Feature Travel Archives

Tribute Meets the Challenge of the Panama Canal

By James Finley

Tuesday, May 13, 10:15 pm

The anticipation, combined with the heat, made it hard to fall asleep. I definitely wasn’t nervous. Anxious may even be overstating it, but a combination of nerves and excitement thinking of the next morning’s events made the previous two days of my adventure at sea in Panama seem like a blur.

There is something offsetting to arrive in a foreign country half awake in the middle of the night. When my sister and I arrived in Panama City at 1:10 am we were both a little out of it. I awoke hastily to complete customs forms and inadvertently messed up by filling out one family form -- for which you need to be husband and wife, not brother and sister.

After traversing customs I noticed the Panama airport was on a par with the finest in the world: LCD screens displaying arrivals and departures, customary horseshoe shaped baggage claim, even the airport bar, with unhappy servers, average food and inflated prices all had an air of familiarity. The scenic skyline of the city in the distance drew immediate comparison to Miami, perhaps only bigger. The roads to the hotel were fully paved, well lit, and clearly marked. We even stopped at a 24 hour grocery store to pick up late night snacks. While Panama is still a developing country, Panama City was unlike any Latin American city I had ever visited.

The hotel was pleasant, the Country Inn in the Balboa district, with central air conditioning. I am hopelessly American when it comes to my ever present desire for cold air and iced drinks. Throughout my travels one of my first stops when I get back to the States is the simple pleasure of a Seven Eleven soda fountain. The hotel is located canal-front with incredible views of the passing ships silhouetted against the lush green landscape, with the Bridge of the Americas cutting across the sky. The size and frequency of the ships is astounding, any hour of the day a floating strip mall cruises past, the global economy never in fuller view.

When we asked our cab driver for a good lunch spot in Old Town, he said Casablanca with no hesitation. Now I know why. We sat in the heart of Bolivar square, in the old town, mesmerized by the classical European architecture of the square, surrounded by a chapel, hotels, restaurants and wine bars. My mom swore she could be in Italy; we all agreed. I drank an Atlas, a Panamanian beer, and wouldn’t have cared if the food ever arrived. When it did I was surprised, impressed and happy -- I went with the waitress’s recommendation. The menu translated “shrimp with hot sauce”, however, what came out were four huge shrimp (heads still on -- a little gross, but I handled it -- in a sweet, delectable garlic sauce that finished with a spicy kick. My food was delicious, as were the chicken and beef skewers the others at the table ordered.

After lunch we walked through Old Town, seeing the presidential palace, national theater, and classic Victorian architecture next to facades of crumbling buildings. For the first time in Panama we saw glimpses of the poverty Latin America often displays, though we witnessed no begging in the streets, nor aggressive roadside vendors.

Returning to the hotel, we waited for the call that would define the trip; our approval to sail through the Panama Canal. The Panama Canal is the most scrutinized waterway in the world, the process of getting a time allotment to cross is exacting. The inspector visited our boat, a 58 ft. sloop. He measured bow to stern, port to starboard, and asked questions about every lever, switch and toilet seat.

Like most Panamanians we encountered, the inspector was very pleasant and helpful, but the Canal process is not a matter to be taken lightly. When we found out we were approved and assigned a time that worked out for all the traveling parties involved, I was relieved. My Mom was thrilled; her months of planning were actually going to work out. She literally jumped around for about 10 minutes shouting “We get to go!” It was Monday night and Tribute, our sailboat, was set to cross the canal at 7:30 am Wednesday morning.

Tuesday consisted of paying the necessary fees in accordance with the ACP (Panama Canal Authority), some relaxing by the pool and a trip to the Miraflores locks and museum. Built in 1914, the canal is an impressive feat of engineering, often dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World. To watch a ship rise 30 feet in 10 minutes is a sight to behold, I also got a preview of my future duties as a line handler.

