My dear friend, Aaron Luoma, has led an adventurous life, having lived in 20 of our world's countries. Fluent in Spanish, Aaron has served as a volunteer in various impoverished areas of South America. This is an excerpt from his diaries, one of his treasured encounters.
Last month I went to the Balboa Yacht Club at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal to investigate the possibility of traversing the canal as a line handler. I had read in my guidebook that this is sometimes possible. There I met a young French couple who were also, like me, looking to serve on a crew. They happened to have an ad posted at the club looking to be "dropped off at Equator," their misspelling of Ecuador, I quickly realized. After chatting with them a few minutes, Seymour, the captain of the 36-foot Orion, approached us and asked us if we would like to crew on his boat. It was that simple! And Seymour saves $50-100 a day that he would have to pay to Panamanians to do the work we were to do. Should I feel guilty for stealing their work?
The Panama canal was completed in 1913 at the cost of more than 40,000 lives, mostly from Yellow Fever. Half of the casualties were from the American effort and the other half from the aborted attempt by the French in the 1880's. It is 50 miles long, 43 as the crow flies. It takes approximately nine hours to pass completely through. There are three locks, each one 110 feet wide. Locomotives run on tracks on the sides of each lock to help pull the big freighters through. Each locomotive costs $1 million. One cruise liner paid a record fee of roughly $120,000 for a single passage. The mammoth freighter that followed us through the last lock housed between 1,000-1,200 cars.
Seymour looked very much the part of the crusty old veteran of the seas. He is around 55, thin, with shoulder-length scraggly blond hair and a slightly receding hairline. He has the requisite leathery skin and is minus two of his front teeth. A nasty scar is prominent on his upper arm and he has worn and scarred hands, the latter the result of experimenting with explosives as a mischievous adolescent.
From Alaska but growing up in the South, Seymour acquired a folksy, self-effacing charm that draws people to him. As he struggled to remember his few words of French, he stated, "I was never much good at learnin'." Seymour impressed me later as a man who has learned a great deal. He is not only a skilled navigator at sea but seems to have managed many of life's storms and now finds himself a man, content and at peace.
That night the French couple, Helene and Gurvan, and I boarded the boat to prepare for a 5 a.m. departure the following morning. We spent the night getting acquainted. Three other friends of Seymour's, Donna, her husband, Brian, and Nolan, a waiter from California, were also along for the journey. Seymour made us feel right at home. He told us corny jokes, asked Helene and Gurvan the origin of the "french kiss," and did his best rendition of "fa-ra-zha-ka, fa-ra-zha-ka, por le vouz (sp.?)..."
I was quite pleased to discover all of Seymour's friends were big Neil Young fans. So we began to reminisce about our favorite songs and albums. After I had excitedly shared perhaps one too many Neil anecdotes, their enthusiasm seemed to wane and I started feeling the "hey, but you weren't there, man" vibes.
At 4:30 a.m. the alarm woke us and we started preparations to launch. At five, 30 minutes earlier than Seymour expected, a radio call notified us that our Panamanian observer would be arriving shortly to help guide us through the canal. Seymour, anxious about his first pass through the canal, immediately cut all non-essential electricity use, breakfast plans were halted, and after a couple of frantic and failed starts, he got the engine running.
I was to be stationed at the right bow of the boat along with Gurvan. We would be responsible for keeping our line taut when the boat was lowered and raised while passing through the locks. There are four lines at each corner of the boat that would extend to linesmen on the banks of the canal who would then anchor the lines to posts. This is to keep the boat steady and directed at dead-center. This positioning is called a "center chamber lockage."
Accidents can occur when smaller vessels are not positioned or tied correctly and they encounter the turbulent wash of bigger vessels, positioned in front, when they fire up to accelerate after passing through the locks. This can send smaller boats such as Seymour´s crashing into the banks of the canal. Seymour told me that if he were to have any difficulty in passing, a tugboat would be ordered at the cost to him of $800 an hour. I'm sure he felt the $500 fee he was required to pay for passage was a big enough expenditure for one day's journey.
Our Panamanian "observer" was quite authoritarian which made Seymour even more nervous as this burly Panamanian, dripping with machismo, barked out his orders. As we were approaching the first lock I went down below to change film. As I was about to climb back up, I noticed Seymour above me, perfectly framed in the narrow opening at the top of the short stairway, frantically spinning his captain's wheel to and fro. He exhibited a range of grimacing expressions clearly demonstrating the strain he was under.
