3 Link to the Pacific

An age will come after many years when the ocean will loose the chain of things, and a huge land lie revealed; when Tiphys will disclose new worlds and Thule no longer be the Ultimate.

- Seneca, Medea

Across Islands Across Islands

Until I looked more closely at the charts of the Caribbean for the planning of this voyage, I had assumed the Panama Canal was located not only south, but also west of Florida. It turns out the entrance to the Panama Canal lies east of the 80th meridian of longitude, which puts it east of Florida. It became odder still when I looked at a detailed map of the S-shaped landmass of Panama. As the isthmus twists itself in a curve to the north, from certain points in Panama the sun is seen to rise over the Pacific and set over the Atlantic.

The closest Columbus came to the great ocean holding his elusive Indies was on his fourth voyage when he sailed along the Caribbean coast of Panama, which he named simply Tierra Firma. In the local Indian dialect, Panama means “an abundance of fish.”

Ten years after Columbus passed this way, Indian guides led Vasco Nuñez de Balboa and a group of Spaniards on a three-week trek over the low mountains of the Continental Divide and through Panama's disease-ridden jungles. Upon reaching the Pacific shore, which in this region lies south of the Caribbean Sea, Balboa christened the waters El Mar Del Sur (The South Sea) and claimed all lands and peoples within this ocean now belonged to the monarch of Castile. Although Balboa's reach far exceeded his grasp, he was among the first to imagine a canal between the Atlantic and Pacific. That dream obsessed explorers, politicians and engineers for the next 400 years. Thanks to their work, today's circumnavigating sailors can bypass the ice and storm hazards of Cape Horn far to the south. This thickly forested country has hundreds of enticing bays and coastal islands that make it a worthy cruising ground in itself, but with visions of Polynesia burning in my brain and the anxiety of organizing the canal transit, and knowing the reputation for thieves in the main canal ports, I wanted mostly to be out of there as quickly as possible.

Once the customs launch cleared me in, I lowered the yellow quarantine flag and rowed my plastic dinghy over to the “yacht club,” which resembled nothing more swank than a friendly small-town marina. Stepping past a pair of four-and-a-half-foot Kuna Indian women hawking decorative hand-sewn molas, I set out on foot for the various offices holding the permits for a canal passage. Thus began three days of shuttling between the offices of Immigration, Port Captain, Admeasurer and Berthing Department. Each gave me a stack of paperwork to fill out or sent me somewhere else to get this stamp or that receipt. I kept scribbling on forms and handing over money. When all documents were finally placed in the correct files in the proper offices, Atom's total charge for a canal passage was $130, including a $60 security deposit to be refunded six months later by mail – provided my little boat did not damage the great locks.

In a perfect example of bureaucracy gone mad, small yachts were treated here as if they were miniature commercial ships. Skippers are faced with pages of cargo forms and pest control officers spraying insecticides below. Even an “admeasurer” came aboard one morning with a bagful of forms, tape measure, calculator and slide rule, to determine my cargo capacity. I was stupefied at this gross inefficiency as the admeasurer led me around Atom's deck and cabin at the end of his tape measure. Did they not realize the cost of these ridiculous labors exceeded my fees? It would have meant less work for them, if not lower charges for small boat owners, if they had eliminated the pointless paperwork.

After 1999, when the Canal Zone was handed over to Panama, the delays in waiting to get through the canal are typically weeks and sometimes more than a month. Even more objectionable are the new fees, which were raised more than 1,000 percent. As idiotic as the old system was, the new one makes the Cape Horn route look considerably less disagreeable.

The city of Colón, located at the Atlantic entrance to the canal, is as bad as its name implies – truly the ass end of Central America – which is not an easy distinction to earn. From all I've heard since I was last there, this tough town is little improved. Colón citizens either rob or get robbed, or do both, as circumstances require. Even the Panamanian Consulate staff in Miami, who issued my visa, warned me of the troubles. “The muggers work the streets in gangs, so don't go out by yourself, even in the daytime,” she said as she leaned forward to whisper through the bullet-proof glass. As I gathered my papers to leave, I overheard her tell her assistant in Spanish, “Such a nice young man. I hope he won't get killed.”

A gringo couple from one of the sailboats in the harbor told sailors gathered around the yacht club bar that they had just been robbed by a couple of knife-wielding thugs who followed them into a supermarket and relieved them of their cash and watches in front of the store's armed security guard. “You must understand,” the guard told them, “it's my job to protect the store, not the customers.”

While I was in port, another man from a sailboat waiting to transit the canal was pulled off Colón's main street at high noon and dragged into an alley where his wallet, watch and shoes were removed. Then he was stabbed, perhaps just for being a fat-cat gringo. It doesn't help matters when the thieves know sailors have pocketfuls of cash to buy provisions and pay off officials for their canal permits.