Every vessel that goes through the canal must take an advisor to oversee the vessel through the canal. The captain still controls the boat, in our case my mom’s husband Neil, though the advisor gives all instructions and ultimately has the final say. To assist in the process, specifically of going through the locks, four line handlers are hired. The line handlers job is to take the ropes (lines) thrown onto the boat in the locks and successfully secure them to the boat, giving it stability as thousands of gallons of water flood the lock allowing the 30 ft. rise or drop. Typically line handlers are experienced, local men. In our case we had three experienced, local guys, and me. No wonder I couldn’t sleep.

Wednesday, May 14, 6:04 pm

The initial disappointment was severe; we were all under the opinion that we would make it through the canal early in the morning. Visions of hot water showers and a meal on terra firma, danced in our heads. Our day got off to an early start; Neil picked up our line handlers at the dock of Playita de Amador at 6:30 am. Our advisor arrived at the boat around 7:30, and all parties were pleased to hear we had been allotted a time of 9:00 am to cross the first set of locks, Miraflores.

The line handlers consisted of Junior, Luis, Tim, and me. Junior and Tim have a combined 50 years of experience working on the canal; Luis was in his first year of canal work though he has crossed the canal as a line handler at least 10 times. The advisor, Rudolfo, attended the US Merchant Marine Academy. He works full time on the canal as a tug boat operator, and on his days off works as an advisor. Only later would I come to realize how valuable Rudlofo’s knowledge of tug boats would be.

I was nervous approaching the first set of locks -- massive concrete structures that look like nautical prisons, especially once you are locked inside by a set of gates forty ft. high. Line handling is grunt work, not much mental prowess involved, though a good arm workout. A line is thrown down from the locks, tied to a line on the boat, and then pulled back up to the lock. The idea is to keep the line taught holding the boat steady as the water floods into the lock. The boat we shared the Miraflores lock with was massive, the Ocean Prelate, a British ship in transit from South Korea. The lock measures roughly 110 feet side to side, the Ocean Prelatemeasured 106. This ship was the size of my high school, thousands and thousands of pounds of grain shoved onto its steel hull, and I was holding a rope making sure Tribute and the Ocean Prelate didn’t high five. My nerves were warranted!

The first set of locks went well, a series of two raising us from Pacific sea level to the Miraflores Lake, and we entered the lake intent on passing the Ocean Prelate. We maintained the highest speed we could in the narrow lake, five knots, passing freighters, tankers, cargo ships and a Panamanian navy ship. We successfully got in front of the Prelate and got into the Pedro Miguel lock for a noon passage. The 200 foot lock was occupied with just us and a tugboat; we tied directly onto the tug on our port side. I didn’t even get to handle a line.

From the Pedro Miguel we crossed the narrowest part of the canal, the Culebra Cut. The Culebra Cut was the hardest section of the canal to build. It was here hundreds of men lost their lives during construction; setbacks were constant due to the steep grade of the surrounding land. Motoring through the cut, we reached a speed of over eight knots, a fine speed for a sailboat of our size. We were able to maintain this speed for sometime, continuing as we entered Gatun Lake. Gatun Lake was the largest man made lake ever built until 1936, and the panorama is astounding. My sister Bonnie said “maybe emerald or teal green, I have never seen water that color before.”

While the depth of the channel is at least 45 feet, we were never more than 50 yards from the jungle lined shore; trees, bushes, swamp grasses, flowers and the occasional floating log. Outside of the buoyed channel Rudolfo pointed out the arbors sin muerto, or the trees that wouldn’t die. Any venture out of the channel would cause disastrous results; the water between the shore and buoys was littered with the arbors sin muerto; trees rooted in the ground, peaking slightly above the water line. Contact with just one root could render Tribute inoperable.

