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“It is the fate of most voyagers, no sooner have they discovered what is most interesting in any locality, then they are hurried from it . . .” —Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle
A container ship the size of a prone Chrysler Building slides silently past me, at eye level, close enough to touch. Multicolored intermodal containers, the red blood cells of global commerce, are stacked a hundred feet high on the deck. The freighter slips into the lock with mere inches to spare, kissing the concrete wall with a hollow shriek while the massive steel gates swing closed. The 65,000-ton ship is lowered from Gatún Lake. Sailors wave at the bow, and millions of gallons of water leave the lock chamber. Inch by inch, the giant vessel appears to sink to its gunwales, stately as a coffin put in the ground. The lower gates open like the doors of a cathedral, and the ship is pulled forward by towlines attached to mulas, the diesel engines that long ago replaced actual mules in the canal trade. The ship fires up its engines and churns toward the wide blue Pacific. Many of the containers heading in this direction are empty, returning to the factories of Shenzhen and Guangzhou to restock the Wal-Marts of the Eastern Seaboard with flat-panel televisions, adulterated dog food, and Nikes. The majority of the deckhands are Filipinos who have signed on for low pay and few protections, to live outside the reach of international regulations. Theirs is a world little improved from the difficulties and dangers present when the Panama Canal was built a century ago.
The canal itself is a marvel of engineering, cutting 8,000 miles from the journey between the oceans by carrying ships over the Continental Divide. Fourteen thousand vessels pass through the canal each year, from the toll-paying customers to enormous Panamax ships built to the maximum permissible dimensions of the locks. The canal is physical proof that while water flows downhill, money will climb right the hell over anything that stands in its way. It is a monument to the ingenuity of capitalism and the persuasiveness of gunboat diplomacy. It is as monstrous and wondrous as the Great Wall, and its construction took a similarly grim human toll.
And yet the scene is undeniably romantic. Seabirds wheel and cry in the hazy sunlight. The air smells of salt and diesel. The canal is one of the great loci of modern civilization. The horizon glows with possibility and imagined destinations in far-off ports. There are few places on the planet more suitable for contemplating a sea journey than the bar that overlooks the Miraflores Locks. Which is a fine thing, because that’s where I am, a couple pints along, and I have come to Panama to join a boat.
I am not signing on to a tanker or freighter bound for the Far East (which is west of here), but rather to a scuffed-up, forty-eight-foot, two-masted ketch, owned and captained by my old friend Andrew Whyte and his wife, Francesca. I am going to crew for them on the first leg of their journey across the Pacific to their home in Melbourne. Our primary destination is the Galápagos Islands, a two-week sail to the southwest across a thousand miles of open water, skirting the pirate havens of the Colombian coast and the uncertain winds of the Doldrums, striking for the equator and following it to the islands originally known as Las Encantadas. The Enchanted Islands. And the boat that will get us there is the Shangri La. A sailboat named after a mythical Himalayan valley may seem indicative of a romanticism unmoored from reality, but it befits the fantastical existence Andrew and Francesca have created for themselves, working their way around the world for years with scarcely any money but possessed of boundless dreams.
And it is no more unlikely an appellation than the Beagle, a ten-gun brig of Her Majesty the Heiress Apparent Victoria’s Navy, which sailed for the Galápagos in the late summer of 1835, carrying a perpetually seasick, inexhaustibly curious, unpaid twenty-five-year-old naturalist named Charles Darwin.