Through The Canal

The lush green shores of Panama close in on either side of the Gabrielle, studded here and there with buildings and gray fortifications. The city of Colon, where the Canal enters the Caribbean, seems small and sleepy at the edge of the jungle. Fishing boats float in the waters of the bay, and the grim guns and walls of the forts on either side seem out of place.

The Captain holds the vessel offshore for most of an hour inside the breakwater in the still depths of Colon Bay, as the Canal pilot is brought aboard in a small customs launch flying the American flag. The pilot, a tall black-skinned Jamaican in his thirties named Quentin, inspects the ship's documents and proceeds to the bridge, where he remains throughout the crossing.

Passing through the Gatun Locks takes almost an hour. The ship's engines idle, and off-duty crewmen lounge on the rail, watching as the gargantuan water gates approach. There are two sets of these, each set a hundred fifty feet wide, looming seventy feet above the water. A long wharf thrusts out between them hundreds of feet into the channel, decorated along its length with rails and overhead power lines for the squat electric "mule engines" used to pull vessels through the locks. Small stout tugs urge the ship into the gaping steel mouth, then the gates close, and there are shouts from the crew; lines are tossed to men on the pier.

Great tow cables are secured to a squat, powerful-looking black locomotive waiting to one side of the deep concrete channel. When the inner gates open and the water of the lake swirls by, the locomotive thrums and roars and surges forward along steep crooked tracks, holding Gabrielle steady against the current and drawing her along. When the gates close behind, the engine rests, only to surge forward again when the water has risen and the next set of doors opens.

It takes fifteen minutes to raise the ship thirty feet above the level of the sea, before she can slide forward a thousand feet into the next basin of the lock. The doors behind her close, and the water rises again. The process is repeated three times.

Afterwards the ship is released with a whistle into Lake Gaton. Aday's slow measured progress follows through the lake's still waters, surrounded by thick jungles, passing other ocean-going giants headed for the Atlantic. Brightly colored birds flash in the dense foliage, alligators sun themselves in great numbers on the shore, and the heavy sweet smell of decaying plants is strong in the fitful breeze. Signs of man are few: here the thin tall tower of a radio transmitter, there the fort-like clearing of the Canal Zone Penitentiary.

At last the Culebra Cut comes into view, a huge deep slice carved through the surrounding hills. These hills mark the continental divide. The rough-cut rocky walls ghost past for miles, festooned with vines and clinging shrubs, seemingly inches away on either side.

As the edge of the Cut nears, the ship enters another set of locks. This time she descends once, crosses Miraflores lake, only a mile end to end, and is lowered again through the final two locks toward the sea. Roads and houses are visible in increasing numbers. Pleasure craft dot the edges of the expanse of water, and blackhaired children wave at the Gabrielle as she passes. The jungle is cut back, replaced by stretches of green open lawn and careful swaths of brilliant flowers . When the ship moves at last out of the channel and slips into Balboa Bay, Those on the upper decks catch glimpses of the curve of Panama City to the south and the dark restless expanse of the Pacific beyond.

Gabrielle anchors for the night in Balboa Bay. The lights of the military reservation and the town beyond glimmer brightly over the water, red tiled roofs surrounded by careful lawns and trees. Panama City is much larger than Colon. Mr. Starkweather is eager to move out at first light; there is no time, he says, for liberty. Small ferry craft come alongside during the evening, with fresh fruit and fresh water, and a few luxuries for sale. Those who wish can purchase souvenirs, cigars, candy, clothing and a few other items from the grinning locals. The following morning, a cargo barge brings quantities of fresh tropical fruits aboard to supplement the vessel's larder. These are lowered into the #4 hold

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