Panama – Where Time Never Stands Still

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Originally published in Blue Planet Log magazine (Issue 3 – December 2013)

Round the world fleet transiting the Panama Canal

When I first transited the Panama Canal in 1977 it was still under US administration, cruising boats were a negligible minority, a fraction of the roughly 1,000 yachts that nowadays transit the canal every year. By 1991, when we arrived with the first round the world rally, the gradual transfer of control of the canal operation to Panamanian administration was well underway and was eventually completed in 1999.

Having been told that the canal was working to full capacity and that getting a large fleet across to the Pacific could take two or three weeks, if not more, I flew to Panama a few months before the arrival of the fleet, and managed to get an appointment with Jorge de la Guardia, the Administrator of the Panama Canal Commission.

My doubts and misgivings were blown away the instant I walked into his imposing office. The first ever Panamanian to be appointed to that important position, Sr Guardia was a friendly, affable man who took me by surprise by his interest in the requirements of a bunch of cruising boats. The fact that I spoke Spanish may have helped because when I asked for his support in getting our 32 boats through as quickly as possible, he generously agreed to give us a lockage dedicated to just our yachts.

This had never happened before, and for good reason, because, as he explained, a fleet of small boats with limited displacement, would waste far more fresh water than a large ship for a tiny fraction of the revenue. When the time came, we transited with minimum delay with the boats being grouped in the locks in several nests made up of three boats each, a system also used on the other three world rallies that followed, as well as the Hong Kong Challenge, the first round the world race to reach the Pacific via this convenient shortcut.

Much has happened in Panama in the intervening years, as I found in October 2013 on a visit to prepare the transit of the Blue Planet Odyssey in early 2015. From a sleepy place with no building higher than four stories, Panama City now looks like a skyscraping clone of New York, the place is buzzing, and, just as on all my previous visits, the canal is operating at full capacity.

The omens didn’t look good, and I was quite pessimistic about how the Blue Planet Odyssey would be received.

Abraham Saied, Jimmy Cornell, Doralva Piper, José Miranda

I couldn’t have been more wrong as, once again, I managed to arrange a meeting with the essential canal officials. Once I had described the nature of the Blue Planet Odyssey and its aims, I was assured that our concerns for the consequences of climate change were widely shared by the people of Panama.

With the same spirit of openness and hospitality that I had encountered on every one of my previous visits to Panama, I was left in no doubt that we could count on their full cooperation for the planned transit.

Meeting the Guna

San Blas

Not far from the Panama Canal Authority are the offices of the Guna Congress. This ethnic minority that inhabits the San Blas Island, who recently changed the spelling of their name to its phonetic version, enjoys a high degree of autonomy in its internal affairs. All matters of communal interest are conducted strictly along traditional lines, with all decisions affecting the Guna population being taken in unanimity, with the women having an equal vote.

Having repeatedly failed to make contact by email with the Guna Congress, I had no choice but to show up without an appointment. I was received politely by the Congress secretary Arnoldo Bonilla, but the sight of a T-shirt pinned to the wall with “500 years of blood and exploitation” splashed across its front made me understand in an instant that the conquistadors and their successors were not their natural heroes.

Nevertheless I did my best to explain to the two officials present that the Blue Planet Odyssey was an altruistic project and that all we wanted was to highlight the dangers faced by the inhabitants of the San Blas Islands as a result of climate change. The Guna are very much aware of the real threat posed to their low-lying islands, and gradually I detected a slight change in their response, indicating that they may be prepared to give us the benefit of the doubt.

Although Sr Bonilla made it quite clear that they’ve had too many do-gooders (his expression) show up with offers of help in the recent past, almost without exception they all came with a hidden agenda. I could well understand their initial suspicion and was greatly relieved when, at the end of our conversation, agreed that we should stay in contact. He also advised me to get in touch nearer the time of our arrival in early 2015, and keep them informed of the Blue Planet Odyssey’s progress.

San Blas will be the first of the threatened areas along the Blue Planet Odyssey route and will serve as the meeting point for the boats that had started from either Martinique or Miami. The San Blas programme will be defined nearer the time but one of the highlights of our stay will be a visit to the Guna Museum at Carti Sugdup, one of the main settlements.

With John Halley at Shelter Bay Marina

At the meeting with the Panama Canal officials it was agreed that in order to expedite the transit of the Blue Planet Odyssey fleet, from San Blas we shall proceed to Shelter Bay Marina to make the necessary formalities and preparations.

From Panama City, I therefore drove across the isthmus to the Caribbean side for a meeting with Sr Carlos Valencia, the owner of the marina. Once again, the nature of our event must have made an impression as he generously agreed to host us, leaving all practical matters in the hands of John Halley, the marina manager. Having known each other for many years, it took no time at all to agree with John on our various requirements. Mission accomplished!

The New Canal

Some old friends, Dave Wilson and Sandra Snyder, arrived in Panama on their yacht from California in the 1980s and liked the place so much that they swallowed the anchor and became permanent residents. Sandra has written Living in Panama for expats relocating to Panama, while Dave wrote Transiting the Panama Canal in a Small Vessel, worked on the development of Shelter Bay Marina, and is now a manager for the company building the new Atlantic and Pacific locks.

Set of new locks on the Pacific side

Looking far into the future, the Panamanian authorities, fully supported by the population, took the decision to double the current canal’s capacity by building a new set of locks, in other words virtually an entirely new canal.

Designed to be used by far larger ships than at present, the new locks and their gigantic gates dwarf the existing ones.

Pharaonic is the only way to describe this mammoth project taken on by a relatively small country and, what is indeed remarkable, entirely financed by Panama’s own means.

The best equipment has been ordered from around the world, the project is scheduled to be finished by the middle of 2015 and the huge 5 billion dollars investment is expected to be recuperated ten years after the new canal becomes fully operational.

On the last day of my visit, Dave Wilson obtained the necessary permits to take me around the buzzing site, which employs some 10,000 people. I stood in awe on the floor of one lock chamber looking up at its 30 metre high walls the size of a large cathedral.

2014 marks the centenary of the opening of the first canal in 1914 and, at that time, it was described as the eighth wonder of the world. By that same token, the new canal will certainly qualify as the ninth.

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