Smile… you’re on Canal-Cam!!!

April 7, 2002

On Friday morning, Alex's parents - who are currently sailing in Panama - were to crew for some friends as they transited the Panama Canal. We received an e-mail that there is a live web camera that shows one of the first locks that the boats travel through. They said they would wave as they passed and if we were lucky we might catch a glimpse.

They were to see the harbormaster at 6 am to get a time when they would be allowed to travel. From there it is a 40-minute sail to the first lock where the web cam is. Since New York is in the same time zone as Panama, Alex set the alarm for 6:30 and tuned in to the computer in the hopes of seeing his adventurous parents. The sky was getting lighter outside our window as the sun was coming up in the tropics 3000 miles due south. The web cam displayed a view of the 1000ft lock. With images updated every 10 seconds, after staring at this thing for ages, he could see life waking up in that part of the world. Trucks drove by on the shore, and eventually two large tankers approached. When the sun finally made an appearance in the gray tropical skies, Alex could tell from the shadows cast that the camera was pointing south. From this view it would be possible to see any boats that approached from the pacific side, where his parents would be coming from.

As the tankers entered the locks we were wondering where a tiny sailboat would fit beside these behemoths. There seemed to be absolutely no room on either side. The locks would open, fill with water, and the ship would slowly be raised, before moving on to the next step; the world's slowest escalator. It takes a lot to move a 900 ft cargo tanker, and watching in 10 second increments from a web cam it's excruciatingly slow.

6:40 came and went. This was the earliest that they would be heading into the lock, but still no sign of a sailboat. The sailing community tends to take care of each other, and it's very common for people to crew on other boats. The 50-mile trek through the Canal can be hairy, since even a large sailboat is dwarfed by the local traffic. Extra hands are needed to secure lines on deck and keep the boat away from less maneuverable beasts. Even the large tugs that assist the tankers are like toys in a bathtub.

Two huge cargo ships entered the locks at the same time at around 7:15. Could they be blocking our view? At 7:30 the camera panned off the lock 180 degrees to show a bridge. The camera guy must have kept running out to get coffee, because the angle wouldn't change for long stretches of time, even though there was nothing of interest in the frame. It's possible to e-mail the camera operator and request a change of view, so Alex e-mailed to ask that they pan the camera back to the lock. When they finally did, we thought my parents might have slipped through during this time. It was getting late and we both had work to get to, but we kept the computer on for a while.

Then at 9:00 after almost three hours of watching, we saw a tiny spec approaching. The closer it got the more obvious it became that it was a sailboat. We figured it had to be Alex's parents because it was the first sailboat we'd seen all morning. We watched as they motored into the lock and out of view. Alex e-mailed again, asking if the camera could pan right. There was a cruise ship already in the lock in front of them, so of course the camera panned to it. The poor camera operator must have been flooded with e-mails because he really started zooming in on all the passengers. People held up signs saying "Hi Mom and Dad." It was pretty great to see just how close the camera could see. We saw all over the upper decks, covered with tourists in their cruise ship fashion - loud shirts and cameras around necks.

Alex e-mailed a third time saying we wanted to see the sailboat behind the cruise ship. There's about a five-minute delay between when the image is captured to when it shows up on our computer, so it was agonizing to wait. We watched the ship slowly pull away. Apparently the camera guy needed more coffee because as the ship cleared the frame we had a nice view of the dirt shore and a barbed wire fence. Then a few minutes later a sailboat mast went through. Another agonizingly close glimpse. Finally the camera moved again and there they were! Beamed live from the Panama Canal, Alex's parents' image on our computer screen! They were standing on the bow of the boat next to a green kayak, looking right at us. We were both cheering! It's been almost a year since we've seen each other, so it was pretty magical to catch this glimpse. It was worth the long morning and all the waiting. They were only there for a few seconds, before the camera moved on again. Later we could see them off in the distance heading for the next lock and the Caribbean to the north.

Alex fired off an e-mail to them letting them know that we saw them. For the rest of day we were wondering how the rest of the Canal went, and hoping all the locks were as smooth as this first one. We look forward to receiving their next e-mail to hear of their experiences. This is a bit of a trial run for them on someone else's boat. In a few weeks they hope to transit the Canal themselves and move on to the next stage of their adventure, and to another ocean. Once again, we'll have the web cam to take us there with them.

Click to see some PHOTOS from our computer view


To see what’s happening in the canal NOW, click here and click on the "Live Camera" link

To learn more about the canal, click here


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