I couldn't afford to put any more money into Colón's economy than was necessary. As a defensive bluff against the scavengers, whenever I ventured beyond the walled compound of the yacht club, I emptied my pockets and turned them inside out, stuffed my money into a waist belt hidden under my shirt, and hung a large diver's knife conspicuously from my belt. I kept one hand threateningly on its hilt as I walked fully alert with head twisting in all directions. I must have appeared somewhat crazed, but the security guards and police I passed must have thought I fit in well enough, since none of them looked twice at me.

Everywhere there were beggars who followed and harassed nervous gringos down the streets. Other unemployed Panamanians sat hunched over in the shadows as if trying to make themselves disappear from a hostile city. On the way to Colón's outdoor vegetable market, a trail of beggars and would-be muggers followed me as I walked quickly from one police-guarded corner to the next. In a futile attempt to blend in with the darker-skinned locals, I growled Spanish expletives at anyone who stepped out of the filthy side streets and approached me. Some of these criminals may have had more money than I did and I was not feeling at all charitable. The “sharing of cultures” part of my journey would have to begin somewhere more hospitable.

At the yacht club bar I met a tall Texan, named Jim, who worked as an engineer for the Panama Canal Company. He took me in his Chevy to see firsthand how the thousands of Americans who operated the canal lived barricaded within the U.S. zone. As we drove through the gates into the U.S. side of Panama, where local laborers kept the lawns well-manicured, he pointed out the supermarkets, movie houses, a Boy Scouts Club – a whole North American hometown transplanted into a cleared patch of Central American jungle. “Many of these Americans never leave the U.S. zone, since they have everything they need right here,” Jim said. “Going outside is getting too dangerous for most folks.”

Outside that fence was the other Panama, a fearsome place best avoided. Many Panamanians, particularly aspiring politicians and half-educated university students, were rancorous patriots. They held an ironic disgust for the American imperialists who handed them their independence from Colombia more than one hundred years ago and were the main employer in the country, paying Panamanian workers a fair wage. In 1984, Colón was a powder keg on the verge of all-out anarchy awaiting the upcoming elections. General Noriega was still in power and the American invasion was just a few years down the road.

Despite the acrimony, the day-to-day street crimes were not politically motivated. Visiting sailors, American canal workers and Panamanians alike, faced the same criminals lingering in the dark corners. With a thriving American colony right in its center and joint ownership of the world's greatest canal, Panama should be an economic and social success story. Technologically, the canal is a huge success – the social side, sadly, a great failure. Who's to blame, the gringo “oppressors” or those who won't help themselves?

Of course, I can only describe what I saw around the big cities at each end of the canal. From what little I saw of the rest of the country, the rural villages and their uncorrupted inhabitants live in a world apart. The world over, a poor man raised in the countryside is courteous and respectful to all. Put the same man in the squalor of a broken city and, as often as not, he becomes sullen and vicious. Large, capital cities, whether New York or Paris or Panama City, were of no interest to me on this journey.

The horror stories of damaged spars, and even the sinking of a yacht in a canal lock when a tugboat broke loose and crushed it against the lock wall, made me expect a scary passage. I had been through dozens of locks in the Great Lakes system but the scale of things here dwarfed those. As it turned out, I had less trouble actually passing through the canal than I had complying with the complicated regulations. Each yacht, no matter how small, must have, in addition to its captain, a canal-company-appointed pilot/adviser and four line handlers, each with 125 feet of heavy mooring lines. Instead of hiring extra crew, I transited the canal twice: first as a line handler for another yacht whose crew then reciprocated by helping me when my boat's turn came.

On my first transit through the canal, I was a line handler on a 50-foot yacht from France. After this passage I returned to the Atlantic coast via the transcontinental railway, the first of its kind in this hemisphere, built almost 60 years before the canal opened. This railroad was financed by American businessmen looking to cash in by providing an alternate route, other than the three-month voyage around Cape Horn, to the newly discovered California gold fields. Thousands of imported African, Chinese and Indians labored in the tropical heat to finish this first rail link between the oceans. Many of these immigrants stayed and contributed to present-day Panama's rich racial mix.

Some railroad workers, exhausted by poisonous insects, reptiles and rampant tropical disease, were driven to suicide by the intolerable conditions. After several instances when the bodies of workers were found swinging from trees behind their barracks, guards were posted outside the laborers' quarters to prevent more from hanging themselves before their contracts were up. Finally, in 1855, the railway was completed and passengers rode in comfort across the isthmus in three hours at the then incredible ticket price of $25 in gold. The human cost to complete the track is estimated at 12,000 dead – their ghosts said to be forever pounding spikes on the bloodstained track.