We got into the Banana Channel, a narrow stretch through Gatun Lake where ships larger than 80 ft. cannot enter. At this point Neil wanted a break. He asked me to steer, and I happily obliged. Since we were under power, required throughout the canal regardless of sails, I knew I could handle it, though Banana Channel was the most challenging stretch of water I ever navigated. The course curved left and right, with a particularly hairy right turn, close to 60 degrees, that I was slow to react to. The boat sped ahead at 8.3 knots, and I was headed straight for an island if I didn’t hit the arbors sin muerto first. I kind of freaked out. Prior to this turn I had caressed the wheel and all turns had been smooth. This turn was jerky, the way people drive in video games with no consequences. Serendipitously, the course straightened out and I was able to regain control. We eased back to full speed ahead.

Approaching Gatun locks, we were surrounded by the normal cadre of massive boats; some at anchor while a few motored in neutral. Rudolfo commented that one large Dutch ship, the Belmark, had two tugboats next to it. As we entered the clearing of the anchorage, Rudolfo radioed the lock station, but the return transmission was inaudible. He tried again, same result. He said, “I have a bad feeling he was telling me we would not make passage until the morning.”

Rudolfo’s hearing was correct, as we motored closer to the locks Gatun station informed us there was one more Pacific crossing and there was no room for us. Sure enough, Rudolfo explained, the Belmark would cross with the two tugboats. If the Belmark had one tugboat we would cross as well; with two there was no room for Tribute.

That leaves me here, tied to a mooring point somewhere in the middle of the Panamanian jungle, some 20 miles from the Atlantic and 30 from the Pacific. Our location is beautiful, more lush green landscape with freshwater for swimming. I dove in the water heedless of my sister's warning screams of lurking crocodiles. The fears are real, both Rudlofo and my fellow line handlers confirmed they have seen los crocos in these waters. My swim was quick. Sitting on the boat we can hear the throaty screams of the howler monkeys, a cacophony of birds chirping, and the dull buzz of cicadas and crickets. Within sight of our mooring point are three freighters, surely (fingers crossed) one of which we will share a lock with tomorrow.

Panama has been exceptionally impressive, though there have been reminders of how little control we have and how the way of life is different here. My first reminder came Tuesday when I got into a cab. My mom and sister sat in the back or they might have made us get out. When the driver, Tony, started the van there was no key in the ignition, he simply grabbed an electrical box below the steering column and rubbed some wires together. I chose discretion rather than questioning; at best this was how Tony started his van, at worst, Tony was stealing this van. Those were questions for which I did not want the answers.

The lack of control was cemented today when Rudolfo said, “We are not going through today, tomorrow probably.” Our initial reaction was disappointment, and as Americans regimented to schedules, we were dumbfounded and slightly pissed off. Within a few minutes we realized things were beyond our control, best to enjoy it.

I am not sure who gets my bed tonight, since Junior, Luis, Tim and I are now all bunkmates. I also don’t know what the plan is after dinner, since it may be hard to fall asleep at 7:45 pm; the discussed options have been dvds, charades or cards. The hard part will be handling the language barrier. I do know I have been stuck worse places. Tonight, in this Panamanian jungle, I am listening to howler monkeys, and can watch the sun set against a backdrop of vibrant greenery glowing from the lights of the ocean liners. The disappointment is long gone, the night has been embraced, and I can’t wait to play charades with Junior. Sometimes giving up control is the best idea.

Thursday, May 15, 11:11 am

I have never been stranded on a dessert island -- though I did get lost at Wild World once as a kid – but I can understand the feeling of desperation that must set in. Last night when we were told we would not cross the Gatun locks we were assured of the first north bound passage, probably another early morning with our advisor arriving at 7 am. Advisors do not stay the night with the boat as line handlers do, and we bid farewell to Rudolfo yesterday. Before Rudolfo left the ACP radioed to let us know 7 am wasn’t happening, more likely 11 am. It is now 11:15 am and we were told we should have an advisor by 12:30 pm.

