You'll Be a Man, My Son
I’ve always been fond of the phrase, “Be careful what you get good at.” Had I thought of it at the time, I may have been more cautious. Youth and innocence are a fog of their own and I was overcome by them. I wanted, more than anything, to know the feeling of being one with the sea. I wanted to see her nuances in the distance, to anticipate her moods and movements, to feel connected to every horizon. I wanted to be a goddamn pirate captain of the twenty-first century...
Somewhere around the northern border of Costa Rica, the wind eased and the mighty Pacific Ocean lay calm again. We were on the final leg of our traverse from California to Panama and I stood my watches with a heavy heart. As it was planned, this was a “shakedown”, a short run to learn the vessel and test it. When Panama came, I was due to leave.
I spent a lot of time thinking about what I would do when I left. What, really, would I possibly do that could compare with this? Go back to southern California? Stay in Central America and travel the land? I was twenty-three years old, the first mate of a luxury sailing yacht, and having the time of my life. Nothing else in the world was of any interest to me.
Jiorgos must have noticed the weight I was carrying. As we spoke casually in the time between our shifts one night, he disappeared into the cabin for a moment, and returned with a small and weathered book. I held it close to the compass light to examine its tile, “The Alchemist”.
I read that book from cover to cover before the sun set on the following day. When I finished, Jiorgos casually quoted the very piece of wisdom I had taken away.
He followed by saying,
“There are a lot of miles between here and Greece. We need you on board.”
It was hard to really understand the true meaning at the time, and I mostly focused on the relief that this adventure was not coming to an abrupt and unresolved end in short time. The horizons ahead gave me air to breathe and I felt safe in knowing that I still had time to grow and learn on the path I was traveling.
Our final days in the Pacific Ocean were filled with bliss, introspection, and a quiet excitement for the journey to come. There were thousands of ocean miles in our wake, and we had become more than a crew. We were a family. Each of us looked out for the others as a brother or sister and we shared a profound trust.
We arrived in Panama at night, slowly making our way through the breakwater at Isla Perico, and took a berth in Flamenco marina. Here, we spent two weeks making repairs and preparing to transit the canal. We were told of some key needs by other transiting sailors, which by and large, matched what we found in the pilot books. The basics were all available for rent or loan or hire. Four heavy lines of one hundred-fifty feet each, rubber car tires, a sheet of carpet to place between the hull and the tires, and a few Panamanian line handlers were the most important.
Once the canal commission had measured the vessel, we were given a transit appointment and instructions to rendezvous with our pilot. We took him aboard from a boat at the number 4 mark at sunrise. After a quick introduction, Sergio instructed us to proceed toward the canal entrance. Passing under the Bridge of the Americas, I had a moment to think of the gravity of that place.
The massive intersection connects continents as well as oceans, and many lives were lost to create those connections. The whole of our history is laden with the same story of souls being sacrificed in the name of progress. How did it come to be that men would risk dying for the dreams of other men? How easy it is to see the injustice of the past and overlook it in the present. The same way those men were hypnotized by the promise of a few dollars and the thought of a better life for their families, most of the world still toils for the sake of another. What is this veil that clouds our vision and erases our dreams? Why is it that so few people fulfill their potential?
My thoughts were broken by the approach to the Miraflores Locks. Sergio instructed us to enter the lock and tie up alongside one of the canal tugs on the right side of the lock. The maneuver was straightforward and shortly after we were secure, the floodgates were opened and the water began to boil. When the lock filled, we cast off briefly, only to repeat the procedure in the next set of locks. When we were again secured and waiting for the next rise, a call came through on the pilot’s personal radio that the captain of the commercial ship in the neighboring lock wanted to speak with our captain. He noticed the small Greek flag that Jiorgos so proudly flew from our port halyards. The captain of the ship being Greek himself wanted to know why it was flying there. Jiorgos and he shared a brief exchange in their strange tongue, and Jiorgos and he both laughed their way through a farewell. Apparently Jiorgos explained to him that he was on his way home. The ship captain, flabbergasted at the size difference in the vessels could only respond,
“In that little thing? Good luck!"
Again the locks were filled and we bade farewell to our friends on the tug, entering the wild jungle and headed into the heart of the Panama Canal.
As we wound our way through the muddy waters, Sergio directed us to shortcuts and alternative routes, avoiding larger shipping lanes and trying to save time. If we couldn’t make the locks at Gatun by sunset, we would have to spend a night anchored in the lake. None of us were particularly averse to this idea. Our surroundings were spectacular. The pilot on the other hand, wanted to get home to his family and with the last light of day; he directed our entrance to the final locks. This time, we were asked to raft alongside a much smaller sailing vessel in the center of the lock. This meant each of the boats having a bow and stern line to one side of the lock and essentially acting as one boat. Jiorgos was not happy with this, having perceived the competence of the other crew in the state of their vessel. He discussed this with the pilot, noting that he had specifically requested to work independently in the locks or alongside a canal tug. Sergio complied with his request and instructed the other pilot to secure his command on its own. All at once the four monkey fists came flying at high speeds from the line handlers on the lock walls. Each one had to be bent onto one of our four long hawsers. Once secured, the line handlers took up the ends and secured them around large bollards. As the water level receded, we had to pay out the excess with four men working in unison to keep the boat centered in the turbulence. We were set in position when the process began. The other vessel had a great deal of trouble in preparing this set up and as the turbulence began, they went out of control. Jiorgos tried to talk the other captain through resolving the problem, even going so far as to explain how to maneuver. The captain of the other vessel was in a frantic state of panic, which had rendered him useless. Instead of regaining control of his vessel, he chose to scream at Jiorgos and blame him for the predicament. Jiorgos continued to speak calmly to him throughout the process.
Kipling described the scene perfectly in his poem “If”.
By luck alone, disaster was avoided. The water and the tempers calmed and we descended to the sea level of the Caribbean.
To be continued…