A Rowboat and a Canal
Yes, one can live without e-mail and Internet access. My wife
and I just returned from 5 days in Los Angeles for a meeting of
The Electrochemical Society (ECS) followed by a two-week
cruise from LA through the Panama Canal to Fort Lauderdale. I
deliberately left the laptop at home and used the money I could
have spent on Internet access to feed the slot machines in the
ship’s casino. The ship was Celebrity’s Summit. Coincidentally,
Summit, New Jersey is the home base of stocksandnews.com.
Before embarking on the cruise, we were concerned about the
possibility of rough seas and hurricanes. We needn’t have
worried; the seas were smooth as glass. Another concern was
who our dinner companions would be, having had a couple of
bad experiences on other cruises. We couldn’t have been
luckier. Micki and Jim and Patti and Gaylen, two delightful and
interesting couples, helped make a wonderful cruise even more
enjoyable. Our compatibility was demonstrated by the fact that
we were usually the last to leave the dining room to make way
for the late diners. We also found that Micki and our superb
waiter, Igor, shared a Macedonian heritage and Micki could
actually speak Igor’s language! Igor could also understand my
feeble attempts to communicate in Russian. All this helped form
a special bond between Igor and our table.
In a sense, my cruise experience began the night before we
boarded the Summit. While enjoying a drink in the revolving
restaurant atop the Bonaventure Hotel, site of the ECS meeting, I
broke a tooth on a tiny pretzel. It was Saturday night and, with a
Sunday morning ride to the San Pedro docks to board the ship,
there was no opportunity to find a dentist. As a result, I found
myself in the Hospital de Especialidades in Cabo San Lucas, our
first port of call. The hospital’s motto was reassuring: “Cuando
lo inesperado sucede, Puedes contra con nosotros! (When the
unexpected happens, you can count on us!)”.
The dentist there put in a temporary filling and told me to rinse.
Wait a minute, this was Mexico and tales abound of the water
and Montezuma’s revenge. I rinsed and returned to the reception
area to await the presentation of the bill. After half an hour, a
gentleman who introduced himself as a doctor in the hospital
administration did the presenting. I nearly fainted when I saw
the total figure of $2990! The doctor saw my startled reaction
and informed me the bill was in pesos and should be divided by
Even so, $299 seems rather pricey for a temporary filling!
Thankfully, however, no revenge!
In Acapulco, we watched the famed cliff divers. I was amazed to
see them climb up the sides of the cliffs before their dives of
130-150 feet into the water below, timing the dives to coincide
with an incoming wave to provide enough depth. In Costa Rica,
we took an aerial tram up into the canopy of a rain forest, giving
me a sense of what scientists experience when they climb up and
build observation platforms from which to observe life in the
upper elevations of the jungle. Unfortunately, it was afternoon
and the colorful macaws were on the beaches wolfing down
stones and pieces of shells to grind up the seeds, nuts or other
foods ingested in the rain forest that morning. At least we did
see three brightly colored toucans that stayed behind.
Our bus to the tram traversed roads with the biggest potholes I’ve
ever seen or felt. Maria, our tour guide, indicated that some of
the road problems dated to a 7.8 Richter scale earthquake some
time ago. That was a big quake! Maria also said that about 90
percent of the electricity in Costa Rica is hydro generated and
that the rest of their electricity is geothermal, making use of the
volcanoes in the country. She said that they sell electricity to
Nicaragua but that Nicaragua doesn’t pay their bills. However,
she thought that was OK, as the free power kept Nicaragua
happy. Costa Rica abolished their army in the 1940s and,
without an army, happy neighbors are a must!
Of course, the Panama Canal was the highlight of the cruise.
Those who watched the Today show yesterday (Tuesday,
November 8) saw Matt Lauer there as part of the “Where in the
world is Matt Lauer?” week. The Canal ranks as one of the top
engineering achievements in history. The idea for a canal across
Central America dates back to the Spanish explorer Balboa in
1517 and Charles I of Spain proposed building a canal through
the isthmus back in 1534. In 1880 the French started building a
sea level canal. Ferdinand de Leseps, with the Suez Canal under
his belt, headed the French Canal Company’s effort. However,
Suez was not Panama, with its major flooding, thick jungle and
yellow fever and malaria. After 24 years, some 20,000 lives lost
and the expenditure of $300 million, the French gave up and sold
the project to the U.S. for $40 million in 1904.
