The Canal

Trip Start Oct 10, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Panama  ,
Friday, April 6, 2007

The numbers are staggering. I´m not usually impressed by big swinging numbers, but this is an exception. 22,000 died in its construction, mostly of Malaria. But not before they moved 262,000,000 cubic yards of earth and spent $639 million of early 20th century dollars.

Today the Panama Canal is in operation 24 hours a day, and the $800 it cost to get Jonny´s sailboat through is absolute peanuts compared to the $200,000 it costs for the big cargo ships, of which an average of 36 go through a day. You do the math. Unfortunately for Panama their profits are restricted to the 110 foot wide canal and boats around the world are built specifically to meet these dimensions. Some are as wide as 106ft, leaving the captains with a mere two feet on each side to work with. From their perched position that two feet must look completely non-existent. But as much as I probed our onboard agent, he didn´t have any stories of disaster for me, just the odd scraped hull.

The Panama government now has complete control (with an asterix) of the Canal after prying it from the clenched hands of American Corporation. The amount of money it generates is staggering and the wealth is evident throughout Panama City. What is more surprising is the absolute poverty that still accompanies it, making the division of wealth in Panama the most drastic that I have seen. Panama has big plans to further cash in on their baby, including a splitting of the locks and a new set with a width of 180 feet. This wider berth will allow them to charge ships up to $400,000 for a single passing. This truly is an example of the devestating costs of distribution. Being that there is only one Panama Canal, there is kind of a monopoly here. The alternative of heading down around Cape Horn at the tip of South America is not so appealing considering the astronomical amonut of fuel an ocean liner burns.
For me it was rare treat to be able to accompany Pete (a high school friend) and his two buddies Jonny and Luke on their final adventure. The three had sailed Jonny´s trimirand all the way from Toronto over the past five months, and Panama City was its ultimate resting stop. Although I hadn´t been there for the baking I was still getting a taste of the icing. Although slightly anti-clamatic after having spent a week in Panama City waiting for their time slot through the canal, their excitement was obvious. The accompanying agent barking orders was not enough to stop these guys from lighting the cigars, taking pics, and just enjoying a triumphant journey.
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