Whatever Floats Our Boats

Edmondd Jane is standing on the starboard bow of the Liberia-registered German cargo ship Cap Corrientes, preparing to guide the hulking container ship through the sleek, venerable Miraflores Locks.

"You know what it's like to try to squeeze a cork into a bottle?" asks Mr. Jan, a big American who has piloted ships through the Panama Canal since 1980. "This is just about as tight."

For the next nine hours we will navigate the Cap Corrientes - and its multimillion-dollar cargo of frozen fish and other products bound from South America to Europe - through one of the world's great trade links.

Along the way we will witness the results of the still-awe-inspiring labor of the 50-mile-long canal's original builders. We will also see the gargantuan efforts under way to widen the Canal and keep it accommodating the steady growth in both world trade and in the size of ships carrying that global cargo.

We will also witness the effects a severe drought, caused by the weather phenomenon El Nio, has had on the operation of a canal that uses 52 million gallons of fresh water every time a ship passes through (See story, below).

And even though the two canal pilots working the Cap Corrientes are American and the ship's officers are German, we will hear few concerns about the full transfer of the Canal from American to Panamanian hands that is set to take place next year. After 85 years of American administration, the Canal will officially come under the full control of Panama at noon Dec. 31, 1999.

"The Panamanians are well-prepared, so they'll do all right," says Dean Tygart, Mr. Jan's cohort and a 24-year veteran of canal piloting. The one question is whether Panama will let its gold-laying goose operate on its own.

"The temptation will be there to line pockets or even take $100 million now and then for schools or something that should go into [canal] maintenance," he adds. "If the politicians keep their sticky fingers out of the till and let the canal's administration run this thing, I'd say the future's bright."

Jitters over Panama's ability to manage and operate a canal that is a lifeline of international trade have rippled all the way from Panama City's street markets to the US Congress. The US spent $400 million to build the Canal over the course of a decade beginning in 1904.

Lessons learned

One example Panamanians often cite is the Panama Canal Railroad, which runs the length of the Canal between Panama City and Coln on the Atlantic coast. Turned over to Panama in 1979, the railroad's work force quickly ballooned from 117 to more than 500. Losing money and lacking maintenance, the railroad closed in 1989 in disrepair.

But Joseph Cornelison, deputy administrator of the Panama Canal Commission, says the railroad, recently privatized and now being refurbished, is actually an example of the lessons the government has learned about how not to manage its central asset.

"A military dictatorship with short-term goals took over the railroad and tried to run it as a government agency," he says. "But now the country has a democratic government, and they've learned the lesson that governments don't operate businesses well."

Canal administrators point to the legal transformations Panama has approved to guarantee the canal operates more as a corporation than as a government agency. In 1994, Panama approved a constitutional amendment stating the canal's central importance to the country and stipulating that the Canal operate efficiently and at a profit.

Last June, Panama's Congress approved an "organic law" to govern the Canal as an independent corporation with a separate budget.

Still, after 85 years of American operation, the Canal remains associated with a US presence and management. To counter that "historical handicap," the Canal commission has undertaken a citizen-education program to demonstrate what the country has already done to run the canal efficiently and what it plans for the future.

"We know it's Panamanians who think only the US can run this," says Jaime Bocanegra, manager of the commission's transition team. They don't know, for example, that 93 percent of the Canal's work force is already Panamanian. "We want to build confidence that we're going to come out of this transition with flying colors."

Back on the Cap Corrientes, the focus is on the present - getting the ship, at 106 feet the widest of the 40 ships that will pass between the Pacific and the Atlantic all day - through the double set of locks at Miraflores.

Canal pilot Jan is radioing to tugboat operators who, like rodeo cowboys cajoling a feisty bronco into a stockade, push and pull at the "Cap" to send the behemoth into the locks. At the same time he directs a ship officer operating the Cap's rudder.

Suddenly we feel a bump. Despite everyone's effort, the ship has nudged the lock's wall on the port side. After a few minutes of investigation and consultation the consensus is that the small dent left by the collision is nothing serious.

Still, according to canal rules, it will have to be photographed and fully reported. And the incident illustrates why ship captains are required to give up command of their ship to canal pilots for the 50-mile canal transit.

The Canal's 290 pilots - 210 of whom are Panamanians - know all the canal's "tricks," Mr. Tygart says, from the tides and the narrow locks to the tight turns and shallow spots. "And even with all our experience in getting through here," Jan says, "this kind of thing can still happen."

Because of our little "bump" we are passed by the Regal Princess, a towering cruise ship of happy vacationers. Getting more bang out of the growing number of cruise ships that pass through the canal every year is one of the administration's goals.

"Right now we have about 400 cruise ships passing through every year, but none of them has its passengers disembark for a visit in Panama," says Ren Van Hoorde, the canal commission's marine operations director. Coordinating cruise ships with tourism in Panama is just one example of how an independent canal organization will branch out, he says.

Once the Cap is safely positioned in the lock, the 900-ton gates are closed, and we slowly rise to the canal's freshwater level. (Complete sea-to-sea passage requires rising and falling 85 feet in three sets of locks.)

Noting that the gates are the originals from 1913 - as are the gates' original electromechanical mechanisms, which are only now being replaced with more modern hydraulic systems - Tygart says every trip still leaves him marveling at the canal's engineering feats.

But if the locks are awe-inspiring, the nine-mile Gaillard Cut through solid rock is dumbfounding. Even as machinery widens the canal's cut through the continental divide, an observer can hardly help but think back to the thousands of workers who at the turn of the century chipped away at mountain and bedrock to make the canal a reality.

Canal expansion

The Canal is undergoing a billion-dollar expansion program set to increase its ship-handling capacity by 20 percent by 2002. The key to the project is widening of the Gaillard Cut from 500 to 630 feet, making two-way traffic possible for most ships.

Only when we reach Gatun Lake is two-way traffic possible. And it is here that we see the canal as home to a daily parade of global trade: flat grain ships carrying corn from the US Midwest to China, container vessels carrying salmon and grapes from Chile to France, and perfume and machine parts from France to Chile.

As the parade continues, Tygart points to the nooks and crannies of Gatun Lake, where he likes to go fishing during his time off. But his admiration is reserved for the canal he's navigated more than 5,000 times.

"I may have been doing this most days for a quarter-century," he says, "but every trip through I'm still in awe."

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