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PANAMA TO JAMAICA
Navigation of the Gulf of Panama — Balboa and the City of Panama — Through the Canal — Cristobal — An Incapable Pilot — The Education of a Cook — A Waterspout — A Further Exciting Experience.
Our job was now to get to the entrance of the Canal, which is situated at the bottom of the bight of the Gulf of Panama. It is a most difficult one for a sailing vessel. Roughly speaking, currents from the south-east may be said to sweep round its coasts, and to form of the Gulf one vast eddy. Here, throughout the year, persist calms and catspaws from all directions, rain, lightning, and squalls: the whole caboodleum of the Doldrums, plus a complex tangle of irregular currents. In addition to the foregoing joys, there is, towards the head of the Gulf, a large area studded with islands, rocks, and coral patches. From this archipelago have been obtained, from the earliest times, at the price of infamous cruelty, a large supply of the finest pearls — the group is called the Pearl Islands.
“A vessel unaided by steam power will experience considerable difficulty and delay in getting out of Panama Bay," say the Sailing Directions. She will: and so she does in getting into it. There is a well-known yarn of a ship being here carried round and round for a year or so, in the olden days, until her people had nearly all perished from scurvy. Some of the American newspapers got hold of this story and said we had found and relieved her, giving pathetic details. In our case, though we had a motor that gave us 5½ knots through the water, we found that our only course was to allow ourselves to be carried right across the mouth of the Gulf to the Colombian coast, and then to work up along the coast of the Isthmus of Darien, i.e. along the eastern shore of the Gulf of Panama.
The following summary of our log will show what things are like. We left Fea Harbour, Quibo Island, at 8.10 a.m. on Thursday, March the 9th, and motored until noon. Then got the canvas on her. Light airs: E.; N.N.E.; N.; S.S.E.; S.E.b.E. between noon and midnight. Made good 17½ miles. Much lightning all around in the first watch.
The middle watch of Friday the loth had easterly airs that gave her an average of three knots, and much lightning. At 9.50 a.m. started motor and ran it until 0.50 p.m.; and again from 3.24 p.m. to 5.45 p.m. Notwithstanding our using power, it was 10 p.m. before the light on Cape Mala could be entered in the log as just dipping. The motor was only called upon when the current was setting her into what would be a dangerous position. This day we make good 38½ miles.
On Saturday, the 11th of March, we found there was a strong s'utherly set at 11 a.m., and a N.N.W. breeze, so, instead of steering to Panama, we altered course to take full advantage of the breeze to cross the Gulf. We passed from time to time well-defined current-ripples, with much rubbish floating in the dead water. During the afternoon the water became very dark and discoloured, but we got no bottom at 225 fms. At 10 p.m. however we got 55 fms., so we hove-to and waited for the daylight. Our day's run was 79 miles.
At earliest daylight on Sunday the 12th we bore away and at 7.15 a.m. made Cape Escarpado bearing N. 42° E. The morning was very hazy with much mirage, and the land very difficult to recognise at any distance. We were now working to wind'ard to the entrance of the Pearl Islands. At 1.35 p.m. we started the motor, and at 4.50 p.m. brought up for the night in 13 fms. between Monge and Puercos islets, which lie off the east coast of the large Isla del Rey. We have done 60 miles to-day.
On Monday, the 13th of March, we made a start at 5 a.m., under sail, working against light airs from N.N.W. westerly. We were now being swept up into the Bight of Panama by the current, so all we had to do was to keep her nicely placed. At noon, when we were distant from Canal entrance 48 miles, we were obliged to start the motor, and did 16 miles under power, stopping it at 3.26 p.m. We then got a gentle N.W. breeze, which we kept till 11.40 p.m., when we brought up off the entrance of the Canal.
Early the next morning a harbour launch, with the Port Officials, came out to us. They told us that the Canal had been closed to all traffic for five months. According to them, our chance of being allowed to pass through was small indeed.
