Alright guys, I realize that I did say that I would do a series about BotW, but due to popular demand, I think it’s time I did some real world posting, specifically about an amazing experience that I recently had: venturing through one of the great wonders of mankind, the Panama Canal. First, a little background. The idea to build a canal was originally hatched in the minds of Vasco Nunez de Balboa and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. It started when Balboa discovered that the isthmus of Panama was a simple land bridge. It was then wondered if there were any natural rivers or lakes that linked the two oceans. When the answer came back as a “no”, Charles did a survey to determine if a waterway could be built. After all, even in the hundreds of years in between then and the 1800’s before the canal was built, having a crossing would save supplies, thousands of dollars of money and months of time that it would normally take to go around Cape Horn, or go overland through large, dangerous mountains. It would also shorten the time in between places that the cargo would be shipped, therefore lowering demand, and making expensive spices from India, silks from China, or tea from England cheaper and more accessible to the masses.
Skip forward in time a couple hundred years to the 1800’s, more specifically the 1880’s. Business was booming. Amazing feats of humanity, like the Suez canal or the Eiffel tower, have been built and admired, and now the French are looking for more. They set their eyes on Panama, and, like so many others before them, decide that they want to build a canal there. Unlike those others, though, whose ideas for the isthmus remained inside their heads, the French get down to work. The head of the company who starts the work is none other than Count Ferdinand de Lesseps, one of the over-seers of the Egyptian Suez canal. He is confident that his sea-level Panamanian canal will succeed and starts building, but quickly finds out he bit off more than he can chew. You see, De Lesseps was overestimating himself and his ability to build good canals, because while he did succeed in making a successful canal in Egypt, dry desert, sand, and pyramids are very different from horrors faced in Panama: unknown diseases brought on by mosquitos, mudslides that swallowed up humans and houses alike, the terror that is the whole of rainy season… (he didn’t really think this through very well, did he?) After excavating 70 million cubic yards of dirt and mud, spending/wasting $260 million dollars, and around 20,000 workers had died, mostly due to aforementioned mosquito-borne diseases, De Lesseps finally accepted that perhaps a sea-level canal would work better. He hired the famous Gustave Eiffel, who was tasked with building the locks. This too, however, proved fatal, and as the funds dried up and De Lesseps, Eiffel, and several other higher-ups were seized for fraud, the project was abandoned.
Meanwhile, later, the US is getting curious. They were originally going to build a canal in the more feasible Nicaragua, but their attention is shifted away and over to Panama with some nudges from Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla, a French engineer who had been involved in the French’s efforts to build a canal. Congress approved of buying the French land in Panama in 1902, only to be stopped by Columbia, who had owned Panama at the time. Columbia didn’t want a canal being built and refused to ratify one. The US, being the, considerate, determined people that they are, approved and supported a full-on revolution from the Panamanians, helping along what would eventually become the country of Panama. Therefore, with independence achieved, they negotiated out an area of over 500 square miles for the states to construct the canal. During the time of construction, many of the same obstacles encountered by the French were in the way of a successful canal. Despite this, the US had resolved to build a lock canal, and recent medical discoveries helped stem the deaths from mosquito-borne diseases by sterilizing potential breeding grounds, draining still-water, and putting up mosquito nets. The canal was completed in 1914, heralding one of the greatest man-made wonders of the world. Unfortunately, this was at the cost of an estimated 25,000 human lives. The first ship to pass through was the SS Ancon, the one-millionth vessel to cross through was commemorated in 2010, and the hundred-year anniversary was marked to much celebration in 2014.
How it works is, a ship navigates into the first lock, the gates close behind it, and several hundred gallons of water is released in the lock, making the water level go up, and the ship with it. Whereupon the next gate is opened, and the ship goes into the next lock, the water rises, etc., until the ship has risen almost 85 feet above sea level into the large man-made Lake Gatun, where the ship will cross the lake over to the next locks. These ones, though, will release the water into the next lock below it, lowering the ship. This will continue until the ship is once more sea level, and the gates will open the final time, into a different ocean. This process can take anything from 8-18 hours and can be completed in a single day, or the ship might be required to anchor in Gatun Lake for the night and continue back down the next morning. Each ship is required to have a pilot come aboard to help navigate the canal and make sure none of the ships ram into each other or break something or get stuck, and each ship is required to pay the toll to pass through. The price depends on the size of the vessel going through the canal, with the largest ships paying nearly half a million dollars, and the smallest toll ever handed in being 36 cents, paid in 1928 by an adventurer/explorer Richard Halliburton, who didn’t navigate a boat through but swam instead!
My experience through the canal started at about 3:00 in the morning. I woke up, got dressed and found, to my intense surprise, that, as usual, I was the last one awake, despite the time. Such is the woes of one who sleeps in. As was mandatory, we had hired an advisor and three line handlers, as we couldn’t fly any of our friends down in time. To coffee, Cinnabon rolls (there was a store in the city), and home-made banana bread, we sat in the harbor in pitch darkness and awaited to be called in. When we were hailed and given the thumbs up, we navigated into the channel along with our fellow sailboat S/V Kyrie and our powerboat friends, M/V Soulmate. We would be rafting together: smaller boats, like us (fifty-footers and around there) were usually rafted with other boats our size, and we had managed to get our buddy boats rafted with us. We three tiny mites chugged forward, made small by the ginormous cargo ships that easily obtained a cruising speed of fourteen knots, as opposed to our measly six. As we meandered under the Bridge of the Americas (google it) and said our final farewells to Panama City and the Pacific, dawn approached, and the sky lightened. Since it would only be made worse by having a giant attack dog romping around the boat and barking, we had left her in a kennel and would drive back over in a car a couple weeks later to get her, but we still had our little kitten, Oreo. Don’t let the sweet name fool you, I now understand why cats are always portrayed as being so aloof, but she’s still a good companion. It probably helps immensely that the only other thing we have to compare her to is Quincy (see: giant attack dog), but we’ll take what we get. Most of the crossing through the canal, she sleeps on top on the captain’s chair, occasionally lifting her head to see if anything interesting is happening, then lowering her head again because most of the Panama canal crossing is long periods of boredom pierced by bouts of interest, like going through the locks. We had lunch as we passed over Gatun Lake, and then after the faster Soulmate passed us, it was just us and Kyrie to raft up with as we passed through the last couple of locks, lowering us back to sea level on the Atlantic Ocean. Most of the second half it rained, and for the rest of it we just waved to Kyrie, talked to them a little bit when we were rafted, and made sword motions when dad played the Pirates of the Caribbean theme as we left the last lock into the Caribbean (oh yes we did). At around six in the afternoon, we sailed into Shelter Bay Marina with the sun setting, rain misting around us, and we collapsed, exhausted, on the other side.
This post is late today because of me…the editor missing his own deadlines. We’re through the canal but have to slow down to get some much needed boat work done. More to come, keep reading.
Wanna see what else we’ve written about prepping for the canal, see the links below: