"The Land Divided - The World United"
It all began when tectonic activity forced a small amount of earth to surface in the shallow seas that once separated North and South America. The Isthmus of Panama rose up creating the skinny waist of land that connected the two Americas, until a 102 years ago anyway. This slim strip of land, lake and forest has been getting people all excited since some local Indigenous mob told Christopher Columbus that if he walked 9 days from the Caribbean shores, he’d see a whole new ocean. You can imagine the feverish excitement that would have consumed him! Whilst he never legged it at the time, word of this cheeky short cut spread, and the Isthmus of Panama has remained a focal point ever since for human endeavours to outsmart geography, all in the name of making a profit.
As early as the year 1600, people began using the Isthmus to transport silver from the mines of Peru and Bolivia to Europe by sailing it up the west coast of South America and then lugging it overland through the jungles and by river canoe (in croc infested waters) through to the Caribbean. Despite the dangers of disease and ambush, using the Isthmus cut out some significant transport costs. So the capitalist world continued to mull over ideas for overcoming the swamps and increasing their profits. Fast forward to the Californian Gold Rush of the mid 1800s. This time the goods were moving south down the coast, but were still headed for the European market. Times were ripe for development so they built the Panama Railway in 1850 and promptly began printing money. When it first opened, the cost for transporting you or your goods was 25 US Dollars one way, a handsome fee in those days and hats off for consistency, it’s still $25 TODAY! Not satisfied with having to engage two boats and one expensive railway fee to move their goods, the bosses began to dream up the impossible idea that one day you could just sail straight on through.
It was the Americans who first went and had a proper look at the idea. They pretty quickly deemed it impossible and headed for a squiz at Nicaragua instead. This obviously got the French mega excited to show the Yanks ‘what for’ because they set off to begin digging in 1880 under the command of one Monsieur Ferdinand de Lesseps who had no less than the Suez Canal on his CV. Word has it that Ferdinand, obviously riding high on his laurels from this little achievement, commenced work without ever really going to have a proper look at the job site. Apparently he checked it out briefly in the dry season, then went home to France to ‘oversee’ the project whilst his workforce suffered through the wet season. As such, French efforts to dig it out failed miserably in 1889 when bankruptcy added the final blow to a workforce heavily depleted from disease and death by landslide. But the French did make a dent in it over that 9 years, enough to get the Yanks interested again in the site and eventually they took it on for good and opened her up in 1914 for passage. All told she cost 25,000 lives across the two efforts and at 77km in length, that’s a whopping 324.5 lives per kilometre, ouch! Today, the Paza Caza generates roughly 8-10 million USD a day in transit fees. Both container ships and private yachts alike queue up on either side eagerly awaiting their turn, 24-7.
A few years ago I saw a mate’s slide show of his transit of the Paza Caza and I simply couldn’t believe my eyes. I’ve never been one to get all gushy over feats of engineering but this really looked like something un-worldly. So whilst in Panama, I put up a notice at the local mariners advertising my services as a line handler. By Paza Caza regulations each yacht needs four line handlers plus a skipper to help out whilst you enter and exit each Lock. What is a Lock I hear you ask? Simply put, it’s a water-elevator for ships to travel above sea level and then back down again. I know, right, why didn’t I think of that! With all the shipping traffic backed up at each end, you don’t get one of these things to yourself and that’s where the fun really starts. As we approached the Gatun Locks on the Caribbean side, our yacht Meermowe met up with two other yachts and one ‘small’ container ship. We moved towards the enormous concrete structures with the sun setting, it really looked like we were sailing straight into some kind of hell. Each boat must take on a pilot who guides you through the Locks. These guys are all Master Mariners with 1000s of transits under their belts and are surly as they come, they call the shots. They doze lazily on deck and then all of a sudden start yelling at you to haul in or release more line depending on the water level and position of the raft up. The idea is to stay in the centre of the lock and not crash into the concrete walls. Our raft up was a somewhat awkward ‘inter-cultural’ arrangement of French and British ‘yachtys’ so there was a fair bit of tension between skippers. Luckily, the skipper of my boat was an absolute legend and a countryman of mine from Croatia! He was casual as and loved every minute of the experience. Not to mention the Croatian hospitality that poured and wafted up out of the ship’s galley 5 times a day. I’ll be honest, I didn’t want to get off the boat! The job is pretty easy, you enter the Lock and a guy throws a line down to you, you tie his line to a bowline in your XL rope and he pulls the line up to the top of the wall. Once the line is secured to a bollard and depending on which way you are going, away from sea level or back down to it, you either bring in the slack as the water rises, or you pay out slack as the water drops. All in the name of keeping the vessel in the middle of the Lock, away from the concrete walls!
Everything runs super smooth until the final Miraflores Lock on the Pacific Ocean side. This is a tricky one because here, saltwater mixes with freshwater and a strong northerly trade wind howls straight down the guts of the Lock. With a viewing platform packed with gawking tourists, we struggle to bring our yacht alongside a passenger ferry whilst the Frenchies lose control and end up on the wall. But it’s not just the gringos that get into strife, deckys on the passenger ferry fail to pay out slack on her port aft (Remember the water level is dropping!) and we are treated to the fleeting sight of a double-decker ferry having her stern lifted diagonally out of the water as their line goes taught against the draining Lock. It’s very brief though, moments later the Lock echos with the BOOM of 120mm rope snapping under the pressure!
It’s not the world’s longest crossing by any stretch of the imagination but once we clear that final Lock, after a mere 24 hours (go to wo) we crack cans and raise them high, a group of total strangers have bonded and the froth is palpable. We’ve crossed the Isthmus, transited the canal and we are now in the Pacific Ocean. Time for me to go look for waves.