As soon as we had got pratique, we started in our launch for the shore, to learn our fate. From the Port of Balboa on the Pacific, to the Port of Colon on the Atlantic, is 44 miles by canal: by sea the distance is 10,500. If the Powers that Were would not let us through, we must practically again circumnavigate the whole continent of South America. We had already done it once to a very large extent: Pernambuco to Valparaiso. Was it to be our fate to do it a second time?
Though Mana was anchored close to the entrance of the fairway, yet she was hull-down on our looking back when we were abreast of the Balboa frontage, so great is the length of the dredged channel through the smooth shoal water of the Bay, before the Canal begins to have visible land on either side of it.
Messrs. Balfour, Guthrie & Co., of San Francisco, had most kindly advised their agents of our being en route, and consequently, when we landed at Balboa, there was a motor-car in waiting. We whisked off, got fresh meat and vegetables for the ship, put it aboard the launch, and despatched her with orders to return to take us off an hour before dark. Then we drove straight to the City of Panama to call on the British Minister, Sir Claud Mallet. He was most kind. He sent us under convoy of the Consul to see Colonel Harding, the acting chief of the Canal in the absence of Colonel Goethals. Colonel Harding was pleased to grant Mana the exceptional privilege of at once passing through the Canal, on the ground that she was a scientific research ship, — a favour for which we owe much gratitude both to him and to the Government which he represented. We have sometimes however regretted this stroke of luck, as, had we been compelled to take the s'utherly route, we should have been at Punta Arenas just at the time Sir Ernest Shackleton was there seeking a vessel to rescue his men from Elephant Island, a job for which Mana was eminently fitted.
In accordance with arrangements made, next morning a pilot came off and took us, under our own power, from the outer anchorage, up the dredged channel, to the mooring dolphins opposite Balboa, a distance of about 5 miles. Balboa is the name of a new town built by the Americans on the Eastern bank of the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal. The ground on which it is situated is not flat, also there are a couple of isolated volcanic cones, that rise to a height of 363 feet and 650 feet respectively, in its midst. A fine sanitary city has been designed, and largely brought into being, and as the work of construction of the Canal proceeds towards completion, for there is still much work to be done, so everything connected with the Canal will be concentrated there. To this new town of Balboa adjoins the old city of Panama, the capital of the Republic of Panama, but now isolated from the rest of the republic, being entirely surrounded by U.S.A. territory.
Before we go through the Canal, it will be well to have a general idea of its character. Let us first consider that of the Suez. The Isthmus of Suez is a level neck of sand, only slightly raised above sea level. Across it a gutter has been dug: the Mediterranean Sea, unobstructed, flows along that gutter, until it blends its waters with those of the Red Sea.
The Panama is an entirely different proposition. The Isthmus of Panama is a neck of land formed of volcanic debris and rock. It is only partially level; it is humped in the middle, but that hump is hollowed like a saucer. So we have this sequence: — A level. A hump. A level.
The Canal therefore is made in this way. Firstly the middle, or humped part, is changed, by means of embankments, from a semi-dry saucer into a deep high-level pond, i.e. into a pond whose surface is 85 feet above the level of the sea. That pond is filled, and kept filled, with sweet water by the rainfall on high country around it — the inner slope of the edge of the saucer. As we are only concerned with two embankments which go to form the pond, we will refer to one as the Eastern and to the other as the Western.
Next, the Pacific Ocean is brought up a distance of about 4 miles, to the foot of the Western Embankment, by digging a simple gutter through level country, just as has been done in the case of Suez: similarly the Atlantic is brought a distance of about 5 miles to the foot of the Eastern Embankment.
Finally, each embankment is equipped with a series of water steps, or locks, whereby a vessel is lifted up from the ditch into the pond, or lowered from the pond into the ditch. Water of the pond, in measured doses of a lockful at a time, and on which dose float one or more ships, is first shut off from the pond, and is then permitted gently to escape into the Pacific Ocean ditch, or into the Atlantic Ocean ditch, as the case may be.
