Dick Cooper - June 2012
Birthday Wish Comes True on the Panama Canal
After a few miscues, two speeding cab rides and some confusion at the dock, Pat and I are on the right bus heading into the heart of the rainforest to begin our long-planned boat ride through the Panama Canal. Our tour guide, Juan Carlos (“Same as the King of Spain, but you can call me J.C.”), is a big man in a big straw hat with a booming bass voice, and he begins his narration as soon as we roll out of the parking lot.
As we will find out, J.C. has an inexhaustible wealth of information about the canal packed in his brain and a strong willingness to share. The Amador Causeway that we are riding on is three kilometers long and connects the mainland with a cluster of small islands. It was built a century ago with the rock and rubble that was dug from the ground to make the Pacific section of the canal. The Causeway serves as a breakwater for the southern entrance to the canal and was the site of brief, but heavy fighting when the U.S. invaded Panama in 1989 and captured dictator Manuel Noriega.
The cemetery we just passed on the left, with its hundreds of white crosses covering a hillside, is a reminder of the failed attempt by the French to dig the canal in the late 1880s. “There are 100 bodies buried under each cross,” J.C. says. “Five hundred men died for every mile of the canal. The canal is 50 miles long.”
Throughout our week-long visit to Panama, we are constantly reminded of the long and often volatile history of this “Land between the Seas.” Ten months earlier, in the middle of winter with snow covering the lawn of our St. Michaels home, Pat asked me, “Where do you want to go for your 65th birthday?” Without hesitation, I answered, “The Panama Canal.”
I have always been fascinated by the canal. It is an engineering marvel that forever changed the world’s transportation and commerce. All of its dimensions are on the maximum side of massive. It took 10 years to build. Every day, a score of ships are lifted and lowered 85 feet through a series of locks to make the 10-hour transit between the Caribbean and the Pacific. The locks are 110 feet wide and 1,000 feet long. As many as 15,000 ships make the passage every year. More than 52 million gallons of fresh water are used to move each vessel through the locks. It employs 9,000 workers and generates more than $2 billion a year.
But the real reason I wanted to see the canal is that as a sailor, I have thought of it as the portal to the alluring cruising grounds of the South Seas. As a kid growing up in the Midwest, I was intrigued by the books and films of the late Captain Irving Johnson as he took young sailors on adventures aboard his sailing vessels. The very word “Panama” conjures up images of explorations and intrigue, pirates and treasure.
We searched the Internet and quickly found that Panama has a big and bustling tourist trade with a very large digital footprint. Hotels in Panama City range from the small boutique venues in the Old City to the “over-the-top” glass skyscrapers in the new downtown. Only one, the Country Inn and Suites, is actually on the canal. We found several non-stop flights from Dulles International to Panama City and were pleased to discover the trip is a little over four hours long. We booked the trip and then reserved a canal boat excursion run by the ubiquitous Gray Lines. Everything was done online. We printed out our vouchers and started watching the calendar as the days ticked off.
I tend to over-research topics. Pat says it is a reporter thing, but I want to know as much as possible in advance. I soon discovered that a visit to Panama offers far more than the canal. We booked tours of the ruins of Panama Viejo, the first capital that was intentionally burned by the Spanish almost 400 years ago to keep pirates from finding their treasure, and Casco Viejo, the colonial capital that is undergoing a renaissance. We planned a fishing trip for bass on Lake Gatun and another to the rainforest.
When departure day arrived in December, I was well immersed in Panama history and packed with factoids that could only benefit a Jeopardy contestant. But, as we learned from our guide, J.C., I had only scratched the surface.
A light rain is falling when we board the large double-decker boat tied up at the docks in Gamboa, the village built in the middle of the Panamanian rainforest by the Americans to be the maintenance hub of the canal. J.C., talking into a microphone that will be firmly held in his hand for the next several hours, points out the huge floating crane that looms in the mist behind us like a T. Rex coming out of the jungle. “That is Herman the German,” he says. “It was built by Hitler to build bridges across European rivers in World War II. The Americans took it as a war prize.” Herman was only the first of the amazing and incomprehensibly large pieces of machinery we were to see on our passage.
