The Panama Canal

Early morning view of the Panama City skyline from the Casco Viejo neighborhood located on the other side of the Bahia de Panama
Early morning view of the Panama City skyline from the Casco Viejo neighborhood located on the other side of the Bahia de Panama

Panama City is a big, bustling modern city with an obvious American influence. It boasts the largest mall in Latin America, a Trump tower, and more familiar chain stores and restaurants than you can shake a stick at. It’s also got elements of ferality - that feeling that anything goes - that we have come to love and appreciate about Central America. We shared our cheese and crackers with a police officer who stopped his patrol to admire Wesley. Try doing that in Washington, D.C.

Rather than take a room at the Holiday Inn in the Americanized downtown, we landed in a quaint European-ish neighborhood across the Bay of Panama called Casco Viejo, where refurbished colonial-style buildings are neighbors with crumbling ruins and upscale restaurants. We know the restaurants are upscale because Panama uses the U.S. dollar as currency and we can immediately see without having to do a currency conversion that a main dish costs more than $10. Because we are on a budget, we cooked rice and pasta in the hostel kitchen, but did manage to spend $30 on ice cream over three days to buy the kids’ silence as we visited certain places of interest and museums.

View down a pretty Casco Viejo street.
View down a pretty Casco Viejo street.
This arch - unique in architecture as being a flat arch rather than rounded - in the ruined Santo Domingo church was used as evidence that Panama had the seismic stability that Nicaragua did not. Thus, a canal should be built here, not there. Later, the church crumbled. The two piles of bricks below the arch are what remains of the original. The arch is actually a replica.
This arch - unique in architecture as being a flat arch rather than rounded - in the ruined Santo Domingo church was used as evidence that Panama had the seismic stability that Nicaragua did not. Thus, a canal should be built here, not there. Later, the church crumbled. The two piles of bricks below the arch are what remains of the original. The arch is actually a replica.

Panama has a very interesting history. Everyone has heard of the Panama Canal - Panama City is one of its entry points - but it is also the place where Vasco Núñez de Balboa, representing Europeans everywhere, first sighted the Pacific Ocean. As a part of Gran Colombia, the first collaborative attempt at independence by several former Spanish colonies, it was visited by Simon Bolivar, the great liberator of South America. And, of course, no Central American country is free of the intrigue of U.S. geo-political involvement. Someone could write a television drama about events here that would rival Game of Thrones.

Shortly after we left Virginia on this adventure through the Americas we stayed with Patty and Frank in North Carolina. They had cruised the world for years and suggested that a unique way to experience the Panama Canal, once we got there, would be to act as line handlers on a private boat transiting from the Caribbean side to the Pacific, or vice versa.

Our hosts in Walkerton, North Carolina - Patti and Frank in W
Our hosts in Walkerton, North Carolina - Patti and Frank in W

A line handler fastens the lines that secure the boat within the Canal locks. The locks are chambers where the water level is manipulated to raise/lower the boat to/from Gatun Lake, depending on which direction the boat is traveling. The Canal Authority requires any boat entering the Canal to have four line handlers, one for each corner. Any boat that doesn’t have four adults (in addition to the Captain) must either hire professional line handlers, or take on amateur freeloading volunteers like us.

A fish eye view of the Miraflores locks that open to the Pacific Ocean
A fish eye view of the Miraflores locks that open to the Pacific Ocean

Coconut and J have been reading about the Canal in anticipation of transiting it as part of a boat crew and we’ve all learned a lot about the country and the history of the Canal.

We learned that early land routes across Panama used by the Spaniards to transport their riches laid the groundwork for, first, a trans-ismuthian railroad, and then a waterway. We learned that the British sanctioned piracy against Spanish ships and cities because they also wanted to share in the spoils of raping the land of its precious metals and enslaving the indigenous peoples - they even went so far as to knight the best pirates (Sir Henry Morgan; Sir Francis Drake) - in what can only be viewed as the colonial-era equivalent of state-sponsored terrorism. We also learned the reasons why the U.S. agreed to build the canal in Panama instead of Nicaragua, despite the more challenging terrain (to prevent Germany from building it) and of its role in Panama gaining independence from Columbia (let's just say the U.S. was a silent partner - kind of like the burly, shaved-head guy at the end of the bar who doesn't say anything but whom no one wants to tangle with.)

