Our driver, Dracula, has a thick slack body, and his head leans heavily to the right. One eye wanders and looks only up and left. The other is covered with an opaque membrane. His ungainly body is covered with a loose, soiled shirt and pants. It is a hot day in March 2007, and Dracula is taking me to get provisions for our Island Packet 420, Hope and Glory, where he and three other line handlers will live on our deck for the next four or five days on our journey through the Panama Canal.
Cars and buses fight for space on the streets of Colon. Drivers blow their horns and curse each other in Spanish, a language I don’t understand, driving over sidewalks and median strips to cut each other off. Dracula narrowly misses a pedestrian, but a cyclist is not so lucky. We knock him down and leave him on the ground, his bike a twisted wreck, without a backward glance.
“Wasn’t that a red light?” I shout to Dracula.
“Just a suggestion. Just a suggestion,” he replies.
The supermarket is surprisingly large and well-stocked, guarded by a man with a sawed-off shotgun, the weapon of choice in most of Central America. Dracula follows me around the market suggesting foods for the line handlers, mostly meat and cakes. As we leave the market, a small boy seizes the cart and unloads the groceries into our car, then thrusts his hand out for a tip while Dracula watches the transaction closely.
On the way back to the (since closed) Panama Canal Yacht Club, I hold my camera out the taxi window, photographing the city and its inhabitants. Dracula refuses to slow down, saying it’s too dangerous, that my camera would be grabbed out of my hand if I continued to hold it out the window.
I am anxious to get back to the yacht club as we are due to cast off soon to meet the pilot who will take us through the first set of locks. I breathe a sigh of relief when we reach the yacht club. The guard opens the gate where taxi drivers gather outside looking for fares. Dracula has an arrangement with the guard to enter the yacht club where fares can be more easily picked up.
I wind my way down the cracked, narrow concrete path to the dock with our groceries, carefully avoiding the red ant nests in the grass, passing stray dogs and cats seeking refuge under the trees from the brutal sun. At the boat, the line handlers are busy tying tires to the lifelines to protect our hull from the lock walls, and the handling lines are already neatly coiled on the deck.
When Dracula learns that Joe has locked the dinghy and its motor to the dock for safekeeping while we are gone, he rushes to move it to his locker. He says “the French steal everything” and would take it by that night if they had not already done so.
We are not your typical cruisers heading through the canal. Not only are we going to the Pacific side at Panama City, we are almost immediately turning around and coming right back to Colon. Our agent, Tina, who made all the arrangements and secured the necessary permits, says she has never known anyone to transit through and back like this before. Cruisers usually go on to sail the Pacific and sometimes around the world. However, my goal is simply to sail the Panama Canal.
Having been told we would begin our transit at 1930, we cast off promptly at 1730 to head for the Flats area, partway up Colon Harbor, and wait for our pilot. Before long, though, we get a radio call saying we’ll be delayed until 2230—disappointing because now it will be dark by the same we enter the first lock.
As we wait, I think about how we find ourselves here, on this most unusual of canal transits, that and how quickly this came about since my husband, Joe, and I first talked about it. After reading The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough, and watching The Building of the Panama Canal on the Discovery channel for the third or fourth time I said to him, “I want to sail through the Panama Canal,” adding that I think it’s one of the great engineering feats of the 20th century. Of course, travel anywhere, especially if it involves water, gets Joe’s attention.
“Do you want to take a cruise?”
“No. I want to sail Hope and Glory through.”
“We can do that,” Joe said.
And so we began making plans to sail through the Panama Canal—and back— the following winter instead of sailing to the Caribbean as we had done so many times before. This, in turn, is what led to our bobbing about on the Flats waiting our turn to go through.
Finally, the pilot finally arrives, an officious man who sits in the cockpit talking to the control tower on his radio and paying us little attention. Promptly at 2230 he gets a call and tells Joe to proceed. We fall in line behind an enormous black Russian freighter and motor into the Gatun Lock.
As we do so, the line handlers spring to life, each taking his post at the bow and stern. Meanwhile, their shoreside counterparts appear at the side of the lock and hurl long lines with weighted monkey’s fists on the ends up to which we attach our docklines so they can be hauled up to the bollards lining the dock walls. It’s choreographed like a ballet, although the pilot makes sure to keep clear. Apparently, there is considerable hostility between the line handlers and the pilots because of the enormous disparity in pay and prestige. Dracula tells us there is a bonus for any line handler who hits the pilot with a weighted monkey’s fist.
Once all is secure, the freighter rests against the side of the lock, and we maintain a short distance astern. Overhead lights illuminate everything as the canal operates 24 hours a day. We were told it has operated continuously since 1914, closing for only three hours at the beginning of WWII.
The locks are effectively water elevators that raise ships and boats on the Atlantic side, or the Pacific side, to the level of Gatun Lake, 80ft above sea level, for their transit over the Continental Divide. It takes my breath away, much as when I drive across the Continental Divide in Colorado. When the lock is full and we reach ground level, the lines are hauled back onto the boat, and we motor out to where we are directed into the huge Gatun Lake, created when a dam was built over the Chagres River and covering 164 square miles. It is used to hold boats over between the locks and also provides the necessary water for the locks to operate.
It is after midnight when we drop anchor a short a short distance into the lake, after which the pilot is picked up in a high-speed dinghy, and the line handlers settle down on deck for the night. We are scheduled to start again at 0530, so I set out fruit and cereal in the galley for the line handlers and any other early risers.
I spend a restless night until the time comes to get underway again the following morning. Another pilot has now joined us to take us through the next two locks. This one is personable and full of information about the canal, which he enjoys sharing with us. He tells us that canal pilots are both well paid and highly sought after by other countries with locks. They earn a thousand dollars a day, which doesn’t surprise me knowing how much Joe had paid Tina, the one who’d retained them. In addition to their hefty pay, the boats they guide through the Canal are also responsible for feeding them, along with the line handlers.
We are almost at the Pedro Miguel Locks, which we were scheduled to transit at noon, when Joe gets a disturbing phone call from Tina, who launches into a tirade about our responsibilities to the line handlers. Dracula had called her to complain that they had not been given any breakfast. Joe explains they had been given the same breakfast we all had, but it seemed that Dracula had wanted something cooked. I am not impressed. Several phone calls take place between Dracula, Tina, Joe and me, after which Dracula gives us a wide berth.
The afternoon is hot and sunny as we motor beside a tugboat along the canal to the last lock, the Miraflores lock. At the invitation of the tug captain, our crewmate John jumps aboard the tug and rides with them till we reach the Pacific side. People wave to us from the restaurant overlooking the Miraflores locks, a popular place for visitors to watch the never-ending spectacle.
As we leave the Miraflores locks and sail into Panama City at the end of the day, the sun gleams on the high-rise buildings rising from the sea. It reminds me of sailing into New York Harbor (minus the Statue of Liberty) on a summer evening.
At the Balboa Yacht Club, a driver is waiting to take us to a hotel Tina had arranged. Making amends for the upset with Dracula, she booked us into a boutique hotel in the bank district in Panama City where each room has a butler.
After several days in Panama City, we board Hope and Glory and make our way back through the canal and across the Continental Divide.
Patricia Moore lives in Sarasota, Florida and has been sailing with her husband, Joe Barnette, for 30 years.