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The 19th Century Moonshot

January 10th, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

There’s something about a lock gate opening that always excites me, the admission to a new territory, whether it’s a stretch of the upper Thames or in this case the opening of the locks to the most ambitious canal in the world, that of Panama. 

The fact that it’s dawn and pelicans and frigate birds are circling round us as steam rises from the jungle to either side just heightens the sensation.  The red and green navigation lights are blinking to either side as we nudge our way down the channel towards the gates, and there’s an appealing pinging noise made by the mechanical ‘mules’ (electric carriages on tracks) that escort us on the shore. 

Even though we’re in a 650 foot long boat of 32,000 tons, the procedure for entering the lock is charmingly simple in some ways.  Two men come out in a rowing boat to grab some tow ropes which can then be pulled along the sides of the lock to guide the boat in. 

The ropes are thrown down from the boat by a local team of pilots who come on board.  It’s quite an art to hit a rowing boat with a rope from a distance – not least when you have a great many idle spectators to comment if you get it wrong – and on the side of the lock they’ve set up a bull’s-eye and throwing pitch so they can practise in their downtime. 

container ship travelling through Culebra Cut

Approaching from the Caribbean side, boats have to rise about 85 feet to reach the large inland lake of Gatun, man-made and created by flooding the valley, which we will then cross before taking the infamous Culebra Cut through the hills – infamous because so many men died making it – and then emerge through further locks into the Pacific on the other side. 

While still, almost a century after it was completed, one of the great engineering marvels of the world, the moonshot of its day, I find it hard to forget the lives that were lost building the Panama Canal:  a quite staggering 25,000, most of the deaths occurring during the failed earlier French attempt of the late 19th century when they had yet to get the measure of the challenge — in particular the need to provide sanitation and rid the area of the standing water in which yellow fever and malaria mosquitoes could breed. 

The French used many Chinese labourers and refused to let them take their habitual opium, about the only thing which had kept those same labourers going when working on the North American railroads.  As a result many ‘fell into a perpetual melancholy’, as one observer reported, and some committed mass suicide at the Culebra Cut.  

The real killer was of course yellow fever, from which only some 30% of those infected were likely to recover. 

The whole affair was a débâcle of the first order.  The French instigator of the canal, de Lesseps, a national hero for having completed the Suez canal earlier, badly underestimated the nature of the task – cutting a canal not through malleable desert sand but through some of the most humid jungle in the world.  When they abandoned their attempt, it was not only national pride that suffered:  the French economy nosedived after the earlier hyping of shares in the ‘ Panama bubble’, and because de Lesseps was Jewish, an atmosphere of anti-Semitism was fermented that prefigured the Dreyfus affair. 

But the waters of the lake are placid now.  There’s an island that has become a bird sanctuary and the transition to Panamanian control that was completed some 10 years ago has been a success – to the extent that they are now widening the channels so as to be able to take larger tankers.  When first opened in 1914, the Americans ‘future-proofed’ their fine new canal with channels of the then phenomenal width of around 100 feet – allowing boats of what became known as the Panamax standard – some 85 feet wide – to squeeze through.  But there are plenty of larger supertankers that have to take the long route around Cape Horn, adding 8000 miles to the trip , so are in the market for a wider canal. 

All this comes naturally at a price – around $50,000 passage fee for a boat like ours.  Not that I’m paying it.  But it does justify drinking champagne at six in the morning as we float up and enter the final lock gates that allow us onto the lake.

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