Journalist for Life

Panama Canal, Part Two: Watching mules and a laptop

Colon, Panama — Shortly before 3 p.m. on a mid-January day, Eric Hendricks comes aboard the 100-passenger ship Pacific Explorer. He is one of 290 pilots who take control of ships entering the canal.

Passengers on the Pacific Explorer look down as a mule holds the tension steady on a cable.
Passengers on the Pacific Explorer look down as a mule holds the tension steady on a cable.

With him are workers who fasten cables to posts at the bow and stern, on both sides of the ship. These cables run to special locomotives, called mules. While transiting ships propel themselves, the 55-ton mules provide enough tension to keep the vessels straight within the lock chambers.

Hendricks, a 22-year veteran, will be on the bridge the entire transit, talking alternately to the captain and, by walkie-talkie, to the mule drivers, who play out or tighten their cables and match Pacific Explorer’s speed of 1.8 knots (about 2 miles) per hour.

By 3:54, after a Japanese fishing vessel has come up behind the Pacific Explorer, the rear gates of the first chamber of the Gatun Locks’ three chambers begin to close. Matched by Canal Authority computers for maximum occupancy of the chambers’ space — 110’ wide by 1,000’ long — these ships will transit together each of the Canal’s six chambers.

Canal pilot Erick Hendricks works on the bridge as a mule glides alongside.
Canal pilot Erick Hendricks works on the bridge as a mule glides alongside.

Onshore, operators press buttons to move the 85-ton doors that open or close a chamber, front and back. Now, 3-million gallons of water per minute rush in to the chamber.

At 4:05, with water pressure equal on either side of the doors to the front of the Pacific Explorer, they slowly swing open, fitting into the sides of the chamber.

The ship glides forward, and Hendricks swivels his head from side to side, checking the ship’s position vs. the walls. Occasionally he lifts the walkie-talkie and to utter instructions.

Once through the third and last chamber of Gatun Lock, the mules having played out or pulled in their cables as the ship sinks or rises, the cable hands who had come aboard remove them from the posts. Untethered, Pacific Explorer begins a 23.4-mille passage through manmade Gatun Lake, to the next lock.

A Japanese fishery ship enters a lock chamber behind the Pacific Explorer.
A Japanese fishery ship enters a lock chamber behind the Pacific Explorer.

Hendricks now switches his attention to the screen of the laptop he brought aboard in a scuffed, yellow plastic case. The computer is programmed with a look-down view of the route through the canal.

At 9:20 p.m., the forward doors in the Miraflores Locks’ southernmost chamber swing open to the Pacific Ocean. Hendricks presses the button of his walkie-talkie: “Ones and twos, everybody cast off. Thank you.’’

Passengers on deck wave to the mule drivers, one of whom calls out, “Good voyage!’’

A boat will swing alongside shortly to pick up Hendricks. Tomorrow, he’ll get a call telling him when to report to the locks, to guide another ship back to Colon.

For more information: Go to www.pancanal.com, or send e-mail to info@pancanal.com. David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Path Between the Seas is a highly readable history of the canal.

End Bag, the new book from Bob Jenkins, collects his best stories from 19 years as travel editor. Available now on Amazon.com. View a sample at Smashwords.com. Read more about End Bag here.



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