Our Trip To, Not Through, The Panama Canal

Jumping back several months, to catch you up on our canal adventure:

Our cruising plans do not include transiting the Panama Canal. It’s a substantial cost, and I have no interest in crossing the Pacific (after our passage to Puerto Rico, neither does Scott). However, being one of the seven modern wonders of the world, and Panama’s biggest tourist attraction, we were very interested to see the canal. Since our route from Bocas del Toro to the San Blas islands took us within a few hours of the canal’s visitor center, it seemed a shame not to visit.

But first, here’s some interesting history of the Panama Canal, and it’s construction (with some cool visual aides):

The idea of creating a water passage across the isthmus of Panama to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans dates back to the 1500s, when Spain surveyed a possible route across Panama’s Chagres River. The idea seemed impossible at the time, but remained intriguing a potential shortcut from Europe to Eastern Asia.

Image result for map of the panama canal route

France was first to attempt the daunting task. They planned a sea-level canal, with Count Ferdinand de Lessep (builder of the Suez Canal in Egypt) in charge of the project. After breaking ground in 1880, the construction team soon realized the monumental challenge ahead of them.

They were plagued by yellow fever and malaria, and incessant rains caused heavy landslides. De Leeps realized that a sea-level canal was too difficult, and shifted his plan to a lock canal. However, it was too late; funding was pulled from the project in 1888, after nine years and a loss of approximately 20,000 lives.

Image result for yellow fever during the construction of the panama canal

Image result for photos of casualties of the panama canal construction

Image result for photos of french panama canal construction

Image result for photos of landslides during panama canal construction

With a push from President Theodore Roosevelt, the U.S. purchased the French assets in the canal zone for $40 million in 1902. After a proposed treaty over rights to build in Panama was rejected (at the time, it was a Colombian controlled territory), the U.S. threw its military weight behind Panama’s fight for independence from Colombia.

Image result for fumigating homes during the construction of the panama canal

In November of 1903, the U.S. negotiated a deal with the newly declared Republic of Panama, that gave them rights to the canal zone. In exchange for the ten mile stretch of land, the U.S made a one-time, $10 million dollar payment, annual payments of $250,000 and agreed to guarantee the independence of Panama.

The U.S. also had plans for a sea-level canal, but much of the French equipment was in need of repair, and the threat of malaria and yellow fever was frightening off the workforce.

A railroad specialist took over on July of 1905, and immediately recruited West Indian laborers to solve the workforce issues. He ordered new equipment, and came up with more efficient ways to speed up the work. In addition, he realized the difficulties that landslides posed, and convinced President Roosevelt that a lock canal would be best for the area’s terrain.

Image result for photos of west indian workers panama canal construction

Image result for photos of west indian workers panama canal construction

Image result for photos of west indian workers panama canal construction

What helped the project immensely was the chief sanitary officer’s belief that mosquitoes carried the deadly diseases plaguing the area (who knew they had a chief  sanitary officer??). On a mission to wipe out the pesky mosquitoes, his team diligently fumigated homes, and cleansed pools of water. The last reported case of yellow fever in Panama was in 1905, and malaria cases dropped sharply over the following decade.

Image result for fumigating homes during the construction of the panama canal

Image result for fumigating homes during the construction of the panama canal

In 1906, a new chief engineer took over, and he focused efforts on the Culebra Cut,  a nine mile stretch of mountain range along the canal route. Clearing this area became a 24-7 operation, with more than 6,000 men contributing at any one time. Despite the attention paid to this section of the project, the Culebra Cut was a notorious danger zone. There were many, many casualties from unpredictable landslides and dynamite explosions (Good grief, its a wonder this thing ever got built!).

Image result for photos of french construction of the panama canal

Image result for photos of panama canal culebra cut construction

Image result for photos of panama canal culebra cut construction

Construction of the locks began in August 1909. Built in pairs, each lock chamber leveraged gravity to raise and lower water levels (there were/are no pumps used). Ultimately, the three locks along the canal route lifted ships 85 feet above sea level, to the man-made Gatun lock in the middle. The entire operation was powered by electricity, and run through a control board.

