Friday, June 12, 2009

The Remarkable Water Highway

We are on a mooring just a water balloon throw away from the channel into the famous Panama Canal. You know the ... "a man, a plan, a canal ... Panama," one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the remarkable water highway linking the east with the west. The majority of the tankers transiting the canal come from the United States and China, but there are a number of others. We just saw a ship from Cartagena, Columbia pass through. Unfortunately, it left behind a horrid dark plume of smoke in the air.

From our current home, we can see all the tankers make their way under the Bridge of the Americas, the beginning or end of the canal, depending on which way they're heading. These huge ships are the same tankers that I fear encountering at sea. They're the same ships that when I see them on the radar when we're sailing, I panic a little, remembering our close encounter more than 15 years ago when a tanker came within 20 feet of our stern. I'll never forget looking up at its bow towering over us and debating whether it was time to jump off our boat to avoid being crushed. Instead, I gunned the motor veering us to safety. But that was a long time ago.

All of the Caribbean bound ships anchor in a line of sorts in Panama Bay while their captains await their call from Flamenco Signal. Between 30 and 40 ships go through the Canal everyday, making a total of about 14,000 per year. It takes the tankers ten hours to pass through the 50 mile highway. Sailboats take two days and overnight at Gatun Lake in the middle of the Canal.

Once given permission to proceed, the ships motor obediently past us making their way through the green and red buoys and under the Bridge of the Americas. That's as far as we can see. From there they go through the first lock, Miraflores. The three water locks, Miraflores, Pedro Miguel and Gatun, serve as staircases, enabling ships to climb and descend a hill of water via gravity. The gravity part occurs in the locks. Think of filling up your bathtub, floating to the top and then getting out at higher level. Sounds simple, the only problem was moving the dirt to construct the pathway. That's where the ingenuity came in as well as the yellow fever, malaria and landslides.

Tankers from the Caribbean side also motor by us. Shortly after the ships pass at all hour of the night, a 20-foot motor boat, zooms by us leaving a huge wake behind and bouncing our boat in many directions. Surprisingly the big tankers don't leave any wake. This small boat brings supplies, and picks up and delivers people before the ship proceeds into the Pacific. The Canal saves a ship traveling from New York to San Francisco 7,872 miles, plus the ship can forego the often brutal seas at the tip of South America.

This scene has been our home for the past four days and it feels like we're on the sidelines of machinery in motion. As I look at the containers full of stuff, I wonder whether most of it is really necessary. Then I think about our recent purchase of expensive paint for our haul-out tomorrow which arrived via a ship from Florida and through the canal. Some of it seems necessary.

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