Anyway, when Patty and Frank mentioned line handling, we thought, “Cool. Let’s file that away until we get to Panama.” Then I immediately forget about it in the wake of more important questions like, “How long can I ignore that weird noise coming from the engine before it will become a problem?” and “When was the last time I changed my socks?”, and R made a note somewhere and remembered it ten months later. It is a good thing R can remember things like this instead of things like where she put her water bottle, because after walking up and down the docks at the Shelter Bay Marina asking if anyone needed line handlers, we were able to hook up with a super cool and laid back Brazilian family going to Costa Rica on their 38-foot catamaran.

We camped at the Shelter Bay Marina in Fort Sherman, a former U.S. military base, while we arranged a line handling job.
We camped at the Shelter Bay Marina in Fort Sherman, a former U.S. military base, while we arranged a line handling job.
Nautili - the 38-foot catamaran that we transited across the Panama Canal
Nautili - the 38-foot catamaran that we transited across the Panama Canal

Captain Sandro quit his job as a dentist in Sao Paolo, Brazil, after 25 years, because, well, he was just tired of it, purchased a boat in Portugal, spent 9 months living on it without water or electricity while fixing it up, sailed it across the Atlantic to pick up his partner, Dani, and daughter, Laura, and now they are on their way to Playa Coco, Costa Rica, where they will do daily charters for vacationing American tourists. This is just one example of the dozens of inspiring people we have met on this trip.

After a short interview with Captain Sandro, conducted shirtless and barefoot and in which we agreed to bring our own food, we signed on as line handlers and spent two nights on their boat, Nautili, traversing the Canal. For a lot of reasons, which I will try to be brief about, it was pretty unforgettable, even for me.

Line handlers need to know how to tie certain knots. Here, Captain Sandro looks on as R practices.
Line handlers need to know how to tie certain knots. Here, Captain Sandro looks on as R practices.
Captain Sandro directs Coconut towards the first set of locks
Captain Sandro directs Coconut towards the first set of locks

As we went through the first set of locks - the Gatun Locks - Coconut smiled and ran around helping smooth lines and keep pathways clear, while taking notes in her journal and sending pictures to her friends on Instagram. Before we entered the locks, J got to steer the boat and lounge around on the net at the fore of the boat and sleep outside on the deck under the stars. R was thrilled to see that even the crew of the enormous cargo ships that transit the canal, which one would call professional sailors, were excited - snapping photos and waving and dancing. And I was impressed, and somewhat perplexed, that this wonder of modern technology, which facilitates billions of dollars in the world economy, is still reliant on humans to retrieve and attach the lines that secure the vessels so they don’t get bounced around in the currents created by filling and emptying the locks.

Everyone on our flotilla was awed by passage through the Canal.
Everyone on our flotilla was awed by passage through the Canal.

The entire transit – 77 kilometers – took us about 24 hours. We spent most of Sunday roasting like chickens at the marina - Panama is definitely the hottest country we have visited. Around 4 p.m. we motored to the first set of locks where we took on a Panama Canal Authority official to guide us through the procedure. We were fastened to two other sailboats and snuck in behind a large cargo vessel to go through the first set of locks - the Gatun Locks - at about 8:30 before spending a breezy night in Gatun Lake.

The next day, we motored from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. to arrive at the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks.

There wasn't a lot for a line handler to do while motoring to the Miraflores Locks except roll around in the nets.
There wasn't a lot for a line handler to do while motoring to the Miraflores Locks except roll around in the nets.
As we approached the Miraflores Locks and visitor center, Coconut and J held up a sign asking onlookers to email their photos to us.
As we approached the Miraflores Locks and visitor center, Coconut and J held up a sign asking onlookers to email their photos to us.

Two hours later we passed under the Bridge of the Americas and into the Pacific. What took decades to build and claimed more than 25,000 lives, was a piece of cake for us to traverse.

We docked at the Balboa Yacht Club and parted ways with Captain Sandro and his family and met Wesley in the parking lot of the Country Inn and Suites where we had parked it days earlier, no questions asked by anyone. The hotel has a pool, A/C, a free shuttle to the mall, and an attached TGIFridays where you can get a $12 burger. This is Panama after all, the most American of the Central American countries we have visited. We stayed two nights.