Ship’s Log: Day Twenty Three (Melbourne to Tilbury – Panama Canal)

Twenty-third day of the voyage; sixteenth and last day of the Pacific crossing.

The Panama Canal: legendary, anticipated, thoroughly engrossing and tiring. We were booked in as soon as we arrived – at 0130. So, short of sleep, we staggered onto the bridge to watch the passage: by Panama City, into the Pacific entrance and Monteflores locks:

A tight fit, up one, two three locks and into the dammed up channel (almost a lake in parts) that is fed by fresh water streams.

We arrived early at the Atlantic end, so after lying at anchor for four hours, entered the three locks to drop to sea level once again.

Of what do you think when passing the canal for the first time? I ponder the stories of its construction, already told to me at primary school, especially about the mosquitoes and yellow fever that killed so many of the French workers on the first effort. They had come here after a triumphant construction of the modern Suez Canal, only to come to grief with disease, landslides (due to an effort to cut a sea-level canal) and bankruptcy. Only then did the Yankees put together a consortium, construct it in the 1910s and 1920s and promptly arrange for as lengthy a lease as possible – so much so that Panama did not get control of the thing until a few years ago.

I also suspect it functions much like the Danish ‘sound tax’ on the Øresund, or the similar Dutch tax for passage through Amsterdam a couple of hundred years ago. For each ship must pay a fee, which then provides an extraordinary amount of employment: maintenance, renovation, new construction, drivers of the land tugs, and of course the endless pilots. We had five: two to share the initial passage, one to get us out through the Atlantic locks, another through the breakwater and a fifth to get us into the port of Manzanillo at the other end.

I thought of my maternal grandparents, as I have done now for some days. Fifty-three years ago they passed through here, oma keen for a better climate for her health, opa focused on overcoming thwarted ambition and impatience with his career. They were a few of years younger than me at the time, with a family of seven children ranging from 18 to about 3. How did they manage six weeks on a crowded immigration ship (bunk beds) on the ocean? What dreams and expectations did they have? How much was based on propaganda and sheer lies? What did they think of the home they had left, to return only once many years later.

And I thought of the moth I saw in the ship’s light, realising that in the pure air of the mid-Pacific, no insects appeared at all. Nor did flies or bugs of beetles, nor did any colds or flus or whatever. Now we are near land again and they all return. As does paperwork for the officers. A long Pacific crossing is peaceful on many counts.

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