Threading Panama's Watery Needle

CAPT. Myeong Lee paces the bridge in blue-rubber sandals.

Normally, he is the master of this South Korean cargo ship bound for New Orleans. But on the Panama Canal, Captain Lee is only a spectator. This is the only place in the world he must turn control of his ship over to someone else.

"Dead slow ahead," barks canal pilot Capt. Fred Mastin, who's been threading this maritime needle for 12 years.

Ahead, the 800-ton lock gates resemble a mammoth maw widening to swallow the Pan Express, a vessel laden with steel pipes and wood from Indonesia.

How tough could canal piloting be?

Imagine you're behind the wheel of a 50-ton Cadillac three football fields long. The road's icy, the brakes are mushy, and you've got to squeeze into a parking place with a few feet (sometimes less) of clearance on either side.

"It takes a little practice," says 13-year veteran Capt. Robert E. Dell with a dash of "Right Stuff" modesty.

Canal pilots are a relaxed, self-assured bunch - not unlike airline and military pilots. Perhaps it's the years of handling multimillion-dollar craft. Many of the 241 canal captains are old salts, with decades of experience at sea. Nonetheless, it takes at least eight and half years to become fully qualified to handle any of the 12,000-odd vessels that transit the waterway each year.

Currently, most pilots are United States citizens, such as Captains Dell and Mastin. Many work a seven-day week for six weeks, then take four weeks off. All pilots put in long hours; a 13-hour shift is common. But in the year 2000, the US-operated canal will be turned over to Panama. Already, 87 percent of the overall work force is Panamanian. To reduce dependency on foreign pilots (and cut costs), only Panamanians are now allowed into the pilot training program.

As the bow of the Pan Express nears the increasingly narrow-looking lock entrance, Captain Mastin orchestrates the arrival, delivering rapid-fire orders to the ship's helmsman, the lock master, two tugboats, and six diesel locomotives. The powerful locomotives, known as "mules," are quickly attached to the vessel by cables and help control the ship's speed entering the lock.

"One side, coil in," Mastin radios the lead locomotive on the port side.

At any moment one expects to hear the scream of the steel hull scraping the concrete lock walls. The Pan Express, with a beam (width) of 93.1 feet, requires two pilots. Ships wider than 100 feet take three or four pilots. The locks are 110 feet wide by 1,000 feet long.

But Pan Express slips quietly into the lock and the gates are sealed behind. Water spills in from huge underground pipes. Groaning mule cables mark the ship's 27-foot rise. The two sets of locks on the Pacific side raise the vessel a total of 85 feet above sea level. The ship then crosses one of the world's largest man-made lakes before passing through another set of locks, which lower the vessel to sea level on the Atlantic side.

Bells ring and the huge, algae-covered lock gate opens. As the ship emerges from the second set of locks, a Panamanian crew of 19 line handlers does the dangerous job of releasing the taunt locomotive cables.

But Captain Mastin won't breathe easy until the infamous Gaillard Cut is astern.

This eight-mile channel, snaking through the mountain shale of the Continental Divide, was the most difficult engineering feat during the canal's construction from 1903 to 1913. Prone to landslides during and after excavation, The Cut remains the narrowest and most challenging section of the passage.

"If fog rolls in while you're in The Cut, it's your sweet butt," says Captain Dell. "You just have to rely on radar and keep going."

For large ships, The Cut is restricted to one-way traffic in daylight. But next year a somewhat controversial $200 million program gets under way to widen the bottleneck and allow two-way transits.

"If we don't widen it, we'll have delays in the future," says Richard Wainio, director of executive planning for the Panama Canal Commission.

"It's a politically motivated project," opines Captain Mastin. "It gives a boost to the local economy and implies the US is turning over the Canal in top condition." Adds Captain Dell: "The locks are the choke point, not The Cut."

In halting English, one of the Pan Express officers interrupts to announce breakfast.

"One of the perks of the job is sampling the national cuisines," says Captain Dell, digging into a bowl of rice and kimchi, a South Korean staple.

A normal canal transit takes about eight to 10 hours. When the Pan Express emerges on the Atlantic side, Captain Lee will resume command of his bridge. The canal pilots will take a motor launch to shore where a large Chevy waits to shuttle them back to Panama City.

In a month or so, the Pan Express will be back, bound for Seoul with a load of Kansas wheat.

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