Under Panamanian control since 1979, the railroad, which had been so convenient for local commuters, commerce and travelers alike, was in sad decline for a number of years, becoming inoperable at one point. After significant modernization in 2001, the Panama Canal Railway of today is reportedly once again thriving.

The French couple, and their two crew from the yacht I had assisted through the canal, offered to return to help me bring Atom across. The five of us re-crossed the continent by train in two hours for less than $2 per person. Arriving the night before our scheduled transfer, my French guests, each with a long mooring line thrown over their shoulder, managed to find bunks inside Atom'ssmall salon and even smaller forward cabin. I slept that night on deck tucked into a cockpit seat until dawn when the pilot came aboard and we motored upriver to the first set of locks to await the opening of the 800-ton iron doors.

The 50-mile canal of today takes ships from the Caribbean port of Colón through locks, a dammed-up lake and a cut in a low saddle in the Continental Divide to the Pacific port of Panama City. From the Atlantic side, three double locks (allowing two-way traffic), raise ships 85 feet to the level of Gatun Lake, which is crossed to reach another set of three locks that lower ships back down to the Pacific. It's a deceptively simple-looking system but the design and construction problems took the world's best engineers about 25 years to overcome. What a sight this would have been for Antonio Cerezo, a humble priest I'd read about who constructed a canal-like ditch connecting Colombia's Caribbean-flowing Atrato River to the Pacific-flowing San Juan River. Incredibly, this Atlantic-to-Pacific canoe canal was dug by Colombian Indians under the priest's direction and completed more than 200 years ago.

The Panama Canal, in turn, was started in 1881 by a French company that began the dredging under the direction of Ferdinand de Lessups, the genius builder of the Suez Canal. Full of self-assurance and the backing of thousands of French stockholders, he proposed a sea-level canal by either tunneling under the mountains or making a 300-foot deep cut through them. Nine years later, after completing about a third of the digging, the bankrupt French company gave up. It had become obvious that a sea-level canal, incorporating the wild torrent of the Chagres River, was impractical. Proving its impossibility took the lives of nearly 20,000 men who died of malaria and yellow fever, which doctors of the time blamed on “mephitic vapors,” or swamp gas.

When the United States took on the enormous project in 1904, the first obstacle was how to deal with the fractious Colombian government who held Panama as one of its provinces. The Colombian Congress dragged out the debate over the terms of the canal treaty so the U.S. declared Panama independent, installed a local government and wrote their own terms for the canal project. With the U.S. flush with confidence over their recent easy victory in the Spanish American War, they were not interested in making concessions. Within a year of taking control of the project, U.S. engineers had brought the disease-carrying mosquitoes under control by filling in swampy breeding grounds, fumigating and burning large areas of grasslands. The Chagres River was dammed to form Gatun Lake, six sets of double locks were constructed and mountains of earth were moved in the 10-year project. A century later and it's obvious that building the canal today would be an impossible task. Politics and environmental concerns would stop it cold before the first shovelful of dirt could fly.

Like a minnow dropped in a swimming pool, Atom entered the first 1,000-foot-long lock and we made fast to a tugboat lying against the lock wall. Several other larger yachts were tied two and three abreast, held in the center chamber by mooring lines pulled up by line handlers on top of the walls. The steel gates slammed shut and the lock began to fill from below as cavernous aqueducts in the floors poured in millions of liters of fresh water, fed by gravity, from Gatun Lake. As the water level rose, the tug adjusted its mooring lines with squealing hydraulic winches that stabilized us in the turbulent waters. When cables break under this kind of tension the whiplash of wire has cut men in half. It was a parting cable that sank a yacht when the tug careened across the lock, crushing the sailboat as it smashed up against the opposite wall.

Despite the increased risk, at the second and third locks our pilot again arranged for us to raft next to the tugboat so we would not have to take a center-chamber position and tend four lines of our own. In the third lock a Russian container ship was hauled in behind us by steel cables connected to four locomotives, called mules, riding on tracks at the top of the lock walls. I watched nervously as the ship seemed to tower directly over us before inching to a stop. Once the waters raised and the doors began to open, we cast off from the tug and shot out the lock before the Russian ship's thrashing propeller and the four mules could push its bow over us.

Across IslandsFrom the third lock we entered 23-mile-long Gatun Lake. This huge man-made lake is fed almost entirely from the moisture-laden clouds coming in from the Caribbean during the rainy season. For Atom's passage, the lake poured a phenomenal 200 million liters of fresh water into the locks that was then dumped into the sea. A rough calculation, based on three gallons of freshwater use per day, meant I could sail for the next 48,400 years before using that amount of water again. This thought put my notions of resource conservation in a new perspective. Despite man's enormous efforts to shape the forces of nature, it is the nine months of tropical rains each year that is keeping Gatun Lake's level up and thus the Panama Canal in operation. A slight change in the climate of the region could close the canal with more finality than a hundred terrorist's bombs.