The boat slips away from the dock into the chocolate-milk-brown waters of the canal. Tugs of all shapes and sizes ply the water. The local news has been full of stories about the return of Noriega, who is being transferred from a French prison to spend the rest of his life in a Panamanian cell. J.C. calls our attention to a compound of low buildings on the eastern banks. “That is the prison where Manuel Noriega will be staying. Not a bad water view.”
J.C. tells us that the French, fresh from the success of building the Suez Canal, came to Panama with the intent of building a sea-level passage with no locks. That idea failed for several reasons, one of the biggest being the spine of mountains that runs from Alaska to Chile. When the Americans took over in 1904, they dammed the mouth of the Charges River on the Caribbean side of the country, flooded the river valley deep into the forest to form Lake Gatun and started to dig when they hit the mountain range between the river and the Pacific.
Our tour boat can hold several hundred passengers, but we feel dwarfed by the passing cargo ships with containers stacked high on their decks. As we approach the deepest cut in the range, the famed Culebra Cut, we are in awe of this feat of engineering and brute force. A mountain of rock had to be blasted through and hauled away. The sides of the cut are terraced back from the canal, a design that was needed to keep the walls from falling into the canal. This is the narrowest section of the canal, and ship traffic is limited to one way at a time. J.C. explains that two ships cannot negotiate the curve at the same time.
As we pass under the Centennial Bridge, J.C. announces that it is good luck to kiss your loved one under the bridge, so we do. Approaching the Pedro Miguel Locks, the first set of locks on the south end of the canal, we see monster earthmoving equipment everywhere. A “new” Panama Canal is being dug alongside the old canal. The new canal is on schedule to open in 2014, to mark the centennial of the first ship’s passage in 1914.
The size of the ships that will be able to make the transit is staggering. The locks are going to be 1,600 feet long and 180 feet wide and will be able to carry three times more cargo than the current ships. The entire construction is being paid for by the fees that ship owners pay to transit the canal, which can run as high as $330,000 one-way for a cruise ship.
“We are told that the new canal will be open on time,” J.C. says. “The contractors will get a $1 million-a-day bonus if they are ahead of schedule and must pay $1 million-a-day if they are late.”
Our captain, a handsome young Panamanian, makes entering the locks look easy. Deckhands pass hawsers as thick as a man’s arm to waiting canal workers. The great gates close and we slowly, almost imperceptibly, start our decent.
“There are no pumps on the Panama Canal,” J.C. says. “Gravity fills and drains the locks on both sides. The water comes from Lake Gatun, which is in a rainforest, so it is constantly being refilled. I had a group of tourists from the Persian Gulf who were shocked at how much fresh water we use in the canal. I told them if they want to trade oil for water, we could make a deal.”
At the Miraflores Locks, the last two locks leading to the Pacific, our captain has to wait his turn as a grain ship is raised from the ocean on its way north. Rain squalls come in, and visibility drops to almost zero. Then the sun breaks through and the temperature rises sharply.
Pat and I climb the ladder to the wing bridge of the boat to get a better view. From our perch we watch the captain steer the vessel into the locks. He motions for us to come into the wheelhouse. Below us, the deckhands and canal workers are repeating their line passing routine. Frigate birds and pelicans glide low over the massive gates as we start our decent. J.C. tells us that the birds are waiting for the fresh water fish to founder when they hit the salt water on the other side of the gates.
The canal pilot, a weathered man in his 50s, is sitting on a chair quietly watching the process. “How many passages have you made?” I ask. “About 3,500,” he says nonchalantly.
As we reach the bottom of the lock, the captain turns to me. “Here,” he points to a shiny button on the console. “You push.” I am not sure what I am doing and tentatively press the button. The ship’s fog horn makes a short burp. “Harder,” he says. I follow orders and hit the button again. This time, the horn lets out a loud blast. As if by magic, the gates open to my command. All the planning and preparation were well worth the effort. I had my birthday present, and as I write this, I can’t stop grinning at the memory.
Dick Cooper is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. He and his wife, Pat, live and sail in St. Michaels, Maryland. He can be reached at email@example.com.