Thursday, June 4, 2009

Panama Canal Crossing

The Panama Canal is one of mankind’s greatest architectural feats. Creating a passage for ships, goods, trade from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean without having to make the lengthy trip around the entirety of the continent of South America was first thought of in the 1500s, and attempts were made in the late 19th century and into the beginnging of the 20th century. Ultimately close to 25,000 people died in its construction, largely from malaria. The Atlantic Ocean is actually higher than the Pacific, and with a lake in the center, a series of locks needed to be constructed to isolate the ship and either fill or drain to meet the water level on the other side. Today we passed through several locks with the ship coming within inches of the sides. This is because vessels over the past century are built to “Panamax” standards meaning that they can fit through the canal lock system. The first lock occurred around 6:30 today (while I was (over)sleeping). The beauty of the large lake was seen in the background during the Memorial Ceremony for Chief Branum. As we approached the next set of Locks we passed under the Centennial Bridge completed around 2004, this suspension bridge looks very similar to the Skyway bridge in Tampa and also the bridge in Boston. It was built to commemorate the century of the canal’s existence and also the handover of the Canal in 2002 from the U.S.A. to the country of Panama. As we passed under the Centennial Bridge many of the crew clamored to the top of the flight deck and bridge to get a good picture. It was really hot out today. The sun was scorching as we had our full uniforms on sweating profusely (I sweat a lot for some reason). But it was a special time to see all the smiles of the crew who were making one of the world’s greatest passages. We each will receive an official certificate from Panama stating that we have made the crossing. I was mesmerized by the lock system, how deep the canal must be to handle the keels of some of these massive ships, and how the water pressure differentials work. When we were “locked in” to one of the compartments, mechanized cars dragged the ship through with cables, and then the distal gate was let down and you could literally feel the ship sink, and could clearly see the level change when you peered over the side. Then we passed through and out of the lock. That lock was closed, the other end opened again, and water poured back in. In the distance we spied Panama City’s highrise and knew we were getting close to the grand Pacific Ocean. I was already sweating bullets, so I figured I would go for a run and a bike in the gym. So I threw on some running shoes and got even more sweaty. Good to get the heart beating. The only trouble was that after I was completely soaked, and went to take a shower I realized that the ship’s captain had turned all the freshwater on the ship off! While in the Canal all the water is freshwater, and the intake tank and distillery on the ship can only work off of salt water, so I was SOL. No PT (workout) gear is allowed topside (on deck) so I was subjected to sitting in my room soaked until water was restored. That was a bit malodorous and wet. I hope my roommates don’t mind. Glad that laundry is tomorrow.

By the time water came back on, and I got a quick shower, I had missed dinner, so I visited the vending machine and got some peanuts and a Gatorade. The nightly brief was long this evening, but packed with a great review on the crew’s work in Panama and a preview of the work coming up in Colombia. In Panama close to 20,000 people were treated and hundreds of surgeries done, engineering projects completed, lives touched. To hear some of the stories got me excited about getting our there and making a difference in Colombia. We will be receiving hazardous duty pay during our time in Colombia due to the terrorist threat levels there. The area we are going to called Tumaco is near the Ecuador border and is very rural. The majority of people in this region are Afro-Colombian with darker skin, and also there is a large Indian tribal populations. Tonight’s brief by the Official from the State Department based at the Embassy in Bogota was fascinating. He delved into the progress that has been made in Colombia under Presdient Urebe. Crime and terrorist threats are down, potential for socioeconomic growth and free trade with U.S. are all hot topics. We will be transiting from the ship in teams by helicopter and small boat to set up our worksites for dental, surgical, medical, and preventive medicine care. Some nights we may have to camp and stay over. It is going to be hot, hard going, but I am ready. Just so long as Juan Valdez is there with his donkey and some good Colombian coffee.


  1. Interesting to see how the locks work in real life and get a cert for it to boot! Funny about the sweat.... some on their lips...someone under their armpits! but for you ...I guess, you take the price.

  2. Intense! Keep updating. I am really enjoying your posts. I have to say, I think it is incredible that you are doing what you are doing.