Panama Canal Yacht Club Is No More

Boat owners have until April 1, 2009, to clear out; Panama Ports Company says it acted legally. "Special Report" from our March 13, 2009, CW Reckonings

Backhoes from the Panama Ports Company demolished the Panama Canal YC in February. For before and after photos, click here [1]. [1] http://www.cruisingworld.com/photogallery.jsp?ID=1000023707

Backhoes from the Panama Ports Company demolished the Panama Canal YC in February. For before and after photos, click here.Bob Simmons

Cruisers in the tropics wasted no time alerting CW to the demise of this longtime favorite waypoint, watering hole and restaurant, dinghy dock, marina, and boatyard situated on the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal, not far from the seaport of Colon.

Sources told CW that the Panama Ports Company used legal clout to gain court permission to have the 81-year-old club demolished February 27, 2009, when businesses were closed in observance of a local holiday. At the time, from 30-40 boats were at the docks, with many of their owners absent during the razing.

According to a spokesperson for Panama Ports, the company has been in the clear to take action since 1997.

"Panama Ports Company has only exercised its land use rights on the areas given in a concession contract by the Republic of Panama according to the contract Law No. 5 on January 16, 1997," writes Rommel G. Troetsch, head of marketing, in an email to CW. "The renting contract of the yacht club expired many months ago, consequently the occupation of said area by the yacht club is illegal."

Yet, cruisers were caught by surprise.

"According to a local member of the PCYC," write Susan and Bob Simmons of the sailboat Sunrise in an email to CW, "things started to happen Thursday, February 26, as a Panama judge ruled that Panama Ports Company owned the property. Immediate legal action was taken to condemn the property and a permit was issued to demolish the buildings on the property.

"Later that evening (6:30 pm), the Panama Ports Company presented the judge's ruling to PCYC members but neglected to mention that demolition would start first thing the next morning. After being notified of the judge's ruling on Thursday evening, the yacht club members thought that they would have a chance to take some legal action to fight the ruling on Monday (after the Friday holiday) but were amazed when they arrived at the club early Friday morning to find two huge containers stacked in front of the locked gate blocking all vehicular access in or out of the club. At daybreak, teams of Panama Ports Company workers were boxing up PCYC property and dismantling the bar (which had been declared many years ago as a historic site) and heavy machinery was busy tearing down walls.

"Club employees arriving for work and cruisers needing to go into town found the gates manned by security guards with access denied in or out. Eventually Panama Ports Company security allowed club employees and cruisers to squeeze in or out through the 1-2 foot gap between the containers and the fence.

"Later in the day, with more cruisers arriving at the dinghy dock, Panama Ports Company advised cruisers that the dinghy dock and marina docks would be closed April 1 and instructed cruisers to register their boat name with the company in order to be able to have access in/out the gates until then.

"As of Sunday afternoon all buildings on the property, excluding the docks and the dinghy dock, have been demolished," the Simmons write.

They add: "We were talking to PYC vice commodore Allen Baitel and he stated that 'they have broken every law there is and we will fight it and the yacht club will come back.'"

Time will tell; since control of the Canal reverted to Panama in 2000, cruisers of small and mid-size sailboats on the Caribbean and Pacific sides have increasingly felt pressured by canal authorities as the focus has shifted to container shipping interests as well as the megayacht industry. As of fall 2008, the Panama Ports Company's plans to remove two docks at the Panama Canal Yacht Club had become known as its expansion plan became public.

Troetsch defended the demolition and blamed the lack of notice on the yacht club.

"The Panama Canal Yacht Club was fully aware of the fact that they were using Panama Ports Company's areas despite the fact the lease agreement it once had expired several months ago," he wrote. "The yacht club was required on many occasions to abandon the areas it was illegally occupying, but decided not to do so. The directors of the yacht club should have warned its members about this situation. Apparently, they never did so. Panama Ports Company received, prior to the demolition of Panama Canal Yacht Club's former offices, the necessary authorization rendered by the government to proceed accordingly."

Although many boat owners have paid season charges in advance, electricity and water will remain turned on only temporarily.

Cruisers Dee and Alan Dark aboard Sunflower, a 43-foot, New Zealand built Young 43, pen their feelings in this way:

"We sadly have to advise you of the death of an institution beloved by many sailors all around the world, who at some time during the last 81 years, have passed through the Panama Canal. The Panama Canal Yacht Club has finally lost its battle against big business.

"The staff was devastated and in tears. One old barman, Felix, has worked there for over 40 years! The club itself...was a cruising institution, seeing many famous and less famous sailors go through its doors, and providing a social hub for the sailors from all around the world who come to Colon, Panama, to transit through the Canal.

"The cruising community here is in shock. This is really not an acceptable situation as Colon is the designated port of entry to Panama from the Atlantic side and without shore access, how is one to check in or out and obtain supplies? What sort of message is Panama sending the rest of the world when these people show such little regard for the international cruising community?

"We feel as if we have lost an old friend, Panama has lost a big part of its history, and the cruisers in the area have lost a valuable resource. It is indeed a sad day for Panama."

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