waterway. The other is a direct route to the west coast of Florida across the Gulf, which is less crowded but exposes you to the hazards of open ocean travel.

Intracoastal Waterway

The distance between the Panama Canal and the closest entrance to the Intracoastal Waterway in Texas is about 1,700 miles. The Intracoastal Waterway is a protected series of channels that runs along the eastern and southern coasts of the United States and provides safe transit all the way from Texas to Florida and beyond.

Gulf Route from Panama to Florida

The Gulf route is a much more direct and open route to Florida from Panama. This route takes you north from Panama and around Cuba, then northeast to the southern coast of Florida. This route is about 1,300 miles total, which is significantly shorter than any other route.

How to Avoid Hurricanes and Tropical Cyclones

Hurricanes and strong tropical cyclones are a serious threat in the Gulf of Mexico and in the warmer parts of the Atlantic in general.

Hurricanes occur in the region most often between the first weeks of June and the last week of November, but they can happen any time between spring and fall.

It’s best to travel before or after hurricane season, though careful planning and weather monitoring can give you peace of mind during the summer months. Always check weather forecasts and storm outlooks before making a long ocean transit in the region, regardless of the time of year.

How To Sail From California To Florida
Daniel Wade

Daniel Wade

I've personally had thousands of questions about sailing and sailboats over the years. As I learn and experience sailing, and the community, I share the answers that work and make sense to me, here on Life of Sailing.

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