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Passing through

The show at the Panama Canal is one not to be missed

The fact that many on the research vessel Laurence M. Gould had been through the Panama Canal before did nothing to diminish our sense of anticipation. Crossing that narrow ribbon of water and commerce that connects two great oceans is not something that one tends to shrug off.

For some, this would be a first crossing; for others, the first in a long while; and for many, a first night passage. But it was a matter of routine for no one.

Reaching Panama meant that ship and crew were about one third of the way from Port Fourchon, La., to Punta Arenas, Chile. The trip north had allowed the Gould to offload hazardous waste and complete routine maintenance. Now it was heading back to that small port in the Strait of Magellan that most closely approximates home.

No science was being conducted on the trip south, making the canal visit a welcome diversion from weeks of otherwise unbroken monotony. No other land would be seen for the better part of a month.

The ship arrived at Limon Bay before dawn, where it anchored among rusting hulks and a tired-looking dredge. The city of Colón was close by, but it might as well have been on another planet. There would be no port call here. The Gould was waiting its turn in a long line of large ships, and nothing else really mattered. All aboard had hoped for a daylight crossing, but by the time we approached the first lock, we were also approaching dusk.

Safety considerations dictate that the very largest of ships — and those with dangerous cargos — transit during daylight hours. So the Gould and crew would have to wait, but it was a wait that diminished no one’s interest. Besides, there was work to be done.

The crew needed to lay out “standby lines”: backups to the steel cables that both pull and center the ship as it passes from one lock to the next. Panamanian line handlers manage the cables, but they would not board for hours. More importantly, the ship would have to wait for a pilot. Pilots are mariners who specialize in steering vessels through hazardous waters. We could go nowhere without one, so routine tasks would dominate the day. 

In fact, that day proved to be much the same as the others since leaving Louisiana, even if the ship wasn’t moving. The routine was largely unaltered, except for the laying out of lines and a few other preparations. And there was the occasional topside stroll to take in the hot tropical air and gawk at the endless caravan of vessels — some old, some new, and some very rusty, all going somewhere — that were either heading to or coming from that first set of locks. Lastly, there was the ever-present sense that this would be a day to remember.

Panama is a strange meeting place. It’s strange, in part, because here, as in a busy harbor, large ships pass much closer to one another than they ever would on the high seas. But unlike major ports, few vessels stop in Panama. Those that do stop generally do so only long enough to wait for their place in the unending caravan. Everyone is just passing through. This makes it a land of transients, a geographic bottleneck, and the ultimate logjam. But it’s a well-managed logjam — something of a maritime ballet, in fact. Panama puts on quite a show, and the anticipation so easily sensed on the Gould arose from the realization that all aboard would be treated to front row seats.

The curtain rose when a small launch delivered the pilot. Pilots are all business. Every day they are entrusted with millions of dollars in ships and cargo. They are paid, and paid well, because they have a special knowledge and accept a big responsibility. They are experts in the fine art of safe passage, but their expertise applies to one very small part of the world. This means that they steer a different ship every day, but always over the same bit of water.

The pilot had been on board only a few minutes when the windless began to nudge the anchor from its repose in the harbor mud. It was as if the napping ship had been awakened suddenly. With neither warning nor fanfare, the propellers began to turn, churning up water and sediment in what had been our berth for that long day of waiting.

The line handlers met us en route, also delivered by boat. Well-maintained launches with the deep-throated growl of powerful engines dart here and there, depositing and collecting line handlers and pilots. These small boats weave in and out of the gaps that separate freighters from tankers in a frenetic but carefully choreographed dance. This is part of the show at Panama.

The line handlers boarded within sight of the Gatun Locks. There are three such basins, and together they lift the ship from sea level to Gatun Lake. The vertical distance is about 85 feet. A ship enters a lock, a gate closes in its wake, and water slowly fills the void between ship’s hull and lock’s wall. In time, the vessel rises just far enough for it to pass into the next lock — or in the case of the third lock — into the lake itself.

On the Pacific side, two more sets of the locks — the Pedro Miguel and the Miraflores — lower the ship back to sea level. It’s a maritime escalator. It’s simple and it’s ingenious; and it’s been happening over and over, day after day, for nearly a century.

