Rise to the Pacific

The Panama Canal is not only the border crossing between two oceans, but also between two different worlds, between two different cultures – the Atlantic and the Pacific ones. In a certain sense it is a path of purification, almost spiritual, same as the ascent to the mountain peaks that the European mystics of the past made, or the paths around the sacred mountains of Eastern cultures. From a more prosaic point of view, there are several tasks that must be attended to in order to navigate these waters, including the payment of a fee that is proportional to the size of your boat. To give you some examples; our 46ft Swan had to pay about USD$3000, while large ships, from USD$300,000 to $500,000. Then up to super tankers – which now go from the new 2016 expansion – who can pay up to a million dollars. Understandably, the canal is one of the major sources for Panama’s economy.

Before making the passage, an inspector must come on board and certify the measurements of the boat. Finally, the Cristobal Station control centre grants the passage and confirms the appointment with the pilot, who will board and conduct all the operations of entry and exit from the locks. The route includes a first passage of three locks to go up to the level of Lake Gatùn, artificially created by filling a vast territory with fresh water and today a natural park; the crossing of which requires 28 miles of navigation between islands inhabited by animals of various species, including crocodiles, the presence of which makes swimming in the lake forbidden. The descent takes place through the other three locks and the lake of Miraflores.

Our pilot is called Pablo. “What other name exists?” He says proudly during the introductions. His father was a pilot and he followed in his footsteps. He says he got there by exclusion: “What do I want to do, the doctor? No. The lawyer? No. The architect? No.” And so on. He speaks perfect English without a Latin accent, has studied logistics in New York for four years and is now training to become a pilot. In a few years he will have access to the qualification of senior pilot and will be able to pilot any type of ship. A well-paid job that will allow him to live with a certain ease. For now however, he must devote himself to work and apprenticeships. So no distractions. Pablo is 31 years old, with a wife and two young children. Pablo is a person with his head firmly on his shoulders, confident in his abilities and concentrated on his work. Moreover, the operations he will manage on large ships require great responsibility. “I’ve never made a mistake,” he says as Valerio and I repeatedly touch the stern pulpit made of Swedish steel! When I ask him what he will do once he becomes a pilot, he tells me that he will take his children to Disneyland in Florida.

We proceed to the entrance of the locks as a band of three boats: in our case we are tied to a trimaran and another boat of our size. As soon as you approach the lock, two workers on the land launch a guide line with a handful of monkey fist knots which must be secured to our deck. Then there is a long bowline knot on the line so that they can retrieve it and secure it to a bollard. From that moment on, it is about the management of the tension of the lines on the land, so that our band of boats remains in the centre of the lock, this is controlled through the management of the two the external boats and their hulls. It is not easy to manage these forces when the bulkheads are close and the current inside the reservoir can reach 4 knots. It is impressive to see how the power of water can move giant container ships; but even more impressive is to see this extraordinary engineering work that after more than 100 years (the canal was inaugurated in 1914), works according to the original plans of Colonel Gothal. Pablo points out that the lock doors still have the original 1913 rivets. Amazing!

After descending the last locks of Miraflores, we are in the Pacific. And I assure you that the difference is perceived immediately. The light looks different, the sky a lighter blue, the pelicans are watching us as we pass by the floating lights of the exit channel. We too feel more relaxed and even the bad experiences we had in the previous days seem long gone, we left them behind us, in another ocean.

Because on a journey like ours, it certainly cannot be all smooth sailing, all of the time. The problems to be solved are bound to crop up, and it is not just about navigation. This time, for example, we ended up in a pirate lair – modern pirates, who try to take advantage of the needs of others. But as Bob Marley says, still a strong symbol in the Caribbean: “When one door is closed, don’t you know, another is open.” And for us now, the door to the Pacific has opened with its islands of wonder!

A wreck at the entrance to the canal
The Colon bridge
Our pilot Pablo
Gatun locks
Gatun lake
Big boy
The locks of Miraflores
The Pacific
Our canal crew
The Biodiversity Museum of Panama