A boat at the Continental Divide

2014 August 15
by Don Hammack

Friday marked the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal, which I was lucky enough to see from a unique position 20 or so years ago — atop the sail of a submarine.

There are four levels of officers on a submarine: the commanding officer, the executive officer, the department heads and the division officers. I was among the most senior of the junior officers in the last category on USS Grayling, and I was one of the officers of the deck for the daylong transit from the Atlantic to the Pacific. (Stray factoid No. 1: You go west to east in that direction.) It was quite a day, including a man overboard during a swim call. We had to loiter for quite in Lake Gatun, the reservoir in the middle that provides the water for the locks that stair-step you up and down, to and from the oceans. The captain called for a swim call, and a guy slipped as he was jumping in and smacked his head on the HY-80 steel of the hull. He was medevaced by a U.S. Special Forces small boat and then by helicopter from the Atlantic side to the Pacific. (He was fine, and returned to duty and ribbing.)

Panama Canal Map EN

I took over as OOD after that, as we had started heading south. It was perhaps the easiest surface navigation I ever helped oversee. Unsurprisingly, the Panama Canal has perfect ranges for navigation. (Stray factoid No. 2: Ranges are pairs of structures usually highlighted with wide vertical stripes, the front one shorter than the back and lined up down the middle of the channel. If the front range appears to you to be to the right of the rear one, you need to move right in the channel to be in the center.) That, combined with the excellent Canal Pilots and a submarine’s (relatively) small size, made for an easy transit. (Stray factoid No. 3: Pilots are local experts with knowledge of the channel, its currents, landmarks and tugboats who come aboard to aid the captain and the OOD.)

We made our way past Gamboa, and then toward what was then called the Gaillard Cut. (Stray factoid No. 4: It’s now the Culebra Cut, for the ridge it cuts through.) As we made our way into what had been a mountain, the canal was flanked by walls of rock about 130 high. One side had a large, bronze memorial plaque to honor the engineers and workers who excavated that stretch of canal, many of whom died in rockslides and other mishaps. It quite an experience, sitting on a submarine in the Continental Divide.

The rest of the transit involved going through the second sets of locks. (Stray factoid No. 5: The locomotives that run on the side of the locks to help pull ships through are called mules.) Large cargo ships and tankers built to transit the canal squeeze through with tiny margins alongside, so tight they have to run their engines at max power to push the water out of the lock back along their hulls. A submarine like ours, however, is like a toothpick in a bathtub by comparison. There was room for us and our Special Forces escorts.

We ended the transit at Rodman Naval Station on the Pacific side, in a driving tropical rainstorm. It was the only thing that put a damper on a successful transit that started in one ocean and ended in another, through a mountain.

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