Image result for photos of panama canal locks construction

Image result for photos of french construction of the panama canal

Image result for photos of panama canal locks construction

The gates separating the chambers in each set of locks hold back a considerable weight of water, and had to be made both reliable and strong enough to withstand accidents, as their failure could unleash a catastrophic flood of water downstream (bad for business) .

Ranging in size from 47 to 82 ft high, depending on position,the gates are enormous, and are 7 ft thick; the hinges alone each weigh almost 17 tons! They can be opened during the operating cycle only when the water level on both sides is equal.

Image result for photos of panama canal locks construction

The original gates are still in use, but their mechanisms were replaced with hydraulic struts in January 1998, after 84 years of service. Much like the hull of a ship, the lock gates are hollow and buoyant. They are so well balanced that two 25 hp motors are enough to move each leaf. If one motor fails, the other can still operate the gate at reduced speed.

Image result for photos of panama canal construction

Image result for photos of panama canal construction

In October of 1913, President Roosevelt operated a telegraph at the White House that triggered an explosion of Gamboa dike, flooding the final stretch of dry passageway at Culebra Cut.

Image result for photos of explosion of gamboa dike

Image result for photos of explosion of gamboa dike

The Panama Canal officially opened on August 15, 1914, but a grand ceremony was downgraded, due to the start of WWI. The canal was completed at a cost of more than $350 million, and was the most expensive construction project in U.S. history at the time.

Image result for photos of the opening of the panama canal

Image result for photos of the opening of the panama canal

The canal was a vital part of expanding global trade routes in the 20th century. Transition of overseeing the canal, from the U.S. to Panama, began in 1977, with a treaty signed by President Carter, and the Panama Canal Authority assumed full control on December 31, 1999. In September 2010, the canal hosted its 1 millionth passing ship, and in 2016 a massive canal expansion opened, doubling the waterway’s capacity.

Image result for aerial view of the panama canal

Image result for photos of the panama canal expansion

Image result for photos of the panama canal expansion

Here endeth the lesson.

After our short stay in Portobelo, we headed to nearby Linton Bay, which is just over an hour car ride to the visitor’s center at the canal’s Mira Flores Locks. It was also a short ride to a grocery store for provisioning, and an easy jump off point to head for the San Blas. We decided to leave the boat at Linton Bay Marina. From there we could visit the canal, spend the night in Panama City and return the next morning, with Howard and Sea Life tucked into a slip for safe keeping.

We arranged for a cab to take us from the marina to the Miraflores Locks, traveling winding, hilly roads along the way, and arrived at the visitor’s center an hour or so later. The ticket office was not yet open, but there were already many people waiting to get in. We took our place in line, just beating a huge tour bus full of people..whew!

After purchasing our tickets and heading inside, we were told to make our way up to viewing area on the fourth floor, as there were ships entering the locks. Once off the elevator, we managed to get a front row spot on the rail, and settled in to watch the large ships “lock through.”

As ships approach from the Pacific side, two locks at the Mira Flores Locks raise them up into Mira Flores Lake. At the other end of the lake, a single lock at Pedro Miguel Lock raises them again, into Gatun Lake and then a triple set of locks at Gatun Locks lower the ships back down to sea level in the Caribbean sea.

Image result for map of the panama canal

Image result for aerial view of the panama canal

Image result for aerial view of the panama canal

Though the channels in the locks seem large enough for ships to pass in both directions at the same time, the Culebra Cut makes this impossible. The area is far too narrow for the large ships to pass each other, so two “lanes” transit traffic from the Caribbean to the Pacific in the morning, and then the direction shifts, for those transiting from the Pacific to the Caribbean.

We were watching ships pass from north to south. They had transited from the Caribbean, and entered the locks from the Mira Flores lake. There were no private/pleasure boats coming through when we visited, only large ships and smaller commercial vessels.