We successfully passed the first two locks with little trouble. Gurvan and I listened to direction from the Panamanian observer and from our partner out front, Nolan, Seymour's buddy who had passed through the canal a few days prior. As we passed through the locks, Gurvan and I pulled up and let out slack on the 125-foot line for which we were responsible. The middle five hours were spent napping and slowly motoring (boats are forbidden to sail in any part of the canal) through the dense jungle on both sides.
In this wide mid-section of the canal, there was no evidence that this was in fact a canal but, rather, was a river of varying widths that widened into a large man-made lake. The lake was formed when the original engineers flooded a huge valley on the south side of a ridge on the northern end of the canal just before the final lock. As the water slowly filled the valley, freightened animals scurried to higher ground. An island in the center of the lake is now a biological reserve managed by the Smithsonian. As we continued on, scores of exotic birds - half of them pelicans - and two dark brown howler monkeys perched in the trees, were the wildlife we observed.
Around 2:00 p.m. as we approached the more rainy Carribean side, dark clouds rolled in. I was summoned to my normal position, wearing my yellow Morton's fisherman's jacket, to receive instructions from Nolan on passage through the final lock. I was told it was one lock but has a series of three chambers that would lower us a total of 85 feet to the Carribean sea level. A downpour soon unsued that made vision difficult. Nolan taught me how to make a "monkey fist" knot, which I would have to tie quickly to the rope that would be tossed to me from atop the canal wall when we entered the first chamber. I stood there in this driving rain storm repeatedly tying my knot in preparation for my big moment.
Thankfully, as we approached the final lock, the rains ceased. I successfully tied my "monkey fist" as we were guided into the chamber. Much to my chagrin, my inexperience caused the only difficult or potentially dangerous moment of our voyage. I knew that the four linesman needed to work in coordination to ensure that the boat stayed bow-forward as much as possible. As I concentrated on my area of responsibilities, I simply listened, awaiting further instructions from the observer. My back was to Nolan and the bow, a big mistake, as I let out my slack.
During that time, I heard no other orders. Unbeknownst to me, Nolan, on my left, began to pull up his slack while I was letting mine out! In a matter of a couple of seconds, this turned the boat almost 45 degrees his way, with the bow directly facing the wall. Shouts soon rang out from several people and I immediately pulled up my slack with all my might and the boat was soon back dead-center, much to my relief. After we were secure, the observer, a different guy from the one in the morning, came over and politely, though sternly, explained to me that I must be face-forward and also keep my eye on Nolan when working the rope during the final two chambers. It made perfect sense and I wished someone had told me that prior to the mishap!
The final two positionings in the last two chambers went smoothly. The whole passage through the three chambers took around two hours. I was greatly pleased and thankful to have been given a more prominent role this afternoon as I was solely responsible for my line during those final two hours.
As we emerged from the final lock and motored towards the Carribean port of Colon, I observed a series of lone trees alongside the eastern side of the river. They had long since dried up and were now just skeletons of their former verdant selves. It was a dramatic setting as dusk approached; the dark clouds prominent behind the trees and a small band of sunlight on the horizon providing just the perfect amount of illumination. With scores of birds perched on branches and flying around above, the true beauty of these exotic creatures was obscured in sillouhette, making them appear more like scavenging crows. It was a beautifully eerie setting that evoked images of a Hitchcock film.
We had been told of the dangers of Colon, i.e., the highest unemployment, poverty, and crime rates in the country, so Seymour felt that it would be dangerous for Helene, Gurvan, and I to go ashore at night to find a hotel. Therefore we anchored in the harbor and spent a second night on board. We would be brought back to shore the following morning to catch a bus back to Panama City. The final night Helen, Gurvan, and I chatted with Seymour and Donna, the former sharing more about his simple life on the Yukon and his philosophy of fatherhood. Later we coaxed Donna and him to perform on the guitar and ukele. "But on one condition," Donna said. The three of us had to also participate by providing the rythym. She pulled out a percussion "egg" for Helene to shake and grabbed a couple of spoons for me to rattle. They then serenaded us with old southern folk tunes. Donna proved herself wise as the collaborative effort made the experience even more memorable.
It was a fitting finale to an amazing twenty-eight hours of adventure that I´ll never forget. The next morning as we said our goodbyes, Seymour gave us his email address and invited us to visit his cabin on the Yukon anytime, staying as long as we liked. Maybe someday I'll take him up on that.