Panama Canal

John & Susan Simpson
Mon 20 Mar 2023 20:34
The name ‘Panama’ tends to be associated with two things, the hat and the canal.  The story of the hat goes that US President Roosevelt visited Panama and was presented with a hat as a gift.  The hat was actually made in Ecuador but when it was handed over the person presenting it, having only a little English, said ‘Panama, hot’ and this was misheard.  Another version of the story says that the President Roosevelt was asked about the hat by a journalist on his return to the USA and he referred to it as his Panama hat.  

The Panama Canal is real milestone in our journey, marking as it does, our transition from the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea into the Pacific.  The sliver of land that is Panama has been politically and economically important for hundreds of years.  The first European explorer to realise that there was another ocean beyond the Caribbean coast of Panama was Vasco Nunez de Balboa in 1513.  By 1519 the town of Panama had been founded where Panama City now stands and from there Spanish expeditions left to conquer Peru and bring back treasures of gold and silver to Europe.  From Panama City we were taken to see a stretch of cobbled road in the rainforest which is one of the remaining stretches of the 16th century gold route from Peru to Spain.  
Remains of the Spanish gold road - building this through the jungle in such fierce heat and humidity must have taken a huge amount of effort

The cargo of precious metals was loaded onto mules on the Pacific side of the Isthmus of Panama and transported along this cobbled road to the Chagres River half way across the strip of land.  From there it could be loaded onto boats heading either to Portobelo or to Colon on the Caribbean side.  Not surprisingly the route across Panama became a magnet for highwaymen and pirates.  Henry Morgan is probably the most famous of these, a Welsh privateer whose force of 1200 men followed the gold road across from the Caribbean to attack and destroy Panama town in 1671.  Building a water-only route across the Isthmus of Panama was seen as a way of combatting the security threat but although the Spanish surveyed the area for the possibility of building a canal as early as the 1500’s, it wasn’t until 1880 that French engineers began the task.  Unfortunately that project failed due to a lack of understanding about mosquito-borne disease but the USA took up the project in 1904, by which time there was sufficient knowledge to manage the insects and associated diseases.  The Panama Canal was opened in 1914 and managed by the USA until 1999 when control was handed to the Republic of Panama.  Whilst the USA managed the canal a strip of land 10 miles wide across Panama became US territory and the country is heavily influenced by the US as a result.  English is more widely spoken here than in Colombia and the currency is the US dollar (officially the currency is Balboa but it is pegged to equal the US dollar and therefore rarely used).

The Panama Canal is 51 miles long and uses three sets of locks to raise ships 85 feet above sea level and down again.  Ordinarily small vessels like ours have to wait until there is a group of similar sized boats wanting to transit the canal in the same direction and they go through as a group occupying the locks with a larger ship.  Each transit through the Canal uses 52 million gallons of water so the Canal authorities are not keen to use the water on pleasure craft alone.  We came to realise how dependent Panama is on rainforest and rainfall when we visited the village of an indigenous tribe, the Embera, which involved a dug out canoe ride up the Chagres River.  The water levels were so low that at times the tribesmen driving the boat had to get out and pull us over shallow patches.  We were told that in the dry season water is diverted from a lake fed by the Chagres River to the Canal to keep it running.  Fortunately it rains for 8 months of the year in Panama and they have taken steps to maintain the rainforest to keep it that way.  Because we are part of the World ARC Pacific Rally we were given permission for special lockage, i.e. the locks contained only small boats but rafted up so as to fit as many in at a time as possible.  We went through in two Transits a couple of days apart, with nests of boats rafted three across at a time.

Here we are looking towards the Gatun Locks with three nests of boats ahead of us waiting to enter. We were in the fourth nest of five.

Casamara is on the right hand side of this raft in the Gatun Lock.  John is at the helm and I am the line-handler on Casamara’s bow.

Each boat carried six people: four line-handlers (one on each corner); the skipper at the helm; and a canal adviser whose role is to make sure the Transit goes smoothly and safely.  As we entered each lock a line attached to a ‘monkey’s fist’ - a ball of rope about the size of a cricket ball - was thrown to the line-handlers on the outer edges of the raft.  We then had to attach this line to our ropes so that the person on land could haul our ropes ashore to attach us to the bollards on the lock walls.  It was then up to us to keep the raft safely in the centre of the lock as the water rose and fell.  This was no mean feat with the combined of the boats in our raft being about 80 tons! 

The Canal is principally a huge lake called the Gatun Lake and we spent the night rafted with other boats to mooring buoys.  Our adviser joined us again the next morning to continue the Transit through the Gatun Lake to the locks on the Pacific side.  For this section we had separated the rafts of yachts and continued as a long convoy, keeping to the order in which we would later need to raft again for the next locks.  The Gatun Lake was a beautiful stretch of water which would make an excellent pleasure cruising ground with lots of secluded anchorages were it not for the astonishing volume of shipping using the Canal.  A constant stream of ships of all shapes and sizes flows constantly in both directions so the Gatun Lake remains out of bounds for pleasure craft not transiting the Canal.  The giant Panamax container ships, constructed specially to fit exactly into the new, larger locks, have little room for manoeuvre and dwarfed us as they went by so we could understand the safety issues.

A Panamax ship approaching from astern alongside the tail end of our convoy

It took the best part of the day to complete the journey through the Canal.  There’s a bottleneck called the Culebra Cut where the Canal narrows so that the large ships have to pass through one at a time and the Canal authorities manage the flow of traffic at that point.  We spent most of the day with our engines at idling speed, creeping along at under 5 knots, timing our arrival at the Culebra Cut where suddenly it was 'go, go, go’ at top speed to get us all through before the next monster ship approached!

By the time we reached the final sets of locks, Pedro Miguel and Miraflores, we were starting to feel like old hands as we rafted up into our three-boat nests again and caught the monkey’s fists thrown down to us.  All of the locks on the Canal have webcams and we loved being in WhatsApp contact with family at home as they spotted us on the webcam footage.  There was even a viewing gallery for the public at Miraflores with a crowd of tourists enjoying the spectacle.  We emerged into the Pacific Ocean and under the Bridge of the Americas to reach La Playita Marina in Panama City just as the sun was setting.  We did it - we’re in the Pacific!

Bridge of the Americas, the gateway to the Pacific Ocean from the Panama Canal

Panama City