🛳Panama Canal - Part I: The One Where JP Disappears

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The Panama Canal is one of the modern marvels whose name inspires ingenuity and persistence despite the fact that most people have never even seen it—like the Dalai Lama or Spiderman.  As documentarians on board, not only did we cross the Panama Canal twice, but we got to do something that few people get to experience—we got to do it quayside! For all you landlubbers out there, that’s maritime speak for ‘on solid ground.’ Not only that, but JP even got to fly over in a helicopter. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that should be on everyone’s bucket list. I’ll start with a few suggestions for the day of the crossing:

1.  Watch a historical documentary before the crossing

The history of the Panama Canal is impressive. Learning about how it works, why it was built, and—most importantly—the people who built it, is essential to fully appreciating the process as you go through it. Without the backstory, it’s just a really expensive boat ride through a bunch of palm trees. It costs about $200,000 for a medium-size cruise ship to cross the Panama Canal. But it saves nearly 8,000 miles of having to travel around Cape Horn in South America. Guaranteed, the ship will have at least one documentary to screen in the days leading up to the crossing.

2. Watch for Wildlife

And I don’t just mean mosquitos. Coming into the first lock, I saw a crocodile lying on a beach. And while on the upper deck, there are countless native birds flying overhead all day long. It may be a bit too far to see a monkey or a sloth, but if you keep your eyes peeled, you never know what might pop up out of the water.

3. Wear Bug Spray

Contrary to what Pleakley from Lilo & Stitch says, the mosquito is not an endangered species. My guess is that they’ve probably learned by now that the ships are not actually giant dragonflies that will eat them but are, in fact, a feast where their victims are trapped with no escape. Okay, so it’s not exactly Revenge of the Body Snatchers, but still… why take the chance?

4. Commandeer a Table on the Open Deck

This is a day that you will want to eat, drink, and do every acceptable human behavior outside because there’s always something to see. Whether it’s going through the actual locks, sailing down the canal with beautiful hills on both sides, going underneath a bridge, or watching the photographers climb on and off the ship and taking bets if one will fall—you’ll want to be outside so you don’t miss anything. They do make announcements at particular landmarks, but if you’re anything like me, that will be the one minute that you’re on the toilet and you’ll miss it completely.

5. Buy the video

Before you close this article due to this unabashedly shameless plug, know that I am not receiving any compensation whatsoever for making this suggestion. I say this because (if it’s done properly), you will see the entire process of the ship traversing a lock in super-fast motion. An entire hour and a half will be condensed into about 5 minutes. This is when you get a genuine sense of the true complexity and genius of the Panama Canal. It’s astounding! At this speed, the ship almost moves like a person. Like when the water is drained out of the tank, the ship “sits” down in the water like an old man plopping down on the couch to watch “Wheel of Fortune” after a long, hard day. It’s a truly unique perspective that you won’t get anywhere else.


The Experience:  Going Quayside (“Key”-side)

For those of us crew members going ashore, Panama Canal Day is a very different experience! It was simultaneously one of the longest—and most memorable—days of my entire life. From the time the ship approaches the first lock until it’s clear and back out into the open ocean is about 10 hours. Since we would be filming from outside the ship, we had to disembark while we were still docked in Panama City—at 2:30am. We were driven to a local police office where we did important security-clearance stuff (okay, so we slept in a chair) until about 6am. Then we drove to Gatún Lock and I walked out to meet the ship as she approached.

Wearing our mandatory prison-orange lifejackets, I stuck out like a sore thumb. It was cool, in a way—I was the most popular crew member on board (or rather, off) as hundreds of people waved down to me from all decks.

The process of going through a single lock at the Panama Canal is staggeringly slow but oh, so cool! As soon as the ship pulls in, these large “Jurassic Park”-type doors close behind and most of the water is drained out and the ship, naturally, goes down. From my vantage point on the lock, it looks like she’s slowly being swallowed up by quicksand. Suddenly, Deck 9 is now at sea-level—much to the surprise of one particular couple who were having sex while being completely unaware that our entire shore team could see his bare ass and her bare feet pressed up against the window. Luckily for them, that shot ended up on the cutting room floor.

