By Russell Ethridge
It was time to change oceans. John and Julie King, retired and fed up with California taxes and congestion, needed an experienced crew to take their 44-foot sailboat Myla from the Pacific coast to a new home in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay. The Panama Canal was on the route, and I got the call to assist since John and I have been sailing together since childhood. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. When else was I going to see one of the most remarkable products of human endeavor? A non-stop flight from any number of cities deposits you in Panama City, a metropolis of two million people going toe to toe with Miami as the economic capital of Central and South America. Skyscrapers define a shoreline cluttered with the clatter of commerce. A half hour car ride deposited me at a marina where I took a dingy out to Myla to join the crew.
The Atlantic and the Pacific was one really big ocean before plate movement in the earth’s crust three million years ago created the isthmus between the North and South American continents. Humans have been trying to traverse it forever; first by foot, later by train, and finally by water; a dream of kings and explorers for centuries. Success was achieved in 1914 after more than a decade of work by the U.S. that followed an even longer effort by the French that ended badly for many, including thousands of laborers who died from tropical diseases. The U.S. really did “speak softly and carry a big stick” when it bought the failed French effort for pennies on the dollar and, after brewing up a revolution, made a deal with the new country of Panama, formerly a province of Columbia. Manufacturing and trade were booming, and the U.S. needed easy access to the Pacific rim, the fast growing U.S. West, and the ability to inject its military quickly.
The Myla: A 44-foot sailboat on its way to the Panama Canal.
The 48 mile trip through the Canal saves roughly 12,000 miles of travel around South America, some of it through the most treacherous waters in the world. Due to Panama’s geography, the canal actually runs from the southeast to the northwest, and it was slightly confusing to watch the sun rise over the Pacific. I thought we would probably spend a day or two transiting through the three locks at either end of the canal and Lake Gatun, an artificial lake between the locks that was the largest manmade lake in the world when it was created from 1907-1913. Pleasure boats like Myla only transit the canal alongside the huge container ships that comprise the bulk of the traffic and pay the big fees. The Panama Canal Authority estimates that around 5% of the world’s maritime traffic passes through it at 10% of the cost of traveling around South America. Myla’s modest fee of a few thousand dollars seemed like a pittance compared to an average fee of $400,000 for a loaded container vessel passing through the original locks or $500,000 to $800,000 for passage through the larger locks completed in 2016. When you are moving grapes from Chile or cars from Korea, time really is money. The Canal Authority claims to employ a value pricing model that factors in cargo and time sensitivity and, apparently, you can pay to jump the line.
Our passage was scheduled three weeks in advance, but the exact time was still uncertain. We spent the day before departure stashing gear and supplies and lashing old tires to the side of the boat in anticipation of the bumping and grinding that can happen in the locks. With three million gallons a minute pouring into an up bound lock (almost 28,000,000 gallons a fill), turbulence for a small boat like Myla is significant. The Canal Authority requires each boat to carry an advisor (an added $1,150 charge) and a crew capable of handling the lines controlled by lock employees that run between the boat and the lock walls. That’s where I came in. Keeping the boat stable while water pours in and the boat rises is complicated by Myla’s proximity to a ship over 20 times its size that may be carrying 4,000 Hyundai cars bound for Europe. Julie was on the phone to the booking agent (another fee) much of the day trying to confirm our departure time.
At 10:00 p.m. the night before departure, the Canal Authority notified our agent that we would be delayed a day. I’d cleared my docket for a two day transit with a day for return travel. I had to be in Court in Detroit on day 4, so unless we started before 6:00 a.m. to make it in one day, I was screwed. When the call came the next morning announcing a late start, I knew I had to get off the boat. But I was determined to transit the canal, even if it had to be by land. I hopped a cab to the first set of locks to watch Myla through the locks and answer the questions of tourists who wondered why the crew of this sailboat was waving at me.
Once through the Miraflores locks at the Pacific end and elevated 85 feet, Myla motored through the Culebra Cut for 8 miles across the continental divide and into Lake Gatun. Although the big boats typically make it through in about 8 hours, Myla moves at about 6 knots under motor. With a late start and an advisor who’d reached his work time limit, Myla was forced to spend the night in the lake and complete the transit with a new advisor the next day. My decision, disappointing as it was, was irrevocable. You may not leave your boat, even to swim, or you’ll be arrested. Most people going through the canal have not “entered” the country, and the canal certainly presents an opportunity for surreptitious entry. Although there is literally nothing around aside from the locks, there must be cameras because a patrol boat questioned the crew about a quick swim no one thought would be noticed. After that, the crew caught up on its reading. In the meantime, I took a locals’ bus to see the Gatun locks at the Caribbean end.
A Container Ship going through the Panama Canal.
The passage to the Caribbean the next day was reportedly uneventful and ended near Colon, a small city that has a deserved reputation for crime and filth. Aside from the impressive port terminal facilities of various worldwide shipping companies, it has little other than the decaying remains of colonial era buildings and an impoverished population of the decedents of the West Indians whose muscles built the canal a hundred years ago. It stands in stark contrast to Panama City, just 50 miles away, with its gleaming buildings and fancy cars. A return trip the same day by train on tracks built along the canal years before its construction gave me the chance to see what I’d missed and to speak to a guide shepherding some boisterous Eastern European tourists. He wanted to know why it was China, not the U.S., proposing a $4.5 billion dollar rail line from Panama City to the border of Costa Rica, both popular tourist destinations. He wondered why neighbors were not helping neighbors.
The story here, however, is of engineering prowess and political will that transformed shipping and our global economy and gave rise to construction techniques in use today. The building of the canal resulted in the discovery that mosquitoes transmit malaria and yellow fever, and confirmed that sanitation systems and paved streets were at the root of good public health. We have had other efforts that transform how we live such as putting a man on the moon and building the Internet. But this is the only one that allows the changing of oceans in a day without leaving the surface of the earth. I was impressed even though I sort of missed the party.
Question: What is the craziest trip you’ve taken?
Russell Ethridge is an avid sailor, lawyer for Graff-Pinkert, a good friend and occasional contributor to Today’s Machining World.