Pleasure boats and small fishing boats usually transit very early in the morning, or after dark. They are tied together, or to a canal tug, as they move through. We have several friends who’ve transited the canal, and all have stories of things not going exactly as planned. Here are some photos. They also have great blogs!

s/v Prism (Jon & Shannon)

c0080-1

Pull faster Shannon!! AH

c0122-1

s/v Morpheous of London (Richard & Jan)

https://i2.wp.com/www.morpheusoflondon.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Going-up-at-night.jpg

https://i1.wp.com/www.morpheusoflondon.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Poor-Morphie.jpg

https://i0.wp.com/www.morpheusoflondon.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/At-Miraflores.jpg

Mini towing locomotives, called mules, are used for side-to-side and braking control in the locks (Forward motion into and through the locks is actually provided by the ship’s engines). The mules  run on “rack tracks,” to which they are geared, and their traction is electric, supplied through a third rail that is laid below surface level on the land side of the channels.

Large ships have two mules on each side at the bow, and two each side at the stern—eight in total, allowing for precise control of the ship. Each mule has a powerful winch, operated by the driver; these are used to take two cables in and out as needed, in order to keep the ship centered in the lock while moving it from chamber to chamber. With the larger ships having very little clearance, the mule operators have to be pretty good at what they do!

All ship captains are required to yield control to a canal pilot while transiting, who are specially trained to guide vessels of all sizes safely through the locks. Some ships are so wide that they clear the concrete walls by mere inches. A lock master is in position on either side of the lock, and is in constant communication with the pilots and the control tower during the entire process.

An announcer narrates details about each ship passing through the two lanes, providing the country of origin, what type of cargo is on board and other details. Relayed in both Spanish and English, the information was both interesting and helpful as we watched the huge ships pass by us.

We saw some amusing sights as the ships passed by: a basketball court on the deck of a ship, crew members enjoying the ride in a shady spot and the amount of radar waves that we were exposed to at the observation deck level!

When the canal opened, a set of guidelines were put in place for the maximum requirements of ships transiting across. “Panamax” includes the width and length of the available lock chambers, the depth of water in the canal and the height of the bridges that span the it. A new set of locks opened in June of 2016, allowing larger, “New Panamax” ships to transit back and forth. From our spot on the viewing deck, we could see ships transiting those lanes as well.

There was so much see; we stayed on the viewing deck for hours, taking it all in. When all the ships has locked through, we headed downstairs to check out the rest of the visitors center. There was a short film on the history of the canal, and many rooms of exhibits, containing information about the canal’s construction. We ended our visit with a spin through the gift shop, and then went outside to catch a cab to our hotel, stopping on the way at McDonald’s, for Scott to get a fast food fix!

At the recommendation of one of our friends at Red Frog marina, in Bocas del Toro, I’d booked a room at the Comfort Inn and Suites, which sits right on the canal route. The balcony rooms look over the Balboa Yacht Club’s many boats at anchor, and ships on their way to and from the locks.

Scott kept watch online, in live time, to see when a ship was coming our way. We’d take a break from the air conditioning, and watching English television channels, to go out and watch them pass by (our balcony was in full sun until dusk, so small bursts of outside time were all we could handle).

Our water view all but disappeared during a late afternoon downpour, as the streets below quickly flooded.

Now you see it…

Now you don’t…

We ate a room service steak dinners on our king-size bed, enjoyed long, “roomy” showers, and kept a “ship watch” out the window until well after dark, and again at first light the next morning.

It was a great Christmas treat to ourselves! Here are many more photos.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”

Howard’s Trip To Panama City

In late January, Howard began showing symptoms of a urinary issue; many trips to the litter box, leaving just dribbles behind. Before we left Baltimore, I’d visited our home vet, Dr. T., to stock up on various medications that Howard might need, so luckily there were antibiotics on board for him.

After a week, Howard showed no sign of improvement, so at Dr. T’s recommendation, we doubled his dose, meaning getting two eye droppers full of medicine in him instead one….fun for all!

Almost three weeks later, Howard was just marginally better. He then began throwing up, and I couldn’t get him to keep anything down. After three days with no water, we were very concerned, and began to make a plan to get Howard to a vet in Panama City.