The raising and lowering of great ships is also part of the performance in Panama. In fact, it’s the show’s most important act. It’s also the metronome whose rhythm every other performer must match. So ships rise, and ships fall; but that’s not the entire show. Ships must also move horizontally. That should be simple enough, given that they are designed for that very purpose. But this is a place where big ships maneuver in tight quarters and at slow speeds — a recipe for trouble. So others lend a hand.  

Some of that help comes from the pilot who knows these waters so well. More comes from the line handlers and the cables they tend. These cables run from bits on the ship’s main deck to small railroad engines called mules. Each ship is assigned four mules — two forward (one port and one starboard), and two aft (one port and one starboard) — that run on tracks laid along the canal’s edges.

The mules pull the ship forward, while also providing a tension that keeps the ship centered. The ship’s propellers are turning, but that alone does not mean that the vessel is under control. There is something that mariners call bare steerage: a speed below which a rudder becomes ineffective. Moving in and out of locks requires that most vessels operate below their bare steerage speed, so the mules offer the needed stability to keep them from nudging lock walls and one another. Providing that stability means that the four mules must all play the same note at the same moment, and they do so with impressive consistency.

Although the mules being used today are of a recent vintage, they seem very much at home in their role. This too is part of the canal show; the early 20th century working in perfect concert with the early 21st. Old facilities and new technologies all marking time by the lifting and lowering of great ships.

The point is made anew each time a mule strains forward. The event is marked by the sharp clang of a distinctive bell on each of the little engines. The mules are new and shiny, and their engines purr in a manor consistent with contemporary technology, but the clang is of another era — essentially that of a San Francisco street car.

While the movement at the locks sets the rhythm, much of the show is performed elsewhere. It’s about 51 miles from the Caribbean to the Gulf of Panama, and most of that journey is on Gatun Lake. The ship picks up speed quickly as it starts out over the lake.

The pilot will remain aboard until we’ve reached the Pacific, but the line handlers make a well-rehearsed departure here. As they move from ship to launch, the Gould does not even slow down. Each line handler waits his turn, and then steps from the steel deck into the darkness. Waiting there for him is yet another launch that has no trouble slicing though the wake along our starboard side. There will be other line handlers waiting to board on the other side of the lake. In fact, they will be waiting on the other side of the continent.  

The Lake is big, but even in the darkness one would never mistake it for the open ocean. No mules are needed here, but lighted buoys — green to port and red to starboard if westbound — clearly delineate the deep channel’s boundary. In some spots, the lake is quite broad. In others, the shore is no more than a stone’s throw from the ship. More launches and dredges are passed, as are the many Caribbean-bound vessels.

Roads, lights, and buildings dot the lake’s edge, revealing a human presence at every turn. But we also see hints that a wilderness is close at hand. There is a forest just beyond the narrow strip of mud that passes for a beach, and I had an unshakable sense of its presence. I couldn’t help but scan the lake’s edge; but is it another shiny launch that’s being sought out, or the bright plumage of a tropical bird? Either is possible.

Just there, beyond the footlights that mark the water’s edge, is a jungle. It’s rich and wild, and it’s as much a part of the show as the locks or the mules or the launches. Perhaps this is one player in the show that is better seen by the light of day, but the wilderness beckons even at night. Darkness is, after all, a part of things wild.

The Panama Canal is an engineering marvel set in a tropical paradise. Strange though it may sound, each complements the other quite well. Nature’s grandeur and human ingenuity seem to respect one another here. The coexistence of the two is just one more thing that commands our attention. 

The ship will soon be making its descent onto the largest of the Earth’s countless features, the Pacific Ocean. But for a time the crew enjoys its passage across Gatun Lake. It’s an oddity in the center of the show. Here a seagoing ship flies at 85 feet above the sea’s level, crossing a continent in a matter of hours. From the Caribbean Sea to the Gulf of Panama requires about eight such hours.

The show lasts no longer than that, but memories of the performance will linger. In fact, they will remain in place long after recollections of most others shows have faded from memory.

Dean Hancock is a technical editor for the USAP, currently aboard the research vessel Laurence M. Gould as it transits from Port Fourchon, La., to Punta Arenas, Chile. He spent 10 years in the U.S. Navy , where he worked in shipboard engineering. He has also worked for the U.S. Geologic Survey  doing cartography and Geographic Information Systems.

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs