So much has been written about the Panama Canal and yet nothing can prepare a sailor for what he sees and he feels when making a first transit in his own vessel.
The Canal is an engineering endeavor that has been compared to the construction of the pyramids. It has been named one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. Author David McCullough called it, “one of the supreme human achievements of all time.”
It has also been called the “greatest liberty ever taken with nature.” The loss of biomass when this 48-mile swath was cut between two oceans is incalculable. Mountains were moved, the land bridge between the north and south American continents was severed, and more than 150 square miles of pristine jungle was submerged under a new man-made lake.
Finally, there is the loss of human life. Some 27,000 men and women died to make this canal. They died of malaria, and yellow fever, and the bubonic plague. Workers died in dynamite blasts, crushed under tons of rock by landslides, and poisoned by the venomous bites from the spiders and snakes that they were displacing.
I don’t pass lightly as I transit the Panama Canal in Flying Fish.
To put some of this in perspective here is an abbreviated historic timeline: The earliest mention of a canal across the Isthmus of Panama dates back to 1534, when Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, ordered a survey for a route through the Americas that would ease the voyage for ships traveling between Spain and Peru.
In 1788, U.S. interest was first expressed when Thomas Jefferson encouraged a canal as a less treacherous route than going around the southern tip of South America.
Beginning in 1826, U.S. officials began negotiations with New Grenada (present-day Colombia), hoping to gain a concession for the building of a canal. Fearing (correctly) that his country would be dominated by an American presence, president Simon Bolivar declined American offers.
In 1877, Lucien Napoléon Bonaparte Wyse surveyed the route for France and negotiations were completed with Colombia to build the Canal. The French, however, were unprepared for the rainy season during which the Chagres River became a raging torrent rising up to 35 feet over its banks. Black clouds of mosquitos emerged from the standing water and thousands of Canal workers died of yellow fever and malaria. The French effort went bankrupt in 1889, after spending $287 million, losing an estimated 22,000 lives to disease and accidents, and wiping out the savings of 800,000 investors.
Seeing an opportunity, the United States stepped into the void in 1903, and encouraged a coup d’état on the isthmus. U.S. warships blocked sea lanes preventing Colombian troops sent to put down the rebellion. The new country of Panama declared independence on November 3, 1903. President Theodore Roosevelt famously stated, “I took the Isthmus.” The New York Times called it an “act of sordid conquest.” The New York Evening Post said it was a “vulgar and mercenary venture.” It is often cited as the classic example of U.S. gunboat diplomacy in Latin America.
The construction of the Canal was completed in 1914, some 401 years after Panama was first crossed by Vasco Núñez de Balboa. The United States spent almost $375 million to finish the project. It was by far the largest American engineering project to date. The Panama Canal joined the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, changing international trade forever. The 48 mile-long pathway through the Isthmus of Panama created a significant shortcut enabling ships to avoid the lengthy and hazardous Cape Horn route around the southernmost tip of South America via the Straits of Magellan.
After World War II, U.S. control of the canal and the Canal Zone surrounding it became contentious. Relations between Panama and the United States were increasingly tense. Many Panamanians felt that the Canal Zone belonged to Panama.
In 1974, negotiations toward a settlement began. On September 7, 1977, the treaty was signed by United States President Jimmy Carter and Panama’s de facto leader Omar Torrijos. After a period of joint American–Panamanian control the Canal was taken over in 1999 by the Panamanian government and is now managed and operated by the Panama Canal Authority.
Since the Torrijos-Carter treaty in 1977, the Canal has been officially and permanently neutral, providing service to ships of all nations. This means that if any nation were to attempt to seize the Canal, every other nation in the world would, presumably, defend it. Panama has no military, nor do they need one, to protect the Canal.
It was estimated in 1934 that the maximum capacity of the Canal would be around 80 million tons of shipping per year. Canal traffic in 2015 reached 340.8 million tons. An expanded Canal began commercial operation on June 26, 2016. New locks now allow transit of larger, Post-Panamax ships, capable of handling more cargo. The expansion has cost nearly $6 billion. All vessels crossing the Canal must pay a toll based on their weight and length. The largest ships now pay well over $1 million to transit. In 1928, American adventurer Richard Halliburton swam the length of the Panama Canal. His rate to transit was 36 cents.
This is the paradox of the Panama Canal. Modern engineering wonder. Environmental holocaust. Graveyard for tens of thousands of people. And yet, superlatives alone cannot accurately describe the feeling of transiting the Canal. To be upon these waters in Flying Fish was simply humbling.
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