The glitch was, that we had cleared out of Panama in December. There is a checkpoint stop on the road to Panama City, and if you do not have a valid stamp, off to jail you go. Our hope was to appeal to immigration on the island of Porvenier. Recent laws prohibit checking in and out of Panama in the San Blas. Boaters who are cleared into the country are only able to visit Porvenier to renew their stamp for an additional three month stay.

We left our anchorage in the Coco Bandero Cays, and traveled four hours to Porvenier, with fingers crossed that we could plead our case. Scott sent me in alone, to deal with the immigration officer, since only one of us needed to travel to the city, and we may have better luck with a female pleading the case.

“Joe” was a bit miffed that we’d checked out of the country 45 days earlier, bound for Cartagena, and were still in the San Blas (cruisers often do this with no problem…until there’s a problem). Because we both had “time” left in the country when checking out in December, Joe told me that if we traveled back to Portobelo (14 hours by boat), the immigration officer there would be able to cancel our exit stamps.

We didn’t have the extra days that it would take to do this, and then get to the vet. There was also the issue of getting back to the San Blas, with winds expected to pick up. I explained that we’d had steering trouble, and were unable to get back to the mainland by boat (a big fib on my part).

After two hours of back and forth, with few words understood between us, many pictures drawn and tears on my part, Joe told me to have Scott come to the office. When Scott arrived onshore in the dinghy, I told him to relay that he spoke no Spanish (when in fact, he can get by quite well now), and brought him up to speed on the story inside so far.

Once we were both back in the office, there was more of the same back and forth, before Joe finally consented to canceling our exit stamp, marking next to them in Spanish that seas were not good for us to make it to Cartagena. He told us to come back to see him for Scott’s renewal stamp (mine was due much later, as I was re-stamped when flying back in from the U.S. in October), and then again to get stamped out of Panama.

Thrilled that our pleas had worked, we raised anchor, and made a quick hour-long run to an anchorage near the docks at Carti, which is on the mainland. I’d contacted Emilio, who we’d planned to use for provisioning, and asked him to help me arrange transportation to get Howard and me to the vet, as I had no idea how to proceed.

Howard was loaded into his carried, and Scott took us to the dock in the dinghy, where we hopped into a running, air conditioned suv. It was a three hour ride across the mountains, through a checkpoint at the border of the Guna Yala region, into the city and to the vet. The driver maneuvered the road like the car was on fire, hitting the many curves and potholes at full speed. I was shocked that the car’s axles didn’t snap. Howard endured the “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” like a champ.

As we came down the mountain road, and headed toward the city, the driver pulled into a gas station…presumably for gas. He stopped the car, with the engine running, and proceeded to take a nap! When I realized what was going on, I was both irritated that we’d stopped for this, with my cat needing to get to the vet, and glad that he had the good sense not to fall asleep at the wheel.

Deciding  that a ten minute nap was fair, I watched the clock, preparing to wake him up. He popped up on his own, after seven minutes, declared, “Good! and we continued on. We made our way into town, and I was delivered right to the door of the vet.

I didn’t have an appointment, and thankfully a young  man waiting with his own cat helped me to speak with the woman behind the counter. After a very short wait, Howard and I were in a room with a vet, who thankfully spoke English. She took Howard away, to use gas to relax him for testing. Howard is not a good vet patient. At home, there is a “caution” sticker on his folder.

In the meantime, Emilio arrived to sit with me, in case I needed help with translation. The vet spoke very good English, but Emilio did help me arrange a hotel for the night. With the “Carti” road closed at 7pm, there was no way to get back to the boat in the same day.

Howard’s initial tests: blood, urine, xrays and sonograms all came back clear. Hmmm. I arranged for him to stay overnight, wanting him to receive fluids.

Emilio then took me shopping, stopping first at Riba Smith, a large grocery store with many American items. I was in heaven, and loaded up on cream cheese, butter and other goodies from home. We then went to a nearby mall, where I was able to buy some magazines printed in English! I arrived at the hotel later that evening, with some McDonalds food in tow.