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While the ship is trapped in the lock, I am allowed to cross over to the other side by walking across the big doors that are barricading her in at the bow of the ship. Sounds easy enough. But at this point the water level is 30 feet below me. I’m crossing a bridge that’s 1 ½ feet wide, carrying expensive, heavy camera gear with nothing more than a cheap yellow aluminum handle making the difference between safely reaching the other side or becoming a cruise ship pancake. Of course, halfway across, I can’t help but look up at the ship towering above me like a bouncer at a Beyoncé concert. I’m nervous, excited and mesmerized all at the same time, already realizing how lucky I am to have the opportunity to stand where I’m standing.

It’s another hour before the ship moves into the compartment next door where the water fills back up bringing the ship back to sea level (much to the relief of that couple on Deck 9, I’m sure). And then those big iron gates open with great, dramatic flair and the ship continues down the Panama Canal.

We  have a couple of hours to kill until the ship reaches a turn that I need to capture on film. So, we grab some lunch at this fantastic cultural restaurant called McDonalds! Okay, so we didn’t exactly have local fare but it was the easiest, cheapest thing to grab on the run.

We drive to the point where the canal makes a sharp turn. I set up my camera on the water’s edge watching the ship come straight at me like a drone that’s got me as its target. Finally, she starts her turn towards the port side. The ship starts tilting at a precarious angle and for a few moments, it reminds me of Charlie Chaplin turning the corner to escape the keystone cops. The ship clumsily rights herself like a big bowl of Jell-O and I find myself chasing her once more.

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We drive to the top of a mountain peak overlooking the canal and I can see the ship approaching the Centennial Bridge. Happily, I can also see the helicopter that JP is filming from, as it circles the ship several times. I get my own footage (epic, naturally) of the ship sailing under the bridge. It is at this point that I finally take time to see why my legs itch so badly. You would think that watching Indiana Jones enough would’ve taught me to wear pants if you’re gonna be traipsing through the tropics. I counted not 1, not 2, but 26 mosquito bites all over my legs. It’s a good thing I’m not allergic or I’d have returned to the ship looking like an over-baked cookie.

At this point, we had to get down the mountain and try to reach Pedro Miguel Lock before the ship did. In a scene reminiscent of Die Hard with a Vengeance, our driver hauled ass, weaving in and out of traffic, honking and cursing—evidently just another Tuesday afternoon in Panama. We made it just in time for me to get set up right as the ship was entering the lock.

An hour later, we drove another mile down the road and met the ship at the third and final lock. By this time I was physically knackered, but the adrenaline from the fact that I not only crossed but walked on the Panama Canal kept me going. Little did I know this is where the real drama would begin.

The plan was for us to wait at the pilot’s station where the pilot boat would pick us up and catch up to the ship where we would climb aboard before she picked up full speed and was gone. We waited at the pilot’s station for the ‘helicopter team’ (JP, our manager and assistant manager) to join us and we’d all go back together. After 45 minutes, they still did not show up and I began to get worried. Through very broken English and my very broken Spanish, the coast guard guys finally told me, “We already took them back to the ship awhile ago.”

With my thoughts now at ease, we boarded the pilot boat and caught up to the ship. The ship, by the way, is not allowed to stop, so the only way to get back on board is for them to open the hatch on Deck 4, roll a wooden ladder down the side of the ship, and I climb up it—all the while with the ship sailing along at a brisk but steady pace. I have to admit that this was pretty bad-ass. With hundreds of eyes on me, I felt just like Lara Croft climbing up to rescue someone from a fate worse than death. But my moment of heroism didn’t last long; I learned that the ‘helicopter team’ were not back on the ship!! Clearly, the Coast Guard and I had some miscommunication earlier (I knew I should’ve paid more attention in Spanish class!).

… to be continued

Stay tuned for “Panama Canal - Part 2” to find out what happened to JP!

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