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Panama Canal: Memoirs of a tugboat stowaway

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Written by Matt   
Saturday, 18 February 2006 11:32
This time I stepped in it. On Friday, February 17th, I worked a day shift with a tugboat captain, patrolling the waterways of one of the seven wonders of the modern world. The Panama Canal. It was early in the morning when Rebecca and I showed up at the ACP (Authoridad del Canal de Panama) with no idea of what to expect. The armed guard at the gate found us on the guest list and passed us through. We met up with Ray, a friend of ours and a senior captain for the ACP. Ray is big for a soft spoken guy and as we would soon find out, his nautical know-how is borderline idiot savant. He's a tugboat captain, and he says things like star board, aft, and bravo–we were his guests for the day.

After some preparations and printouts, a panama canal authority driver shuttled us and our soon-to-be crew out to the tugboat dock, about 5 minutes away. We boarded our boat—Esperanza—and in no time drifted out into the famous canal. Esperanza is a tough pudgy looking tugboat common on the canal. Tugboats on the panama canal , contrary to popular belief as well as contrary to their namesake, don't actually tug. They are harnessed at the back and to the sides of larger boats for more precise steering. Sometimes, they push their noses up against big cruise liners to nudge them into position. Nudgeboats would be more accurate.

We aided a few large freight ships in between the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel Locks at a speed of 4-5 knots. The ships came from all over the world, and on average, pay $50,000 cash or wire transfer to pass through the canal. The canal runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and passes about 40 boats through at 8 hours per transit. It's really a marvel.

Ray arranged for us to boat upcanal all the way to Gamboa. The trek north through the canal was pristine. The narrowest portion of the canal is called the Culebra Cut and there are deep green forests projecting from both sides. Little baby waterfalls with happy little rivulets emptying into the channel. Bare, rugged cliffs and birds soaring above. Rusty orange rock formations and small swallow-looking birds hovering along side the boat like dolphins, ever-curious in my writings. I had no idea where I was going or how long it would take...but I kinda liked it that way.

I was leaning on a sea-worn wooden stool scarred with splashes of errant paint and my feet up on the metal rail. I got hit by one of those moments—you know: How did I get here? What am I doing? Answer: I'm sitting on the back of a tugboat, being hauled by a giant Maltese cruise liner named Eleni M. through the Gamboa Rainforest Reserve on the panama canal . I felt rebellious. Like a stowaway. Like some sort of train-hopping nomad from the days of black and white TV, sitting on a bed of straw writing in his beat up journal as the world passed me by. I am cool.

The water on the canal was still, like a giant blue dance floor. Around 11:00 am, I pulled out and ate my lunch: a little traylet of sushi, a bottle of agua, as well as my favorite chicklet-style chewing gum—it crunches when you bite into it.

At one point, my mom called my cell phone asking for that special ingredient that keeps guacamole from going brown. I can't talk mom. I'm on a tugboat on the Panama Canal and we're positioning a Greek cargo ship to enter the Miraflores Locks. Gosh.

The locks are mind bending. Large chambers which utilize water and gravity to raise or lower boats depending on the difference in water levels. At the Pedro Miguel Locks for example, we rose about 50 feet in 15 minutes to continue northwards.

At one point we passed Panama's version of Alcatraz—a high security prison named Renacer surrounded by alligator infested waters and miles and miles of untouched jungle. For a maritime- buff convict though, not a bad view.

My Dramamine seems to be working well—perhaps I should start using it on land, to better my balance.

Off to the side, a powerboat speeds past us, carrying 4 or 5 armed ACP officials. They do the universal air chop with their hands as to say good day. I send one back.

In some downtime, we talked about sailor things like canal disasters, water depths, and stowaways which unbeknownst to me, are often given jobs on board after they are discovered. Instead of enduring heavy fines for stowaways, captains simply make the stowaway part of the crew and send them on their way at the end of it all.

We pass under the Centenario Bridge, which looks to have been made from oversized tinker toys, and along side a giant cargo ship named HANJIN. Again, there's that weird contrast as throughout Panama—a massive piece of metal against a backdrop of loopy palm trees rustling from a lazy wind. It's bizarre.

Around 5pm our relief showed up and we boarded a smaller faster boat. This boat took us to the ACP workers dock, much like a buss stop for canal workers. We walked past relaxing seamen playing dominoes and watching TV. The same shuttle that brought us in the morning picked us up and we were on our way back.

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