We watch every small motorboat in the harbor in hope of spotting our advisor. Just the thought of our advisor coming aboard and leading us to the Atlantic was a pleasant vision. At this point real plans are in jeopardy; my sister and I are on the red-eye out of Panama City and back to DC tonight at midnight. The drive back to Panama City is at least 90 minutes. Add to that the three hours still left to finish canal transversal and time is becoming precious. We are not yet at a crisis point, though I definitely predict some restless moments ahead.

While waiting we went for a refreshing swim, though it was quickly shut down by the ACP as they sternly told us not to return to the water (los crocos). In the meantime I sit and sweat on the deck. I am through with both Esquire and Vanity Fair; I have no choice but to return to the uber-serious text of Guns, Germs & Steel. I continue to watch each boat with the hopeful eyes of Gilligan escaping his island, minus the dopey hat or a perky Mary Anne to keep me company.

Thursday, May 15, 5:15 pm

We made it, we actually made it. My feelings are a cocktail of relief, exhaustion, excitement and wonder. After dropping off the line handlers at the Panama Yacht Club in Colon (imagine the roughest parts of Baltimore with palm trees), reality set in that I crossed the Panama Canal.

The descent to the Atlantic did not mirror the peaceful journey we took the day before, where a nice boat ride was briefly interrupted by a few locks. The Atlantic passage puts the smaller vessels in front of the large ones, and we shared all three Gatun locks with a US Navy cargo ship, the Cape Knox of Norfolk. Our new advisor, William, a dead ringer for Terrell Owens, explained we would enter the lock before the giant grey ship. Watching the Knox creep into the lock and approach our stern at a snails pace reminded me of a scene from Star Wars. Hans Solo and his Millenium Falcon are captured by Darth Vader; theFalcon is slowly brought into the Empire’s colossal starship. Now imagine Tribute as the Falcon only with no Jedi mind tricks to save us, just me holding a rope.

As the Knox moved closer, the currents in the lock stirred, becoming violent as the Knox drew ever closer. The water threw Tribute about, and my starboard stern line position took the brunt of the punishment. Perhaps a cruel twist of fate, perhaps intentional slight by my fellow line handlers, I later learned my position is generally regarded as the hardest line to handle on smaller vessels descending the canal. My lack of experience, nor particular strength, no doubt aided the turbulence.

The uproar in the locks only grew as we descended; Gatun Locks consists of three consecutive locks with the final opening into the Caribbean Sea. The lower the boats get the choppier the water, as the salt water of the Caribbean merges with the fresh of the locks. Both the second and third lock required me to use every pound on my 190 lb frame, leveraging my body to pull the line ever tighter as the boat dropped with the 30 feet of water. At times my body was almost parallel to the boat, pulling with just my arms, a distant memory of the Pacific locks. Junior once had to assist me, and for the third and final lock I used some science to my advantage and ran my rope through a wench.

By the time the gate opened on the final lock any euphoric feeling was absent, just relief and exhaustion. The exercise was slightly more than an hour; the physical toll was taxing, not to mention the fear of harming my family or Neil’s boat. Once Neil pushed the throttle to full speed, and we were back out on the open water, I realized the accomplishment and allowed some minor mental accolades. As William disembarked the ship (he actually just jumped onto another boat in the middle of the channel -- these dudes are crazy), he made a point to tell me how good I did, and that he would go through with me again. Perhaps it was lip service, but I’m buying it. Later my mom and Neil told me how proud they were, which was nice, though William’s words mean more.

We entered The Flats, where ships anchor as they approach from the Atlantic side and await southern passage through the canal, and I remembered my first encounter with the Grand Canyon. I’ll never forget how shocked I was at the magnitude and vastness of the Canyon, much as I will never forget the amount of and enormity of the ships waiting for southern passage. They were too many to count, huge ships in every direction on the horizon. Oil tankers from Yemen, car carriers from Korea, a rusted out cargo ship from Liberia; the huge ships ubiquitous, the nations of origin like a UN meeting.

The Caribbean water was a turquoise I had seen before and was happy to see again; the wind blew and the sun came through a few clouds. We had made it, I had done my part, and I will never forget it.