No drop of Atlantic sea water ever mingles with the sweet water of the Central Pond. No drop of Pacific sea water ever mingles with the sweet water of the Central Pond. The Atlantic with the Pacific do not commingle directly or indirectly.
Punctually at 7 a.m. the Canal pilot boarded us, and we left Balboa 7.35 a.m. under our own power, and proceeded up the Canal. It was a real pleasure trip. Engines running to perfection. Pilot most complimentary to them. No navigating to be done. The men highly content at the information that, once through the lock gates, the ship would be in fresh water, and they could wash clothes all day long. Largesse of soap distributed. We reached the Miraflores Locks at 8.15 a.m. Distance from Balboa about 2 miles. The shores of the Canal between Balboa and Miraflores present little of interest — the Canal is here simply a ditch cut through a swamp. We enter the lower lock: the water of the pond above our heads is let in, and we rise about 54 feet. The doors in front of us open, and we pass out into a pool. From this pool we enter a second lock: we again rise about 31 feet: the gates in front of us open, and we are floating in an arm of the artificially formed Gatun Lake.
This lake or pond or saucer is of considerable extent: about 1/3 the size of the Isle of Wight. Here it is deep: there it is shallow. What were marshes, when it was still unflooded, have now become its deeps: what were hillock or hill-tops now appear as isolated islands. It is between such islands that the ship channel threads.
A remarkable feature is that the islands, each of which was lately a hill-top, have as yet no horizontally cut shore or strand: the slope of the hill-side is the same below the surface of the water as above it: the waves have not yet cut a shore bench or shelf. The trees therefore stand immersed in varying degree, some with the foot of the trunk only just awash: others with their topmost boughs only just showing. Where the bottom of the pond is level, large areas of now dead, but still standing, forest trees, partially submerged to an even depth, present a remarkable, because a transient, feature. Presently these will decay and disappear, then the water surface of the pond will appear to be greater than it does to-day.
At 10.10 a.m. we passed out of the Western (Miraflores and Miguel) locks, and proceeded across the pond, and reached the other side — the entrance to the Eastern Locks (the Gatun Locks) — at 4.51 p.m. Here we moored ship, as the Canal people would not drop us from the pond into the Atlantic ditch that night. We observed that the U.S.A. were not taking any risks that they could avoid of German agents causing trouble: sentries were posted everywhere, and no one from the ship was allowed to wander about ashore. So Mana's crowd sat in a row on the edge of the lock, like migrating martins on a telegraph wire, and swung their legs, in high good humour. Saturday, March the 18th, at 8.7 a.m. we entered the Gatun Locks; at 8.53 p.m. passed out: and at 10 a.m. came to anchor in Colon Harbour.
That afternoon we moored alongside a pier, and took aboard coal, petroleum, and lubricating oil. The British Consul, Mr. Murray, was most kind and hospitable, and though the flat mud island on which Cristobal stands, and of which it occupies the greater part, is unusually uninteresting, as is also the town, yet, owing to Mr. Murray, we quite enjoyed a week's detention there that Fate had in store for us.
As a vessel steams down the gutter (Gatun Approach) that runs in a straight line from the Eastern Embankment (Gatun Dam) into the Atlantic (Caribbean Sea), she has on her starboard hand, as she approaches the termination of the gutter, a small flat island of alluvium. The Canal water front of that island is occupied now by wharves and jetties, behind which runs a good road bordered with fairly respectable shops, and stores, and drinking-dens. At one end is a large and good hotel; at the other the stores, workshops, and residences of the Canal Officials. To all this is given the name of CristObal — long O. Immediately against Cristobal, and forming part of it, abuts the town of COlon — another long O — a town that practically sprang into being at the first making of the Canal: a twin sister to the town of Suez of the olden days for vice and villainy. If Colon be what it is now, with the U.S. A. in control, what must it have been of yore? We believe that the Canal Administration allows the citizens of the Republic of Panama some sort of self government as regards their town of Colon, hence its character. The redeeming point about it is that it is so frequently and largely burnt to the ground that it will eventually become quite reasonably sanitary.
At present, Cristobal is the executive centre on the Canal. Here are all the workshops. Balboa, at the other end, is to-day the administrative centre only, but gradually all interests connected with the Canal will there be concentrated. To Cristobal is brought, and from Cristobal is drawn, all labour and supplies. All food consumed throughout the Canal zone — meat, fresh fish, vegetables, fruit, is sent frozen from the U.S.A. and there kept in cold storage — no supplies practically are derived from the surrounding country. It is only by the courtesy of the Canal Administration, that anyone, not in its employ, is allowed to purchase food at its depots. Any foreigner therefore, whose work requires him to live in the Canal zone, finds housekeeping a very difficult matter. In our case, however, by the Regulations, we were entitled to purchase what we wanted, but the same Regulations specially state that any yacht, U.S.A. or foreign, shall be charged 20 per cent, more than any other vessel for any food supplied, or services rendered to her, and we were charged accordingly. And this though the Administration had only allowed us to pass through on the ground that we were not a yacht. In no sense were we one. To an Englishman it seems strange to find that another people considers it to the interest of the State to differentiate against yachts: we know, in our case, what our nation has gained by the widespread and intelligent interest in maritime affairs, that is the outcome of the British sport of yachting.
Having got all our essential stores aboard on the day of our arrival (Saturday), we hoped to be able to get fresh provisions, pay dues, and clear on the Monday. But now our troubles began. There were at this time certain repairs that it was desirable should be done to portions of our machinery. They were not essential, as we had substituted new spares for each defective part, but we thought it wise, as we were now at the only port where we could get the work done, to get the damaged parts renovated, so as to become spares in their turn. The original idea was to send down the parts by boat, but eventually the machine shop desired the vessel to be laid alongside its wharf. No vessel by the Regulations is allowed to be moved without a Canal Pilot aboard her. He takes absolute command and control. A pilot accordingly took her alongside all right. Then arose delays — but everybody was most obliging, and the work was well done, though of course prices were very high.
Meantime our kindly Consul was doing all he could to arrange for us to have a day's tarpon fishing from the Gatun Weir — from hearsay it is most thrilling work: you stand on the great weir with the water boiling in foam 85 feet beneath you and play a real fighting fish of 100 to 200 lbs. weight. The gentleman who was to have run us up to Gatun in his launch, and to have helped us to get a fish, was, however, unavoidably detained.
Day followed day with the vessel alongside the wharf and the repair work in the workshops.
At this time we were much amused by an old Jamaican coloured man, who spent most of the day sitting on the quay beside the vessel close to her stern, where of course the ensign was flying on the flagstaff. He, like all the British West Indian coloured people, of whom there is a very large number at Cristobal-Colon, was enthusiastically loyal, and told us, "I love to sit under de ole flag: while you here, I do no more work — all de day I sit under de ole flag." The men took a fancy to him, and "de ole flag" found something to spare for him at every meal, and a pipe of baccy afterwards.
At last the repairs were completed — shore accounts all settled up and the Canal Pilot took charge to take us out. We had to go out of the pool stern foremost. It turned out subsequently that the Gatun Locks were at this time passing a vessel through. This caused a current to flow past the pier head of the dock. The pilot did not know of it, with the result that Mana's stern crashed into the pier head. Luckily the piling was very old and rotten, and Mana extraordinarily strong, so that, though the pier head structure was pretty considerably smashed, our own damage was confined to broken taffrail stancheons and the ironwork of the main gallows. We had therefore to return to our berth and have this new lot of damage made good. The Pilot, a Greek, of course tried to make out that the reversing gear had refused duty when he wanted to handle her, but, before we could find the Captain of the Port, that official had already been aboard and tried the engine, and told us that he found it worked to perfection, and gave us the true cause of the accident. We then asked him to give orders that our damage should be made good by the Canal Administration free of charge, but this he assured us was impossible under the Regulations — we must pay, but the job should be expedited. He also, out of sympathy with our misfortunes, gave us permission, when our job was done, this time to take our ship out ourselves without having another Canal pilot aboard, lest something worse should happen. And this we eventually did, to our own great satisfaction. Before however we could get our clearance, we had to deposit a sum equal to double the estimated cost of our repairs.
