In the marina on the Atlantic side of Panama, on one side of our berth there were mangroves full of mosquito-eating songbirds, and on the other side, there was jungle that hadn’t seen a hurricane for fifty years. Everything about the jungle was thick and tall and large. Throughout the day, we’d hear calls from howler monkeys that sound like Targarian dragons warning their approach.
Here, we spent most of the month having daily discussions about fixing what appeared to be a leaking, hemophiliac transmission. Ian had lists of pre-Pacific boat jobs that ranged from critical to luxury additions but we prioritized the transmission — as in the piece that transmits power from the diesel engine to the shaft-mounted prop that spins the propeller to propel the boat forward, which for me, sounded critical for a planned circumnavigation.
It may have been heatstroke but when observing the propeller shaft spin, we both thought we could see a slight wobble. We hauled the boat out for a week and took everything apart to check that straight things were straight (they were) and sealed things were sealed (they were not). With a new transmission installed snug to the shaft with the grace permitted from a flexible coupling ring, we dropped back in the water and started stocking the boat with supplies, eyeing the Plimsoll line (1).
Stocking up for two people for a Pacific crossing isn’t that onerous. I may have put more thought into my supply needs when working in the arctic. The only thing to keep in mind is that Panama has cheap booze and the South Pacific does not. So in addition to lots of flavour boosters (e.g. sundried tomatoes, curry paste, toasted sesame oil) and the kilos of vacuum-sealed Manchego, pancetta and dried saucisson) we have 50 litres of boxed wine and 12 litres of rum stored under the floorboards of the boat (note, this is not for me).
The day before the Canal transit, our friends Michael and Krishan arrived from Toronto as crew for the crossing – our first visitors since getting the boat.
In my mind, the Panama Canal, that connection between the Atlantic and Pacific trade route, was a means to an end. I really didn’t care about what the Canal represented in terms of human ingenuity and its mark on industrialization, provided we got to the Pacific. My knowledge of the Canal was limited.
First, I knew that the building of the Canal resulted in thousands of workers’ death due to Yellow Fever (also called vómito negro in Spanish, for the ominous black vomit appearing prior to death). It was the Cuban epidemiologist, Carlos Juan Finlay, who made the connection that mosquitoes transmit Yellow Fever, and this is one of the creation stories about how global health research came about i.e. how to control disease so it does not impede the progress of industrialization.
The second thing I knew was that the area around the Canal is one of the most ecologically diverse places on earth due to the diverse habitats you get from merging the north and south continents, adding in range of elevation, the tropical jungle and the fresh and saltwater estuaries. I also knew that this area is home to the Smithsonian Research Centre, where you get the merging of young grad students and apex predator researchers resulting in a predictable #metoo investigation.
But the engineering design of the Canal? I had not given it any thought.
So it came as a surprise to me that I was awestruck when we entered the first Canal lock to begin our ascent to Gatun Lake, and the large lock doors that are over one hundred years old closed behind us and the water began to rise. I found myself moved by the sheer size of this engineering ingenuity and the profound mark its construction has made on global industrialization (both good and bad).
A shorter distance to cover than the Suez Canal, yet it was markedly more costly and challenging than the Egyptian desert project that just had to traverse at sea-level through sand, not ascend and descend blasting through volcanic rock. Three attempts were made to build the Canal, starting in 1850, the first two failed because of high costs and high worker deaths. One engineer arrived for work with his own coffin, not expecting to return home alive.
Conversely, our experience transiting was relatively comfortable–popping a bottle of Proseco during the evening on Gatun Lake.
Before entering the locks, we rafted to two other sailboats. It was late afternoon, and we’d be going through the first three locks of the Canal in the evening, arriving at Gatun Lake, an artificial lake flooded to save on additional Canal construction. And the following morning, we crossed the lake and start the 23 metre descent to sea level through the final three locks, arriving in the evening on the other side. A different pilot–a guy to give Ian direction–joined us each day, and we hired one line handler, Omar, to help with the lines that get thrown to us by the guys on Canal wall. We tie these lines to the boat and our boat is held in place while the water swirls into (or out of) the lock. Then once up (or down) a level, the doors at the opposite end open, we release the lines, and we motor to the next lock.
Et voilà. As if by miracle, you skip months at sea and the confrontation at Cape Horn where the Atlantic and Pacific meet. Instead, suddenly overnight, you’re in the Pacific Ocean.
Panama Canal Index
Years to build, during the third and final attempt: 10
Year opened: 1914
Distance across (km): 77
Estimated number of deaths per km, mostly Black workers from Caribbean: 500
Hours of operation since opening: 365 days 24/7
Number of ship to transit in 2021: 13 342
Toll of largest ship (USD): 450 000
Cheapest toll recorded, 1928 – Richard Halliburton swam through (cents): 36
Our toll (USD): 2500
1. plimsoll line: I’ve wanted to use that word in a sentence since I learned it in Physics 101 – it is the maximum weight you can add to a boat and still remain seaworthy.