The Captain and the Canal de Panama

(April 5 – written by Dave)

Today we visited the Panama Canal but the post starts with my grandfather – known to family simply as “the Captain”.

I didn’t know the Captain very well, as he passed away when I was 4 years old.  He was a very strict man.  I remember him jabbing our arms with a fork if we put our elbows on the table while having dinner.  Or that could have been just one of the many memories that my father implanted as he told us tales of how hard it was growing up in the Captain’s house.  Either way, the Captain held kind of a mythical aurora for me and my sisters.

The reason that my grandfather was called the Captain and the reason he has a place here in the blog is all about his choice of career.  In 1912 my grandfather graduated from the Massachusetts Nautical School (now known as the Massachusetts Maritime Academy).  Back in 1912, when someone graduated from the maritime academy you were almost always given a job as a ship captain, or worst case, a 2nd/3rd in command.

There was no working your way up the ladder and getting experience.  In fact, back in those days, if you graduated the maritime academy, you were given an “all water ways” ship captain’s license.  In other words, you were allowed to take a ship up and down any river, into any bay or harbour, through any canal and naturally any ocean or sea.  Back in the day, there were no such things as river pilots, bar pilots, canal pilots or harbour pilots.  If you were a ship captain, you took your ship anywhere that it would float.

Anyway, back to the canal.  The Panama Canal was opened on August 15, 1914.  Family lore tells us that the Captain was an officer on one of the first commercial ships to transit the canal.  There is a lot written about the first commercial ship (the SS Ancon) that went through the canal, but sadly not much about detail about subsequent vessels.  So we’re going with family lore as the sited source.

Regardless of getting no mention in canal history, the Captain had a very interesting life at sea.  He took some time off to raise a family but was back in the water during WWII.  He was captain of a ship that on D-Day formed part of a decoy fleet that sailed from the UK to Norway – tricking the Germans into thinking that an invasion was happening there instead.  I wish I could have known the Captain better – the stories he could have told.

So today we visited Miraflores Locks and the onsite canal museum.  I kept a keen eye out for a mention of the Captain but sadly, it seems that a lot of the more than 1 million ships that have passed through the canal had a guy called “the Captain” on board.  We had to be happy seeing the locks in action and learning more about the canal.

The first effort to build a canal began with the French in 1880 but that effort failed due to financial shortfalls and tropical diseases devastating the work crews.  Soon after Panama declared independence from Colombia in 1903, a new agreement to build the canal was made with the US.  Construction was re-started in 1904 and the canal opened roughly 10 years later in 1914.   The canal was managed by the US until December 31, 1999 when Panama took over full operations.

Until Panama took over, the US ran the canal as a cost recovery operation – trying to just cover maintenance and operational expenses.  Upon assuming operations, Panama changed the business model so as to generate profit for the benefit of the country.  Fares were raised over the years starting in 2003.  In 2009 Panama started building a new set of locks that allowed bigger ships, called Panamax, to pass through the canal.  These locks opened in 2016.

Crossing between oceans on the canal takes 8 to 10 hours.  Since the opening in 1914 more than one million ships have passed through.  The highest tolls paid today are about $800k USD – the cost to largest Panamax ships.  The average toll is around US$54,000.  The lowest toll ever paid was 36 cents, by American Richard Halliburton who swam the Panama Canal in 1928.

I don’t know how much my grandfather, or rather his ship, paid to sail the canal.  But I’m betting that things haven’t changed much since back then.  At the Miraflores Locks over the years, they installed hydraulic gates and new canal side pulling engines.  Otherwise, not much has seems to have been upgraded.  We didn’t see the new Panamax locks as they are too far from the visitor’s center.

At the Miraflores Locks, ships go one way for a few hours, then after a pause, ships go back the other way.  Two-way traffic is not possible in the narrowest part of the canal so they have to manage flow carefully.  We took the subway and a bus out to the locks today.  Since we were on our own, we didn’t know the schedule – we arrived with about 30 minutes left before the pause.  This was pretty lucky as we got to see a couple ships get raised and head upriver to the next set of locks.  And by then the crowds were thinning, having already seen all of the earlier ships.