Panama had been a province of Colombia, which wasn’t happy
with Americans building a canal. However, President Teddy
Roosevelt helped engineer a revolution with Panama declaring
independence in 1903 and signing a treaty giving the U.S.
control of the Canal Zone “in perpetuity”. The first order of
business was to address the disease problem. William Gorgas
had wiped out yellow fever in Havana, Cuba and oversaw the
draining of swamps, clearing of brush, eliminating grassy areas
where mosquitoes swarmed and introducing screens to keep out
mosquitoes. In two years the yellow fever was gone but it took
until 1913 to beat the malaria.
In the interim, the idea of a sea level canal was abandoned in
favor of a canal with locks. The extreme flooding of the Chagres
River, which crossed the path of the proposed canal, was
addressed by building one of the world’s largest dams, the mile
and a half long Gatun dam, creating one of the world’s largest
manmade lakes, Gatun Lake, 85 feet above sea level. Since the
Gatun Lake is part of the canal, our ship had to be raised 85 feet
and that’s where the locks came into play.
And also a rowboat. As we approached the first lock on the
Pacific side, we saw a crocodile in the water but what intrigued
me more was two men in a little rowboat in the water in front of
our ship. My first thought was that they were having fun holding
up our towering vessel as they rowed in front of it. However, the
rowboat played an important role in our transit of the Panama
Canal. I saw someone on shore toss a line to the fellows on the
rowboat, which then came over to the left side near the front of
our ship, where our crew tossed another line down. The row
boaters joined the two lines, allowing the ship’s line to be hauled
up on shore. There it was attached to one of the “mules”, small
locomotives that pull the ship through the locks. The rowboat
then moved to the other side to assist attaching another line to a
mule on the right side of the ship. It takes 4 or 6 mules to pull a
large ship through the locks.
The mules pulled us into the first lock and the gates closed
behind us. The locks are 1000 feet long and 110 feet wide. The
Summit is 965 feet long and fit quite snugly into the locks with
only a couple feet of clearance on the sides. A Panamanian pilot
boards the ship to oversee the traversing of the locks. Water
originating in Gatun Lake flowed by gravity into our lock and we
rose to the level of the water in the second lock. The gate to that
lock opened and we entered that lock, where more water was let
in and we rose to the level of the water in the third lock. Add
more water when in that lock and we’re 85 feet above sea level
and start our journey through the 9-mile long Gaillard Cut.
Making this Cut was the most difficult job in constructing the
canal. My 1962 World Book Encyclopedia describes it as “much
like digging into a pile of grain”. As the workers dug the holes,
more earth would slide back into the hole and it required
excavating nearly 200 million cubic yards of earth and rock to
make the Cut. After completion of the canal in 1914, a massive
landslide in the Gaillard Cut closed the canal for several months
and I gather that even today there are continuous dredging
operations that keep the Cut open.
Well, we made our way through the cut and Gatun Lake and
were lowered down through the locks on the Caribbean side.
Hurricane Beta had cleared out the week before and all was well
in the Caribbean. Since we were sailing in the same waters as
Columbus, our ship’s daily publication took the occasion to
debunk some myths. When Columbus took off from Spain, he
wasn’t the only one who thought the earth was round. Back in
the sixth century B.C., Pythagoras proposed a round earth and, in
the second century A.D., Ptolemy pretty much proved it by
noting the shadow of the earth on the moon during an eclipse
was round. Not only that, but he observed that the mast of a ship
appeared on the horizon before the hull.
Most scholars and scientists in Columbus’ day agreed with
Ptolemy and it isn’t true that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella
were reluctant at first to support Columbus because they thought
he might fall off the edge of the earth. Actually they had spent a
lot of money fighting the Moors and just didn’t want to pony up
the money for such an uncertain venture.
Finally, a partial answer to a question posed to me by our dinner
companion, Jim. Jim wrongly assumed that old Bortrum would
know how much higher or lower the Pacific Ocean was
compared to the Atlantic. Patti and/or Gaylen Googled the
subject on board the ship and came up with the Pacific being a
meter higher than the Atlantic/Caribbean. However, my 1962
World Book tells me that the tides at the Pacific end of the canal
rise and fall an average of 12 and a half feet a day while the
Atlantic side tides only vary by a foot. I assume that the tides
behave pretty much the same today. If so, there must be times
when the Pacific is 10 feet or more higher than the Caribbean, at
least on the two sides of the Canal.
So much for the travelogue. Next week it’s back to more
scientific material and the physics of voluptuousity.
Allen F. Bortrum