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Dispatch from Panama: Just Getting By

Posted by Tom Haines, Globe Travel Writer  February 20, 2008 03:16 PM

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Panama runs long and lean east and west. It is narrowest in its middle, where the 48-mile-long canal has split the country in two for nearly a century.

Our route from the capital would stick to land, traversing the canal on a high bridge opened in 2003 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Panama's separation from Colombia. We planned then to continue on the Pan American Highway through the dry fields of Cocle and the foothills of Veraguas and down again to a valley home to parched heat and the city of David, the nation's second-largest city.

Before Essdras and I left Panama City, we stopped to pick up a friend of his who has been working as a Panama Canal pilot for 14 years. When the big cargo ships arrive at the Atlantic or Pacific side hoping to get through the canal, Essdras's friend is one of those who climbs aboard and guides the ships through. The canal is the only place in the world, apparently, where the pilot -- normally an advisory role to the captain -- takes full command of the ship.

This is a photo taken by Essdras of a ship passing through the canal's Miraflores Locks.

ptycanal.jpg

The day before, Essdras's friend had safely led through the canal a ship with a Panamanian flag - it is the world's most common "flag of convenience." The ship was traveling from Chile north to Philadelphia. It had a cargo of apples, plums and grapes. It's crew included a Polish captain, an Indian chief engineer and a Lithuanian crew. The ship was 500 feet long, relatively easy going through the canal.

The largest ships that pass -- Panamax, they are called -- measure 965 feet long and 106 feet wide. Compare that to the dimensions of the locks. 1000 feet long and 110 feet wide. That's right: two feet of clearance on each side for the Panamax ships.

Now imagine up to 40 ships a day going north or south between the Pacific and Atlantic, passing one another and moving in and out of three sets of locks.

Accidents happen, of course. But captains need not worry when their boats slam into the side of the locks, says Essdras's friend, the pilot: "I tell them steel is stronger than concrete."

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