After turning the air conditioning down to a chilly 68, and watching some English channels on tv, I happily fell asleep in the comfy hotel bed. At 3am, I woke in a sweat. When I tried to adjust the thermostat, it crackled and sparks came out…not good.

I called the front desk, and they sent someone to “check” the thermostat, most likely thinking that I couldn’t manage to set the temperature on my own. After getting his own set of crackles…and some smoke, the man cried “Oh!…Bad!,” and called back down to the front desk.

I was told that they were happy to move me to another room, but unfortunately it was on a different floor. That didn’t bother me in the least, as I was determined to absorb as much air conditioning as possible, so I loaded up my backpack, and made my way down two floors at 3:30 am, barefoot and in my pajamas. There I resumed sleep, in a freshly cooled room.

The next morning, after enjoying the complimentary breakfast buffet (I am told that all hotels/B-n-Bs/inn, etc. are required to provide a free breakfast to their guests), I met Emilio and his friend, Gil, who sped me off for more provision shopping.

Our first stop was to Pricesmart, a membership bulk store owned by Costco. I loaded my cart with soda, bacon, lunch meat, cheese, vinegar (used for monthly toilet deep cleaning, and laundry) and various other things. The next stop was to a local bulk store, which offered some of my wish list items at better prices than Pricesmart, such as wine, rum and sprite.

I checked in with the vet, who said that Howard hadn’t eaten, but she didn’t expect him to while in a strange and stressful place. He’d been given fluids, and a shot of both antibiotic and something for his stomach. She declared Howard ready to leave, so we planned one more stop before heading over to pick him up.

Our last stop was one more visit to Riba Smith, where I purchased more cold items, and some bags to keep them cool for the journey back to Sea Life.

Emilio said his goodbyes, as he had another client to meet. Gil would be taking me to collect Howard and then to meet my ride back across the mountain. Emilio’s help had been invaluable, knowing where the stores were, which ones had the items I wanted and at the best prices. The process would have taken far longer on my own.

Gil and I arrived at the vet, where Howard was growling at anyone who came near him. He calmed when he heard my voice and received some petting in his carrier. I paid my bill of 180.00, which included the vet visit, overnight stay, xrays and sonograms of stomach and bladder, blood and urine tests, two injections each of antibiotic and gastro meds, iv fluids and some cat food for urinary tract health…much cheaper than US prices!

Nacho, the driver who would take us back to the Carti docks, was waiting outside a small local restaurant at the start of the mountain road. We loaded all of my things, and Howard, into his car, filling all but the passenger seat (the area behind the back seats was piled high, and the floors under both Howard and me were packed full).

Along the way, we stopped for Nacho to relieve himself behind the car, a much faster delay than the previous driver’s nap. At the Guna Yala checkpoint, the official who came to the car windown to check my passport was intrigued with Howard, waving over the other guards to see him, calling, “Howard, Howard!”

When we arrived at the Carti dock, I asked Nacho to help me get a panga ride back to the boat, as I hadn’t prearranged one. He loaded my things onto a panga, with several locals onboard waiting to depart. It took five trips of heavily loaded wheelbarrows to get my stuff onto the panga, and when I walked down the dock with Howard, to get on, the driver wasn’t happy. Apparently, Nacho had told him that I had only a few things. “Senora”, he said, “this is a supermarket!” In his defense, it was a huge amount of stuff.

After a short, five minute ride, we were back at Sea Life, where Scott was waiting to help unload my things. Howard was glad to be home, and seemed none the worse for wear. He immediately wanted food, ate plenty of it and then settled into a deep sleep in his taco, sporting his new haircut.

 

Scott was quite peeved that after the whole, logisticly-challenged ordeal, the vet had found nothing wrong with Howard. We think that his urinary issues were near done, and the gastro stuff had almost worked their way through; the injections may have also helped resolve both issues.

In the end, maybe Howard just wanted a few days away from the boat….and an adventure.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”