Panama City is a sight after months spent in small beach towns and villages. We are at the crossroads of the commercial world and it feels busy. In the anchorage there must be 50 large tankers and super tankers just waiting to transit and the VHF radio is a buzz with traffic. After crossing the Gulf of Panama with completely flat seas, we anchored in a small bay with another 30 other boats from around the world. Instead of just San Diego, Seattle and San Francisco boats we are now seeing German, South African and French flags to name a few. We are officially entering the world of circumnavigators and ocean crossing sailors and it is a little intimidating.
We have a couple of days of canal business to deal with; getting officially measured, paying the multiple fees, finding line tenders and getting tires to attach to the boat to use as large fenders. We have three locks to go through and we don't know the boat configuration in each lock. Will we be side tied, tied to a tug, tied to several other sailboats? We have to use a canal pilot and we have to have 4 line handlers in addition to a captain. On our last canal visit we were buddy boating with a power boat and they handled lines for us to get some experience before they went through the locks with their own boat. It worked out great! This time, we expect to use Zander and myself and we will either trade with another boating couple, and subsequently help them cross, or try to pick up some local travelers that are interested in a more intimate canal experience.
Today we visited the canal museum and viewing platform. We watched several large ships go through the Miraflores locks. It's an interesting process and while you are in the locks, you are so worried about your job of tending lines or steering, that you don't get a chance to really look around. The engineering is impressive today, a hundred years ago it must have been incredible. If you don't know your canal history the gist of it is, the French tried several times to create a canal bridging the continent and failed each time. It was expensive and located in an area of the world where many of the workers were succumbing to malaria and yellow fever. I don't know all the details, but Teddy Roosevelt made a deal with Panama to complete the canal and have the US keep control of a swath of land on either side of the canal. The US had the canal zone and a large army base that was all under US jurisdiction. In turn the Americans helped Panama gain independence from Colombia. More than 60 years after the canal opened, in 1977, Carter signed a treaty that would give the canal back to the locals in the year 1999. And so, Panama has operated and controlled the Panama Canal for the last 15 years. It just celebrated its 100 years of operation, meanwhile adjacent property is currently being excavated for canal expansion. Next door (give or take a small country) in Nicaragua a completely new canal is being contemplated by the Chinese. Apparently they will be breaking ground this year, and it will be completed in 5 years. People down here have their doubts that it will actually be completed, but it will be something to keep tabs on. I'm not sure if the increasing ship traffic will be able to sustain two large canal operations, but it will be interesting to see how it unfolds. Maybe with a little competition the $1000 price tag for small sailboats will be reduced. Actually it is a bargain going through the canal as a small boat considering they charge some of the big ships 100K to get through and having a few small sailboats rafted up together certainly doesn't bring in that kind of money. I'm sure we are nothing short of a pain in the butt to deal with. We often wish Carter inserted a little clause allowing American flagged boats to pass through free of charge!
The canal is about 50 miles long and contains three locks. From the west, two locks raise ships 75 feet to Gatun Lake. Once passed the locks, ships travel 40 miles or so through the flooded Gatun Lake area until they reach the third set of locks which lowers them back into the Atlantic. A lot of people wonder why there are locks at all, why not simply cut a waterway all the way through, connecting the two oceans. By flooding the lake, most of the transit is passive along a channel that just has to be dredged and only the areas near the locks themselves had to be cut out. As it stands, 200 million cubic meters of material were removed during construction, were this material to be placed on railroad flatcars, we are told it would circle the globe four times. The only hardship with the locks (other than maintenance ) is they use fresh water and gravity to raise and lower the water level. During drought years there is always concern that a lack of water will shut down the canal. The new canal, being built adjacent to the old one, will have a recirculating water system to save the water. Three new locks will be built new, but they will also deepen the existing channel through the lake and widening Culebra Cut on the Atlantic side.
Last time we were in this area I was sick as a dog and in Panama we found out Zander had joined us as a stowaway. Needless to say the little bit of the Caribbean I saw was only when I picked my head up from chumming over the side of the boat. I'm very much looking forward to a more comfortable trip through the Caribbean.