The Panama Canal

We arrived off the coast of Colon, the Caribbean entrance to the canal, at night. All around us were giant container ships. Our radar looked like a black and red leopard with spots indicating ships in every direction. Most of the ships were anchored, asleep for the night, waiting for their turn in the canal. But a few were moving, just finishing their transit from the Pacific to the Caribbean. We wove our way through the ships carefully and kept our eyes peeled for our channel into the outer walls of the canal. There we’d find our marina and wait. To our surprise a whole string of green markers were unlit — we expected better from the canal — but we evaded them nonetheless and made our way toward Shelter Bay Marina. We dropped anchor just outside and waited till our slip was available in the morning. Shelter Bay Marina was an interesting place, it was situated across the canal from Colon in the middle of a large nature reserve We were advised not to leave unsupervised due to the dangers of Colon. Every person there was there for one reason, to transit the canal, and we all had to wait our turn. The result was a bunch of sailors with nowhere to go, waiting around. There was a pool and a restaurant and that was about it. There was a tension in the air that you might feel just before the outbreak of a riot or a party. Not necessarily a bad tension, but tension nonetheless. Everyone was anticipating, no one was in control. It made a nice breeding ground for relationship building, almost like a freshman college dorm. We were all in the same place and weren’t cool enough to know what to do next, so we just hung out. Matthew and Nielson had left at this point and we had a wealth of Mahi that we could never eat alone (we had a very successful sail across the Caribbean as far as fishing was concerned). We took all of the remaining fish up to the communal pavilion and had a good old fashioned grill out. We made tropical drinks with all the fruit we still had from Colombia that was threatening to go bad and we invited anyone who walked by. We had a great time, a Jamaican couple showed up with more fruit and a DJ setup, another family showed up and brought chips and salsa, and a boat full of Swedes joined late – great guys that we’ve hung out with multiple times since that evening. It was the perfect last night in Shelter Bay, one that has colored my memories of the place with a fond hue. The next day we got our call.

Our transit time was originally set at 5:30. We went to the grocery store in Colon first thing that morning. We needed food for ourselves and had some very specific instructions on what our line handlers and transit advisers would like to have on the boat while we passed through the canal. Every boat of our size gets a transit adviser who guides you through the canal and acts as an ambassador, dishing out facts left and right. You are asked to have five people aboard to help handle lines, a requirement we came up short on. To fill the gap we hired two line handlers, young guys in their early twenties from Panama. We were informed that we’d need to have three hot meals for our help — one dinner, one breakfast, and one lunch. We also would have these guests aboard overnight, no one gets on or off once the ride starts. The most foreign request was for Coca-Cola, a product I do not support or enjoy, but so it was that we left the grocery store in Colon with the first bottle of Coke I’ve bought in more years than I can remember. In the end, the crew we had aboard were the most helpful, friendliest, and competent crew we could’ve hoped for. I would’ve bought them anything they wanted. We got back to the boat and settled in for a wait. A few hours in we learned that our transit got pushed back an hour, more waiting. The day dragged on as anticipation built to leave the Caribbean, but eventually 6:30 stumbled in the door, just in time for our appointment. Our line handlers showed up with extra large fenders and lines specifically for canal transit and we were underway minutes later. As we approached the flats out front of the first lock gates a pilot boat pulled alongside and dropped off our transit adviser, Jaime. He hopped aboard and gave us the rundown, we’d be rafting up to one side of a catamaran and another monohull would be on the other side. Once rafted the catamaran would be our engine and we would manage lines on our side of the lock. We really lucked out with Jaime, he was a walking encyclopedia of the Panama Canal and had quite literally written the book on the subject, two in fact! He regaled us with facts about the construction, the operation, and history of the canal. He told us that 52 million gallons of fresh water are released with each transit; he explained how all the locks are gravity filled and the doors are operated with hydroelectricity provided by the dam that created the lake, a nearly self sustaining system; he even told us about the only known planned attack on the canal, a wild plot involving Japanese submarines that could launch planes. The canal had seemed like it would be somewhat of a challenge, but the reality of the first day was that we got an incredible tour of the canal while our awesome line handlers Mariano and Gabriel handled the work with ease. Our late transit start meant that we would be staying the night in Gatun Lake just past the last of the Gatun Locks. We arrived at our resting place just before midnight and a pilot boat came to take Jaime, we’d have a new adviser the next day. There are two incredibly large moorings that boats pull aside and tie off to in the lake. As we pulled up we saw our Swedish friends and their boat Cheetah tied off to our home for the night. It was a welcome surprise, we had a beer together, ate dinner, and shared our experiences.

The next morning our new adviser arrived around 9 am and we set off to finish the canal. We had tied up as soon as we entered Gatun Lake which meant we had a lot of ground to cover before we reached the Miraflores Locks. Turns out that wasn’t an issue because the lake was surprisingly beautiful. It was man-made and huge, the largest in the world when it was created and now somewhere near 40th in rank. It may have been the fact that it was man-made that caused me to underestimate its beauty, or the locks and their engineering just soaked up my attention, but I hadn’t thought twice about Gatun Lake. That was an oversight. The old mountain-tops-turned-islands by the flooding of the valley poked out of the water in every direction, adorned with lush Panamanian jungle and the occasional meadow. Guayaca trees were in bloom, splashes of radiant yellow spotting the canopy and giant Panama Trees towering over all of it with their smooth and robust trunks. Our new transit adviser Jorge was quiet, polite, and professional. He was a pilot in training and will eventually be driving the massive boats through the canal, a very lucrative job. Part of the training for that esteemed position was two years as a transit adviser. He knew everything you could imagine about the types of ships that were coming through and the rules of the road in the canal. He was also well versed in other areas and opened up slowly as we made our way to the Pacific. As the water was draining in the last lock we found ourselves talking about collective human consciousness, dissolution of the ego, and global environmental solutions. The doors opened into the Pacific and that marked the end of our transit. The entire passage felt more like a utilitarian museum than anything else, our boat crossed the isthmus of Panama and we got an education. Its hard to wrap your head around the fact that a little over a hundred years ago it would’ve taken us closer to two months than two days, to arrive at the same location. It must’ve felt like time travel for those first few boats to float the canal, hopping oceans in no time. That’s the feeling I try to conjure when I look back at the canal.

We’re now in Panama City and all eyes are on the Pacific. This is the passage that has always held the most mystery and gravity. A month at sea, what does that do to a person? What does it feel like to be 15 days from land in any direction? What do the stars look like out there? All of these questions have been floating around my brain since we first pulled that vis-a-vis marker across the map in our kitchen, from Panama to the Marquesas. Strange that we find ourselves so early in our journey and yet we’re undertaking our longest time at sea. When we see the peaks of the Marquesas appear in the mist on the horizon what will that feel like? I can’t wait to share that with you here.


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