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Ships enter the Panama Canal.
Photo Credit: Dean Hancock
Ships enter the Gatun Locks in Panama Canal. The research vessel LAURENCE M. GOULD transited the canal en route to Punta Arenas, Chile, from Louisiana earlier this year. The trip through the canal is a well-orchestrated dance.

Passing through

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

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The fact that many on the research vessel Laurence M. Gould External U.S. government site had been through the Panama Canal External Non-U.S. government site 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.

Ship passes in front of buildings.
Photo Credit: Dean Hancock
The city of Colón near Limon Bay.

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.

Person lays out lines on ship deck.
Photo Credit: Dean Hancock
A GOULD cremember lays out lines in preparation of crossing the canal.

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.

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