A short history before I start transiting the canal……….
A Quick History Lesson On The Canal
Building a canal that stretches 124 kms from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean is not a modern idea. It was first considered in 1500’s when the Spanish King, Charles The First commissioned a survey be carried out, but he decided it was an impossible task at that time.
In 1881 a French company lead by F de Lesseps (Suez Canal developer) and Gustave Eiffel (Tower fame) started work on the Canal. After spending $240 million dollars, the project was bankrupt and abandoned. Both men and other executives were thrown in prison for their failure, the French government, later pardoned them. Bloody Hell tough job.
In 1902 a US/Panama alliance was born when the US purchased the French assets in the canal zone for the bargain price of $40 million. After this the Colombian government rejected a proposed treaty over the right to build the canal, the US government then threw its military weight behind the Panamanian independence movement. Having such power behind it the independence movement became the new country of Panama. In 1903 the US and the new Panama government signed a contract for America to have the rights over the canal zone.
The Americans originally wished to build the canal in Nicaragua, but Frenchman Philippe-Jean convinced US senators that this was unsafe, he sent postcards with volcanic images from Nicaragua. Smart guy, I wonder if there is a monument to Philippe in Panama.
The new Canal project started in 1904. Due to technological advancement in building techniques, and knowing that previously, mosquitoes killed thousands of workers also forgoing a sea level canal, to a lock system, the project to build the canal was successful. The Panama Canal officially opened August 15th 1914 at a cost of more than $350 million. Of the 56,000 workers employed during the American build roughly 5,600 workers lost their lives.
Miss Catana Crossing The Panama Canal
Miss Catana and Crew were about to travel through one of the great modern engineering feats in the world. In my head, as we moved towards the locks it felt like I was watching a scene in a movie and I had front row seats from our boat.
If crossing the Panama Canal was my movie, I already knew it would be grand. Prior to departure, I knew I badly wanted to see it, I just didn’t want to see it first as a line handler. I didn’t want to spoil the surprise by knowing any of the story, or how I may or may not feel whilst transiting the Canal. I wanted the full force of the experience on the bows of Miss Catana. Hence the first time travelling the canal we had no preconceived ideas.
10 Panama Canal Facts I Didn’t Know Until Now
Canal Surprise # 1 – The Locks are huge, the engineering a masterpiece and the Panamanians are proud and rightly so. I knew I would be impressed, I just didn’t realise I would be SO impressed. The locks are 116 years old you would never know. The Canal authorities spend over 100 million dollars a year just maintaining the canal and surrounding water. Going through was effortless and streamlined.
Canal Surprise # 2 - It is not as expensive to cross as you first think unless you are a huge ship. Our fee to go through including all agent and linesman fees was $1500 US, $100 each for personal line handlers. The average toll for a large ship is $300,000. A large fully laden container ship or big passenger ship can pay up to $450,000. Fees are based on weight. A full container is charged $85 per unit, whereas an empty container is charged $75.
Once you have been charged for the containers you keep on paying. Up to $15,000 for the tugboats. One boat can use up to eight of these crossing over the 6 locks. Electronic mules $4000, and wires used on the side of the locks $4000. Up to $6000 for the pilot and other handlers. The electronic mules are machines that do the work of line handlers. Yep I think our fee was more than reasonable.
On our boat we had two professional linesmen, one canal advisor/pilot and an American, Dan, who was our crew while we crossed the canal. To transit the canal you must have a linesman for each corner of the boat 4 in total, the captain at the helm and the canal pilot. If you don’t have this minimum number on board you don’t transit.
Canal Surprise #3 – The only day the canal hasn’t operated in 102 years of operation was when the Americans decided to invade Panama and they had snipers that shot at the pilots. On the day, the pilots decided that to die on the job wasn’t such a good idea. As our agent told us this fact, you could tell he was a little pissed off. As he saw it, the American invasion was not as legitimate as the Americans would have you believe. It was a case of protecting their own self-interest, that was to control the canal. For ten years prior, the Panamanian President Noriega, was a loyal, well paid servant of the States, and a military dictator at the same time. However when his obedience appeared to falter, the USA decided to take matters into their own hands charging him of drug crimes among other things. America invaded Panama on 20th December 1989 and it was all over by the 31st January 1990.
I don’t know the full story I am only going on what I have been told while I am here in Panama and that is the interesting bit for me. On 31st of December 1999 the Panamanian people regained control of the Canal when the Clinton Government voted to hand back control. It is obvious that the people, the workers, and the government take enormous pride in the fact that they operate and run the Canal.
Canal Surprise # 4 - How long crossing from one side of the Canal to the other. Crossing the six locks, three at the start and three at the end is only part of the total process. We left Shelter Bay at 12pm on Saturday and arrived ready to drop anchor at 8.30pm on Sunday night, this included an anchor overnight. Yes, there is much waiting around for “your turn” and waiting is part of the process but it still takes a full two days commitment to go through. Large ships do the transit on average between 8 to 10 hours.
Canal Surprise # 5 - By going via the Canal we save ourselves 8000 nautical miles give or take a mile or two. Yep going through the Canal was worth it.
Canal Surprise # 6 - There is a new Canal due to open this year and it sits beside the existing Panama Canal. Work began in 2007, and opening is now a few months behind schedule. The new canal will accommodate the modern mega ships. Currently the largest ships in the canal are called Panamax ships, built to fit the locks dimensions of 110 feet wide and 1000 feet long. The new canal will be able to handle ships nearly three times this size – 20 feet wide 14,000 feet long. Already the new canal does not accommodate the world’s largest container ships.
Canal Surprise # 7 - In 1881, when the French were trying to build the Canal, 25,000 workers died on the job. Shocking safety record by anyone’s standard. The humble mosquito, dirt and the most hostile of working conditions were to blame. Add this to the Americans tally and I think building the Canal was a bad place to have a job
Canal surprise # 8 - Between 13,000 and 14,000 ships go through the canal each year. An average of 40 to 50 per day with the Canal operating 24/7/365 days a year. As we sit on the western side of America’s Panama Canal, the huge amount of ships travelling through the Canal is ever constant.
Canal Surprise # 9 – The Chinese have recently signed a contract with the Nicaraguan Government to build a 50 billion second Canal. Talking with locals and our two pilots over two days, all thought this was a horrible outcome for Panama if it ever takes off.
Will it take off?
There seems to be many views on whether the new canal is a done deal. Firstly, most in the know say the new Canal is not needed, the locals don’t want it, it will destroy Central America’s largest freshwater lake, Lake Nicaragua by dredging it. Then the conspiracy theory that China is just shaking its fist somewhat at the Americans by moving in on the local territory. I don’t know any of the answers, I had never heard of the Chinese Nicaragua canal until we went through the Panama Canal, but it is now a great matter of interest, I will certainly be interested to hear what eventuates.
Canal Surprise # 10 – Lake Gatun in the center of the Panama crossing, caught me by surprise, plus it nearly caught us a fine. When the Captain announced he was taking an early morning swim inviting me to join him I declined. I knew for a fact that the lake has crocodiles big and small. The Captain didn’t seemed fussed. After his swim he put the dingy down and we took it for a spin to flush the motor out with clean water. We were Surprised when the water police arrived and told us our dinghy was not allowed in the lake, nor is swimming. Oops. Lucky they didn’t fine us, as they threatened to. I think it was the Captain’s charm and strange humour that assisted in our get off. Panama take security in the Canal very seriously.
BTW The day after we transited the authorities pulled a 16 ft crocodile out of one of the locks- 16 ft. Now that’s a decent croc.
Our Line Handlers And Piglets In Poo
When our line handlers arrived on the boat at Shelter Bay they immediately made themselves comfortable, lying on the seats and couches, sleeping, listening to music without earphones and eating with a third world hunger. I had forgotten what it was like having youthful men living at home. Add to this our current crew member 21 year old Dan and our food consumption had quadrupled in a matter of moments.
These guys were likeable BUT I was pleased when these boys left our boat. At times I wanted to kick at least one of them just to make sure he was still breathing, but my hostess’ manners prevailed. I had forgotten what bored teenagers are like. They were bored because throughout the locks Miss Catana was the middle boat. We didn’t need line handlers, we had a boat either side acting as huge fenders to the wall. In exchange for the privilege of protecting our boat, the Captain had the task of keeping the boats in line and off the wall. Plus we got to use our fuel as we moved not only one boat but three. Fair exchange.
Other Random Observations From Our Crossing
When in the locks each boat had to work as a team of three, the water rises were fast and dramatic. Huge eddies and currents were produced with the speed of the rising or falling water so steering was intense for all three captains. For certain moments in the locks it was nail biting stuff.
Huge lines with monkey fists tied at the end of ropes were thrown from atop the lock walls to the side boats, who had to catch the lines and then had to move the lines according to the depth of the water. We wanted our line handlers to go to the boats on the outside, but our advisor or line handlers were not having anything to do with this suggestion. Line adjustment fell to novice sailors whilst our experienced, bored, line handlers watched on. This was crazy.
My favourite moment on the first lock was when we were through, with the crew on Mr Blue and the French boat spontaneously giving the Captain a round of applause. Having a level head and skills to handle the three boats as one was appreciated. It was a nice moment.
The Final Lock
Like many before us we stood watching the final locks open, taking us from the Atlantic to enter the Pacific Ocean.
I stood in wonder.
My wonder was twofold. The boldness and grand nature of this place was not lost on me.
The canal was built on the backs of others versions, innovation, commitment to task and funds. Because of other peoples work and lives lost, we are able take a short cut and a safer route home. At this point I was feeling grateful. (I for one am not ready to cross either the Cape of Horn or Cape of Good Hope.)
My second wonder was these gates opened to the Southern Hemisphere. I was almost, sort of, home. Most Australians live alongside the Pacific and know its water. The Pacific is the second last ocean between us and our home port of Hobart. We just have approximately 9000 nautical miles to go, but as of now we are in our own backyard. My next big thing is to see the southern cross.
The Captain and I both agree that the Panama is one of our travelling highlights, a trip we will long remember. I would say the Captain was a like a piglet in poo as he negotiated his way down the massive locks and through the Canal. We both enjoyed the entire experience.
PS Currently we are sitting in Panama waiting for two things. Firstly wind. There is not a skerrick at the moment and it’s a long way to motor. Secondly we are waiting for a sailing package from Miami, it should arrive this week. Fingers crossed.