The Mother of All Locks

Fall Waning Autumn Moon

At 4:30 am the Veendam had a small tug pushing it toward the south to better position it for entering the Gatun Locks. An upside down sliver moon hung in the sky and the smells of a large oil refinery floated on deck from a brightly lit facility on the north shore of the canal’s entrance.

Out in the ocean, behind us, were numerous ships, all brightly lit, all waiting for their turn in the long canal connecting the Atlantic basin and the Pacific.

Lockmeister Odegard would find this a fascinating journey through the Mother of All Locks. The Gatun can take ships up to 996 feet long and 110 feet wide. Even those generous dimensions long past feel outside the girth and length of the true ocean going monsters, mostly oil tankers, built so big that it still made economic sense to round Cape Horn. That problem with the Canal has a remedy underway, largely financed by the Chinese I think. It will build a third set of locks with capacity to handle these huge super ships on their journey from the oil fields of the Middle East to the oil hungry nations on the Pacific Rim.

The day is warm, though not so warm as the first time Kate and I made this journey. Starboard, our side, has the good fortune of facing north as we sail east to west, so our deck chairs have good shade.

Right now we are in Lake Gatun, the big artificial lake that provides the 51 million gallons of fresh water needed to step a ship up or down through the massive locks. These locks still the same massive doors and valves put in place in the early twentieth century.

Panama, our literature suggests, often gets overlooked by eco-tourists focused on Costa Rica just to the north, yet has as much interesting flora and fauna, more in the Darien Wilderness which begins just south of the Canal Zone.

The full transit of the canal will take us until 7:00 pm tonight after which we dock not far away in Fuerte Amador where we remain for day.

Odd to consider, but on this now week plus a day journey Kate and I have only visited one new place, Santa Marta. At Fuerte Amado and beyond, however, we will be always be in new cities, new countries, new geography.

Just now, at 11:45 we’re headed into one of two narrow passages. The Galliard Cut, one of the two, was the chief obstacle to completion of the Canal. It contained so much rock that reducing it to rubble and moving it out of the way created problems for the engineers.

Mostly the passage way has no other ships in sight except for small craft used by employees of the Canal or the occasional fishermen. Other wise we sail between lands heavily forested, the wild having recovered the battered geography left after the Canal’s creation.

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