The Canal Administration, like the British Post Office, always plays pitch and toss on the terms of "heads I win, tails you lose." It, very properly, compels you to take a pilot. It gives him absolute power, and requires that he himself shall take command and handle the vessel. But such a man's experience is confined to big steamers: with them he is probably quite skilful, but give him a small craft or a yacht, and he knows as much about handling her as he does of piloting an aeroplane. Hence those tears.
The foregoing is equally true of the Suez Canal pilots. The risks to a small craft in the passage of the ship canals are great, and are solely due to the pilots being permitted to attempt to handle them.
As the Regulations of the Panama Canal stand, the Pilot may be mad, or drunk, or incompetent, and elect to ram another vessel, or to butt at a lock gate, nevertheless all damage done to the ship, or by the ship, must be paid by the Owners of the ship, before she is allowed to leave the Canal. Under no circumstances will the Administration accept responsibility for the conduct of their pilots. And there you have it.
At 9.15 a.m. Sunday, March the 26th, 1916, we passed through the breakwater into the Caribbean Sea. We had cleared from Cristobal-Colon for Trinidad, one of our West Indian Islands, but when doing so we never had any intention of going there. We informed the British Consul of our reasons and had his sanction. German sympathisers seemed to take a most kindly interest in us. We were really bound for Bermuda, via the Windward Passage, which is the pass between the two great islands of Cuba and St. Domingo. A strong wind and current sweep at this time of year from East to West the length of the Caribbean Sea, consequently we had to get well to the east'ard so as to make sure of carrying a fair wind and current for rounding Cape Tiburon, the western extremity of the Island of St. Domingo. We therefore at once set to work to beat steadily to wind'ard along the Venezuelan coast, keeping close in with the land, in order to cheat the current and to have as little sea as possible. As this coast is only roughly surveyed, and the lighting cannot be depended on, we exercised special care when standing-in to the land. We saw no craft along this coast except that, one night, what looked like a small tramp steamer of about 800 tons entirely changed her course, and bore down on us until she was close alongside. She did not attempt to communicate. We kept our course and took no notice of her. After a good look at us she took herself off.
We had unfortunately lost, at Cristobal, our excellent and popular Japanese cook, and the coloured Panama man who replaced him proved, after being given some days of grace, such a miserable impostor that even the strenuous and varied educational efforts of the fo'c's'le failed to bring about his regeneration. We heard, indirectly, that the Russian Finn decided that it was a case of demoniacal possession and had attempted to cure it by means of a course of massage of the windpipe. Others of the crew suddenly became afflicted with a variety of complaints for which they drew various drastic drugs from the ship's medicine chest and then, with great self-sacrifice, refraining from taking these themselves, administered them instead to the chef. We aft got along quite comfortably, as the cabin steward, Edwin Young, belonging to Pitcairn Island, had become, since joining, quite a good cook, and was most willing and hard working. But the fo'c's'le very naturally complained, so, in its interest, we decided to alter our course and make for Port Royal, Jamaica, to seek that pearl of price — a good sea cook.
Nothing calling for remark occurred on this run until the 6th of April. At 6.15 a.m. on that day Mr. Gillam, whose watch it was, came below and said, “I wish you would come on deck. Sir; there's a water-spout bearing down on us." In half a shake of a lamb's tail we were on deck, and a truly wonderful and impressive sight presented itself. Away on our starboard bow was a vast, dark purple cloud mass shaped like an open umbrella, or rather like a vaulted roof with central pendant. The upper surface of the dome blended with the normal clouds. The edge of the dome was sharply defined, and from it small fragments of cloud, all ragged, and looking like pearl-grey silk muslin torn off and crumpled, kept breaking away to be left behind. The dome-shaped mass, on its lower aspect, gradually became columnar, the column extended downward until it almost, but not quite, reached the sea. The lower part of its length was much attenuated, and convoluted, and terminated in ragged mist, and could be seen to be rotating rapidly.