After morning tea in the cafe, giving the tour bus crowds a chance to clear out, we hit the museum.  Here we found many mentions of captains, but no mention of the Captain.  No surprise really.  The museum was pretty interesting regardless – the canal is an amazing place and I’m glad we took the time to ride our bikes down from Alaska to have a look.


Two ships in far locks

Two ships in the next locks – ship on left is almost through, ship on right will be raised after they close the lock gates and water fills the lock.

Canal tug 2

Canal tugs pull the ships through – these are the “fancy new” version

Locks 3

Tug boat crew walking across the closed gates

Canal lock building 2

Lock side building – water on right is a full lock, left empty

Lock and ship 4

Last ship of the shift heading through

Locks 2

Gates closing after ship sailed from left to right

Lock and ship 1

Ship and two escort tugs heading out of the lock

Cap Cod

For Dave’s mom – she loves Cap Cod chips – they sell them in the cafe here in Panama

Locks 1

There are actually two gates on each lock – left is lower level – right is higher level.  Delta is how much this lock raises or lowers a ship


Finally, a funny story to end the post.  Yesterday, after struggling to get Nancy’s bike in the small bike box we had I gave up and went in search of another bike box to get the bikes packed for our flight on Sunday.  After finding a slightly larger box at the local Specialized store, arguing with a bus driver to try to get a bus back (eventually giving up after the bus driver would not let me on with it, despite the bus being completely empty) and finally getting a cab to stop, trying several ways to try to get the box in the back seat and eventually putting it in the trunk leaving the lid open (!), I sunk gratefully into the front seat of the cab, my shirt wet with sweat.

As I usually do, I struck up a conversation with the cab driver in my broken Spanish, trying to see if he knew where Australia was.  That of course led to a conversation about kangaroos, which in Spanish is pronounced slightly different – canguro, with the emphasis on the second to last syllable.  As I usually pronounce it wrong for Spanish speakers, the driver was determined to teach me how to say it correctly.  We bonded over that on the ride back to the hotel, where we said our goodbyes.  After I got back into our room, I discovered that my phone was missing – likely it had slipped out of my pocket in the cab.  I ran back downstairs but of course the cab had already left.  Great, just what we needed.

Nancy suggested calling the phone to see if someone would pick up.  After two tries someone answered the phone and sure enough, it was the cab driver.  “Hola”, I said excitedly, “you have my phone!”  And sure enough, after a slight pause, he said “Canguro?”  “Yes, yes”, I said “canguro, canguro!!”  I asked him if he would please bring it back and went downstairs to meet him.  He showed up a few minutes later, his new fare in the back seat even.  I thanked him, even gave him a hug, nice tip and told him I loved Panamanians!  Whew, crisis averted – what a day.

(Senior editor’s note – when Dave was learning to swim I saw an article written by another adult learning to swim who said that what worked for him was to pretend to be a dolphin.  So from then on, Dave sometimes hears the sound of dolphin “ki ki k ki ki” when he needs to focus on something (ok, maybe I tease him a bit).  Well, if you could have only heard him on the phone, exclaiming “canguro, canguro, canguro” – we both fell into a laughing fit (after we got the phone back, of course).  I think he may have another nickname now….)

(Junior editor’s comment – thanks for that Nexy  – funny new nicknames abound!)

10 thoughts on “The Captain and the Canal de Panama

  1. And YES, I too am very happy that you took the time to take the ride down from Alaska for a look at the locks. You make it sound like an easy day tour!!

  2. Thank you for the great story of today. When you have time in the future, get the book, “The Path Between the Seas” by David McCullogh. This description of history is full of detail and very well written about the whole process of building the Panama Canal.
    In 2000, I had the great pleasure of transiting the Canal in a 40 foot sailboat. We were tied to the sides and managed the lines as we went up or down. Since we had a late start, we had to overnight in Lake Gatun. I don’t remember for sure, but it cost something like $500. Your photos bring back fond memories.
    Take care.

  3. Great post-nice to hear the Ertel family history! Love the ending—I may never be able to pronounce kangaroo right again!

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