Features May 1, 1999 Issue

Offshore Log: Across the Isthmus

After waiting at the Panama Canal Yacht Club for parts from the States, Calypso transits the canal to the Pacific Ocean, barely averting disaster.

In early February, the last gate at Miraflores Locks opened to complete Calypso’s transit of the Panama Canal. We were in the Pacific at last.

Actually, we were in the mud flats of Balboa. Somehow, I had expected the broad blue ocean to spread before us, rather than miles of exposed mud and crumbling port buildings. We passed under the Bridge of the Americas, the unofficial transition from canal to ocean and the sole land link between North and South America. Geography is compressed in Panama: the Atlantic and Caribbean are separated by 50 miles of canal, North and South America by a half-mile bridge.

Time, too, seems compressed here. The Canal Zone is now just another part of Panama. Fences come down, checkpoints have vanished. In Balboa and elsewhere in the old zone, bulldozers level old military quarters. Grandiose Panamanian development schemes render the quaint tropical buildings, occupied for more than 80 years by American military and canal personnel, nothing more than uncomfortable reminders of the colonial past.

As the canal completes its transition to complete Panamanian ownership and operation this year, the gringos are leaving town. The US military presence has virtually disappeared. Civilian American canal personnel are retiring by the score.

Though this was my first trip to Panama, I felt strangely at home. As an Army Air Force officer, my father had spent most of World War II stationed at Albrook field, little more than a stone’s throw from our mooring off the Balboa Yacht Club. We are surrounded by places that meant much to him in those years, and their names are as familiar as my own: Balboa Heights, Amador, Ancon, Albrook. We are here just in time to see the last of much of it, and I grieve for my father’s lost Illium as much as I grieve for the loss of my father almost a decade ago.

Like the ancient mariner, I tell every taxi driver my story: How my father fell in love with Panama, how at the end of the war he wanted to leave the Army and live here, how my mother refused to move from the US to a foreign country. He returned home, and I was born just a year later. But for my mother’s intransigence, I, too, would have been born Panamanian. Instead, I was raised on stories of my father’s years in Panama. His speech, peppered with slightly garbled Spanish phrases, inspired my love of the Spanish language. His stories, my love of Hispanic culture. For years I studied Spanish, never knowing when, or how, I would use it.

Since we have been here I dream in Spanish, think in it, sing songs in it. The 30 years since last I spoke the language on a daily basis vanish, though there are sometimes huge gaps where there should be words and my tongue stumbles as the words pour out. I am like an out-of-practice pianist, who must turn off his brain to let his hands speak. I must shut down the mechanism that translates from Spanish to English, and open the direct conduit to ancient memory.

The taxi drivers give me a high five and call me their brother. Few gringo cruisers speak their language, still fewer know anything of Panama’s history and culture. Yet in a few days we leave here for the Galapagos, the last outpost of Spanish language for us. Then it’s back to French, which will not be remembered so easily.

The Reversion
At the end of this year the Panama Canal will be turned over to Panama. Most Panamanians we talk to are uneasy, proud to be the sole proprietors yet concerned about their government’s ability to run the canal efficiently. There is a history of graft and corruption in Panama that does not bode well for the canal. Vast sums of cash flow through, and the fear is that much of it will stick to the wrong hands.

The gringos have provided an air of stability and comfort that many Panamanians will miss.

We already see signs of trouble. Many more senior canal employees—Panamanian and gringo alike—were offered early retirement to reduce operating costs. Many have taken the offer. With the canal scheduled to become self-supporting, an outside consulting firm is slashing expenses right and left.

The cost of transit for a small boat like ours is likely to skyrocket. We are told that it costs the canal about $1,500 to provide transit for a 40’ sailboat. We pay $500—US cash only—plus a $125 “buffer” that supposedly will be returned to us in the mail. English is the official language of canal operations, but on our transit, the pilot-advisors speak only in Spanish to each other, and to the lock personnel.

We have the distinct feeling that we are among the last small boats that will pass through at a rational cost.

The Transit
We transit the canal in a dedicated lock-through of 18 sailboats, rafted in threes. This is done to clear the jam-up at the Atlantic side caused by round-the-world rallies. It is different from the normal transit, where a small boat is locked through with a ship.

At dawn, our “G” flag goes up: “We need a pilot.” A few minutes later he is aboard. The “G” comes down, the “H”, “pilot aboard,” whips up in its place. We are the only sailboat using flag signals, but I am determined to do things by the book, even if we are only 40’ long. Like celestial navigation, flag signals are ancient history, the communication of last resort. I love it.

Our advisor is an intense young Panamanian, only two years into the 12 years of training that will make him a canal pilot capable of handling the big ships. He takes charge immediately. “Raise the anchor, Captain,” despite the fact that it is three hours before we are scheduled to enter the locks. His English extends only to direct commands: “ahead slow, right full rudder, stop the engine, astern slowly, more engine.” It turns out that we are the smallest boat he has ever taken through, and we sense a certain amount of disdain. It may just be insecurity, as he is surely one of the most junior advisors now working.

Our volunteer line handlers are John and Barbara Hamm, Practical Sailor readers from Florida beginning their own circumnavigation with four children aboard a Tayana 52. They are making the transit for practice before taking their own boat through. For two hours, we hold a position in 20 knots of breeze and a heavy chop, awaiting the other boats, whose advisors have had the sense to wait to leave the anchorage until the time is right.

The raft-up is my worst nightmare. Perhaps to repay me for years of diatribe against French cruisers in general, and French multihull sailors more specifically, we are to raft to a large French-Canadian catamaran for our passage through the locks.

The raft-up goes poorly. With a resounding crash, the multihull comes alongside at almost 5 knots. Our oval stainless steel rubbing strake is flattened by the impact, and I fear shattered wood and fiberglass. The skipper shrugs, I seethe. His crew attempts to place a fenderboard between us, with wood and steel against our fiberglass topsides and varnished teak rail. I go berserk, and even our pilot yells at him.

Eventually, we enter the first lock, with the wind still howling. The three boats in our raftup weigh a total of almost 50 tons. Our 3/4” mooring lines strain ominously, shrinking to little more than half their diameter.

In the raft behind us, a loaded line parts with a sound like a rifle, scattering the line handlers ashore. With much shouting, the raft careens out of control, crashing into the rough canal wall before another line can be passed. My heart grows faint.

Leaving the lock, with the catamaran’s twin engines providing propulsion and steering, its driver loses control in the strong crosswinds. We are going to hit the wall at 5 knots. God is paying me back.

Time slows down. I consider: Will I put the boat on a ship back to the US to make repairs, or will I try to find a ship bound for New Zealand that will take pity on us? Our trip under sail seems over.

At the last second, our pilot screams at the French skipper and his advisor, who come awake with a start. I put our engine full ahead, the rudder hard over. We miss the wall by inches, and I can see in astonishing detail the rough concrete aggregate.

Locking Through
After our crunch and close call, things get better. After the first lock, people aboard know their jobs and handle the lines properly. The raft separates with relief, to be re-formed the next day at Pedro Miguel.

Almost all small boats make the transit in two days, anchoring overnight in freshwater at Gamboa, just before the cut that for most people defines the Panama Canal. Our advisor will not relinquish control until the last minute. Incredulous at his orders, we drop the anchor while moving cross-wind at 3 knots. He is taken off, and we slyly re-anchor more safely.

The next day we enter Gaillard Cut, the narrow path across Panama’s continental divide. Even today, dredges work constantly here, and the faces of Gold Hill and Contractor’s Hill are alive with earth-moving machinery, terracing back the crumbling hills to widen the channel and reduce the constant threat of earth slides that could choke the canal. After almost 100 years, the Panama Canal is still a work in progress.

At Gaillard Cut, we come face-to-face with a container ship— 106’ wide, 965’ long, almost 40’ of draft. A Panamax-size ship like this has only 2 feet to spare on either side while in the locks.

The ship is huge, passing by so closely we feel we can touch it. We look aft to the cut and time stands still. Like an ancient photograph, the big ship edges past the raw cut at Gaillard.

But for the modern ship, it could be 1915.

On to the Pacific
Our advisor boards the pilot boat with little comment, but smiles shyly after the final lock. We are on our own again.

If you have never given over the complete control of your boat to a person you do not know you have never experienced a feeling of complete helplessness. At the end of the day, our advisor was quietly competent at his job, but it is good to be back in charge.

Before heading off for the Galapagos, we are to spend a few days on the Pacific side, completing fuel and provisioning, servicing the engine, getting ready for sea once more.

At Balboa, Senior Panama Canal Pilot and Unlimited Master Captain Nat Gladding and his wife Glynda take us under their protection. A long-time Practical Sailor reader and one of the most senior canal pilots, he will retire in a few weeks after 25 years, having guided more than 3,000 ships through the canal. Captain Nat is a big, quiet man born in Bristol, Rhode Island, a graduate of Maine Maritime Academy.

He radiates competence and knowledge, and is the type of pilot that will be sorely missed, being one of the few who is licensed to transit with the largest ships. He and Glynda will sail their Shannon 38—the Glynda G—back to the US this spring, leaving Panama for good. They take us to dinner, help us with our laundry, show us the sights of town.

Balboa Yacht Club
If the Panama Canal Yacht Club in Cristobal seems run-down, the Balboa Yacht Club looks like a bombed-out shell. The huge wooden building is sagging, the upper floors completely abandoned. Only the bar and office on the lowest level remain functional. The building will come down soon, part of Panama’s never-ending struggle to re-invent itself.

But the club rents transient moorings—there is no real anchorage here—so we can finish our tasks. The worklist is short compared to our other stops: install the mini-M satellite telephone, service the engine, clean the boat and re-stow for sea.

We get packages from the US, including some new running rigging for our expected long downwind passages across the Pacific and new SeaLand Odor-Safe discharge hose for the head. The engine gets a Speedseal raw water pump cover, reviewed in the January, 1997 issue of Practical Sailor. One emergency change of the impeller with the original cover in place convinces me of the importance of the Speedseal.

By February 12, Calypso is virtually ready for sea again. By Valentine’s Day, we’re en route to the Galapagos, with over 4,500 miles of ocean to cross in the next 45 days.

It’s a long, long way to Tahiti.

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