The surface of the sea beneath it, over an area of perhaps a mile in diameter, presented the appearance of a fiercely boiling cauldron. The water rose up as waves of pyramidal form, from which the wind tore off the apices, and whipped the same into spume. The waves had no fixed direction: they simply dashed into one another. Immediately beneath the ragged termination of the central column the surface of the sea seemed to be bodily lifted up, amidst a welter of mist, and froth, and spray, into a cone-shaped form, but, between the apex of this cone, and the rapidly rotating extremity of the column of cloud above it, there always remained a distinct interval of considerable extent, that had the appearance of dense mist: the appearance of a hard rain-squall, seen from afar, as it sweeps over the sea. The cloud came down towards the sea, and the sea rose up towards the cloud, and there was an interval betwixt the two. The column was not quite vertical: though it maintained perfect continuity with the cloud mass above, of which it formed a part, nevertheless its lower extremity tended somewhat to trail or lag behind. It moved along its path towards us, quite slowly and steadily, cutting our wake, at an acute angle, some miles astern. It is difficult to conjecture what would happen to a small craft, or to any craft, that found itself well within the area of disturbance. Apart from anything else, the seas, tumbling down on to the top of her from all quarters, even if they did not break in her decks, could hardly fail to strip her hatch openings. As we watched, we agreed that even Mana could scarcely be expected to live amidst such seas, and therefore, obviously, nothing could. As it was, the surface of the sea, where we were, was little affected, nor was there any weight in the shifts of wind as they occurred.
We then had breakfast and a pipe and settled down to routine work when, at lo a.m., a small cloud on the horizon, on our lee bow, was observed to be behaving in a way opposed to the ordinary laws of nature. Though a nice steady breeze was blowing and no other clouds were to be seen anywhere else in this direction on the horizon, yet this one particular patch, like a large sail, remained constant in form and in the same position. As we drew nearer, it was observed to increase and diminish in velume from time to time. The only explanation we could think of was that we had fallen in with a ship on fire, so we bore away towards it. As we reduced the distance betwixt us and it, we gradually made out that it was not one cloud of white smoke, but two separate clouds, that arose, more or less alternately, at two spots situated some two miles or so apart. Another point too gradually developed. Each patch of cloud or smoke suddenly burst forth to its maximum size and then gradually blew to leeward, and dissipated. This led us to think that it must be either gun practice or a naval action. The wind had now fallen light, so we started our engines, and made up our canvas and, like rats, headed for the scrimmage. It was suggested that, following the classical example of Mr. Midshipman Easy a ladies' wardrobe aboard should be overhauled to find if possible a green silk petticoat under which we might go into action. As in Easy's case, being unarmed, our approach was likely to be of greater effect than our presence; but still we all decided to make a claim for prize money. As we cut down the distance it became evident that it could only be a matter of small craft, for no hull could be made out. The fighting was taking place on the northern side of Morant's Cays, a group of low lying coral islets that lay between us and the combatants.
The situation gradually developed. Morant's Cays are coral islets perched on the top of a volcanic area: there had been a seismic disturbance of considerable extent: we had the large-scale Admiralty plan of them. Great changes had taken place: the sea was now breaking in various directions where deep water was shown on the chart. At two points, from vents in the sea bottom, steam was being ejected into the air in puffs, each puff forming a dense white cloud perhaps 200 or more feet high. These puffs occurred some 1½ miles apart and one was much larger than the other. The steam was ejected from each vent alternately. We came in pretty close, but breaking water in various directions warned us that we were looking for trouble, so we headed away for Port Royal, Jamaica.