Negotiating Two Oceans

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.

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6 thoughts on “Negotiating Two Oceans

  1. Noah Graff

    Morocco. Going into the desert with the Berber nomads and sleeping under the stars. Driving out into the Atlas mountains with my friend Justin and our guide Mustafa.

    Driving into podunk Slovenia to sell an old Schutte SE16 Spindle Stopper. Machine was in a barn with cows mooing just behind a wall.

    Cuba. Nothing more to say there.

    There are other stories too but some things should be left unsaid.

  2. Paul Huber

    At age 14 biking solo across Switzerland over three weeks from Basel to Lausanne up the Rhone Valley down the Rhine Valley, on to Zurich then Luzerne over the Bruenig pass to Berne and back home to Basel. Staying in YMCA type accomodations and with relatives on the way.

    Appointed leader of a group of 14 foreign students for a six week trip coast to coast traveling in two eight seater Ford Country Squire. Staying with members of various churches and social clubs as pre-arranged by Bridgeport University. We all feel in love with those wonderfull people who took care of us.

    Paul Huber

  3. Kim

    Mine would be a last minute long weekend trip to St. Petersburg, Russia during my study abroad year in Hungary in the late 90s. My roommate and I took advantage of a cheap plane ticket in the cold of February. We managed to procure a visa in record time (2 days) and were off on an adventure.

    We were perpetually lost as all the maps and guidebooks in English used the Latin alphabet which was completely useless when trying to read street signs in Cyrillic. Fortunately the people there were very kind. One old man stopped us on the street to simply say, “My son, in New York.” A drunken man on the bus enlisted the help of a student with limited English to help us find our hotel. (Also at drunken man’s request, my friend and I donned their warm fur hats as we walked.) We got a great tour of the city the next day from the kind student, though due to his limited English we learned mostly that just about every site was not surprisingly related in some way to Peter the Great. I also learned the hard way that it’s not enough to remember the second word in the street name as it turned out the second word on the sign was the Russian for “boulevard.” Many other adventures made it a truly memorable trip.

  4. Lloyd Graff

    In 2000 took the whole family to Petra, Jordan. We got a Palestinian guide and driver. Sam our guide claimed he never slept and ran all day on cigarettes and coffee. We got to the ancient city and stayed a Movenpick Hotel which mimimcked an old Arab village. We all took Turkish baths and wrapped up in heavy Turkish towels afterward.
    The next day we explored the ancient city which was a short walk from the hotel. Somehow Noah and his older sister Sarah seperated from the group and Sam led them to the roof of a deserted monastery. They walked perilously close to the edge and a policeman in the ground started yelling at them to get off the roof. Petra was full of upbeat energy. Jews could easily pass over and back. It was preIntifada days. Would love to go back and wish the political climate would allow it.

  5. John Griner

    My tale is not quite as adventurous as Russel sailing the pacific through the canal however my most memorable life experience took place back in the days before Hydromats became commodity machines.

    I purchased a Citation Jet through a broker / ferry pilot in Milano Italy. We were going to fly it across the Atlantic using the same routes that the old WW2 planes used to travel back and forth to Europe. FYI: Small general aviation planes don’t have a very long range so we limited our overwater legs to 800 nm or less. As in sailing, flying across the Atlantic is very weather dependent with the lack of alternate airports to land at when the weather goes down…….*****!!!!!

    Our route was
    LIML – Milano Italy
    EGPC – Wick, Scotland
    BIKF – Keflavik, Iceland
    BGBW – Narsarsuaq, Greenland
    CYYR – Goose Bay, Canada
    KBGR – Bangor Maine
    KBMG – BLoomington Indiana

    All these destinations were fascinating however the most marvelous was the approach to Narsarsuaq flying through a mountain ford with emerald green icebergs with the green seawater creeping up their sides. This was an old WWII base with a treacherous old fashioned NDB approach. My ferry pilot Enio had flown the Atlantic 72 times and ran out of fuel at this airport years ago in a Cheyenne Turboprop when he missed the approach 3 times in fog and went swimming. Fortunately for him a boat was close by and picked him up.

    I never would have traveled to most of these destinations if it wern’t for my ferry flight across the Atlantic. My eyes still well up thinking about my unique experience 20+ years ago.


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