Though the canal is not in immediate danger of running out of water, an equally serious threat comes from the local farmers, called campesinos, who have encroached on the canal zone and are continually burning large tracts of forest within the canal watershed in order to plant their crops. This fragile jungle forest is the only thing keeping the soil from running into the canal and choking the locks with sediment. These days, dredges work continuously to clear mud from the canal. If a solution is not found, the canal could be choked to death long before climate change shuts it down.

As we approached the lake our pilot was informed by hand-held radio of a one-hour delay at the next lock. With the pilot's agreement we dropped an anchor at the edge of the lake and leapt from the sun-fired furnace on deck into the warm lake-water bath. Our French crew took turns keeping an alligator watch from the boat as the rest of us, pilot included, swam leisurely under the shade of moss-laden trees overhanging the flooded valley.

As we got underway again, we passed through a swarm of bees flying in rapid nervous circles around the boat. They pressed in closer and the pilot warned us not to swat at the bees or make any sudden movements. “Killer bees,” he said softly. “They particularly don't like anything colored red.” We all looked at one of our crew who was already wrapping a white towel around his bright red shorts. One of the bees was hovering in front of my face and I had an almost uncontrollable urge to swat him away. I asked the pilot, “What should I do if this killer bee lands on my nose?”

“Nothing,” he said. “Just try to make him as comfortable as possible.”

Our pilot had been stung before and knew from whence he spoke. When one of these bees feels threatened it releases a scent into the air which sends the rest of the swarm into a rage and they attack with a fury. These Africanized bees had recently arrived in Panama on their relentless migration northward. It was hoped the bees would become less aggressive as they interbred with laid back Latin American bees, but as of now, their temper seems just as bad as when they first got off the boat from Africa.

We approached the opposite end of the lake where the dead trunks of trees emerged from the shallows like drowning totem poles. The passing ships seemed strangely out of place in this flooded tropical forest.

For two hours we motored through Galliard Cut, gouged through the mountains of the lowest point in America's Continental Divide. Cutting through a few hundred feet of elevation occupied 6,000 men working day and night for seven years. The scars of the digging are now mostly covered by jungle growth, although the tiered layers carved into the mountainside to prevent landslides remain clearly visible. At the end of the cut we entered Pedro Miguel Lock, where we were lowered, along with millions of liters of freshwater, to the mile-long Lake Miraflores. Across the lake we descended the final two locks to the level of the Pacific Ocean. Moving down the final stretch of the canal, we passed under the Bridge of the Americas, the single road link between North and South America. Along shore I saw it was now low tide; the high water mark was visible 20 feet above. On the Caribbean side the tidal range was small enough to be barely noticeable.

My line handlers and the pilot disembarked during a one-minute pit stop at the Balboa Yacht Club dock. I was told that mooring fees here were $25 a day and that yachts were prohibited from anchoring anywhere else in the harbor. This clever bit of corruption sent me scurrying out of the harbor to Taboga Island, where I anchored freely just as darkness closed in.

A small white-washed village of red-tiled roofs greeted me as Atom slipped into a horseshoe-shaped bay alongside local fishing boats and six other cruising yachts riding at anchor. This little island in the Gulf of Panama lies within sight of the rolling green hills of the mainland. Here was a peaceful place to base myself for a few days and gather fresh provisions for the passage ahead. The next morning I went ashore and watched from the public square as fishermen hauled their boats out of the water on a steep cement ramp. At the village store I bought half its meager supply of bread, onions, cabbages and oats. There was little else available. Fortunately, I was still well-stocked with provisions from Miami and Colón supermarkets and I had hardly made a dent in the 10-kilo bag of granola I had prepared in Miami.

Part of the old-world quality of Taboga was the absence of cars disturbing the peace. The roads are just wide enough to allow pedestrians to brush by the overhanging branches of hibiscus and fragrant oleander blossoms. While walking around the hilly island, I looked down a cliff face to see the battered hull of a steel sailboat fully exposed on a reef at low tide. She was washed up on the rocks, as rusted and abandoned as her owner's dreams.

Atop the highest hill in Taboga I scanned the scattered islands stretching across the horizon like stepping stones to the misty slopes of Panama. Here, captured by the contrast of mountain and sea, began, in a small way, my relationship with the mountains of each island I was to encounter.

I looked down on the harbor and the little dot that was Atom. From here she seemed so small, so suited to her name. Held back by her two anchors, her bow sniffing the open sea, she seemed to be saying, “Don't delay. This great ocean holds the treasures you are seeking. They lie there to the west, just over the horizon.” With the last of the great lock doors clanging shut behind me, the long, watery road ahead beckoned.