“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.
In February of 2001, just after the inauguration of George W. Bush, Andrew, two other friends, and I walked across the Mexican border at Agua Prieta with nothing but what we were carrying in our backpacks. Hopping freight trains, hitching rides in the backs of pickups, and camping in fields and on beaches, we traced the Pacific coast clear to Costa Rica, moving almost constantly, adhering to Andrew’s dictum that we never pay for a ride. The force of Andrew’s personality is such that the best way to enjoy traveling with him (which I have done in many countries over the years) is to let him have it his way. After six weeks, I prepared to go back to New York, having had a reasonably fun lark in Latin America, ready to return to my life despite its recent scuttling by a breakup with my girlfriend and my dismissal from a job as a magazine fact-checker. The journey had been a respite from the familiar, but I was tired of sleeping on hard ground and waiting for rides in the blazing sun. For Andrew, traveling and life were directly equated. There was nothing he cared to return to, and he saw our travels through Central America as his jumping-off point.
On my last night in Costa Rica we sat around a fire on a beach, talking until the night had collapsed to embers. “I’ve gotten to the point where I start to lose it if I stay in one place for more than a day,” he said. It was a relentless way to live, a constant pilgrimage toward the unknown that Andrew had been making for as long as I had known him. Andrew is tall, broad-shouldered, with a roguish grin, boundless charisma, and an indefatigable will with which he tries to coerce the universe into doing things. He had hitchhiked nearly the entire length of the Pan-American Highway (from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego), had busked his way with a guitar through every country in Europe, had never, he claimed, paid for a ride. Now he seemed unhappy with travel and hoped the next leg of the journey would release him from his own exhausting restlessness. He seemed to feel born into the wrong era, when the maps are all filled in and the adventures are all circumscribed. The world of cubicles, suits, fluorescent tube lights, morning commutes, and two-week vacations horrified him, and he would rather stay broke for life than submit to such ignominies. And this refusal to serve only compounded his need to push himself further and deepened his frustrations at what the world offered up. When I woke in the morning, the driftwood coals still smoldered in the sand, but Andrew was gone. I wouldn’t see him again for years.
He had hitchhiked to Panama City and, despite a complete lack of experience, bluffed his way into a job crewing on a sailboat bound across the Pacific. Several boats and archipelagoes later, he found himself in Fiji aboard the Shangri La, crewing for its owner, a Californian named Stu Douglas who had lost his only crewmember the day Stu and Andrew met. They continued their traverse of Oceania, and in a bar in Melbourne Andrew met Francesca, fell in love, and persuaded her to quit her job and join him aboard. To her eternal credit she did, and the three sailed the rest of the way around the world, braving everything from howling storms to engine malfunctions to Somali pirates. At his wedding, he told the story of the Somali pirates to point out the precise moment when, rounding the Bab el Mandeb, he had decided that Francesca, undaunted by the possibility of being captured and sold into slavery, was the girl for him. When Andrew and Francesca were married in 2006, Douglas gave them the best present they could imagine: the Shangri La. They would only have to collect it in California and sail it home to Melbourne.
When I arrived in Panama, they had already been sailing for several months, hopping along the hippie surf havens of the Pacific coast and dropping anchor at the Balboa Yacht Club, a low-rent marina at the Pacific mouth of the canal, where the Shangri La now bobs in the wakes of passing container ships, her crew arriving and final preparations being made for our imminent departure.