A Gal & El Canal III

I’m a gal impressed with El Canal

The first time I visited the Panamá Canal I was a tourist visitor at the museum.
The second time I visited the Panamá Canal it was as a customer making a transit.
The third time I visited the Panamá Canal it was from the perspective of a Canal Authority Tugboat Captain.

The ships that transit the Panamá Canal are quite large. Under their own power, their own mechanics are well able to steer the ships. However, they must travel an extremely show speed within the Locks of the canal, as well as through the Gaillard* Cut. At these slow speeds, their rudders aren’t effective. They must rely on tugs and “mules” to steer them. The job of the Tugboat Captian is tricky. It requires precision to be able to match the speed of a ship, to come up right against it, and to guide it. Training to be a Tugboat Captain takes two and a half years. I was very impressed to learn this.

This is my day on a Panamá Canal Authority Tugboat, summarized here in my 33 simple photos. Josh and I actually have a day full of audio narration, video interviews, and Josh’s myriad professional photos. (If you seek a story about the Panamá Canal — Canal de Panamá — we can likely help!)

Rey, our Tugboat Captain (in training) and my friend Josh board the Tug.20130118-205300.jpg

Rey does his logs.

See that huge ship on Rey’s right? That’s the vessel he and another tug are guiding into the Pedro Miguel lock — the second of two Locks that bring the ship northward. Together with this ship we will “lock up,” which means we will rise in the lock.

The gates of the Lock is closed as we approach.20130118-223439.jpg

Notice the two men in the small boat helping with a line. Can you imagine being them?!20130118-223655.jpg

The gates to the Lock are now open for the ship to enter.20130118-223929.jpg

The mules (trains) are in place to aid the ship.20130118-224101.jpg

It is unbelievable how wide the ships are. This one is maximum size. The canal is 110 feet wide. The ship is 106 feet wide! That is not much clearance!


The ships is in place so Rey brings us in behind, slowly.


Men send lines down from the top. This shows you how low down we are when we enter the canal.

The ship and its two tugs are in place in the chamber so the gates are closing.20130118-230258.jpg

We’re all inside, the gates are closed and the water is rising. The water rises by gravity. At times we can see the water coming up under the ship.

As you can notice, very little wall shows now. We are nearly all the way up. The gates area out to open.

The ship is now exiting the Lock. It must still travel very slowly. The mules help as brakes and also help keep it centered. Seeing the ship on top of the water here, it appeared to be even wider than the walls at it’s side and I marveled that it had fit inside.

The ship will now transit Gatum lake and on to the Gatum Lock where it will “lock down” in three stages, three chambers. (On the north side all three chambers are within one Lock. On the south side, two Locks are required to provide the three chambers.) But our tug’s job is not done yet. Rey and Ricky will continue to escort the ship through the tricky Gaillard Cut. (It is tricky because it is narrow, although it has been widened since the canal first opened.)

But there is some distance to go before the Gaillard Cut, so it’s not too tricky for a little while. See, it’s so easy that I get to drive for a while.

This is Gold Hill. Rey told me that is its name because while building the canal some workers thought this was Gold so they quit their jobs to mine for Gold. It wasn’t. The hill across from it is named for all the men who lost their lives building the canal.

Here we are nearing the Cut.





Ricky and Rey’s eyes and ears are always on the canal.

With some time in between boats to escort, Rey and Ricky had time to pose for me.

Ricky made me do this to Rey.20130120-012432.jpg

Me and Ricky.

After escorting a few boats Ricky’s shift was up. The next crew boarded the Tug and we were carried back to the Tug dock.


This is crew that I had the honor to ride along with.

Rey and Josh walk back to the van to take the crew back to their office and cars.

This is that van. I just love the Canal de Panamá logo.

It was an amazing day!

*Footnote: The Gaillard Cut was originally called the Culebra Cut. It was renamed in 1915 in honor of Major David du Bose Gaillard of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the man who led construction of the cut upon his death. He actually led the construction between the Pedro Miguel lock and Gatun Lake.

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