Swimming the Panamá Canal

The American Society of Civil Engineers has declared the Panamá Canal to be one of the Modern Seven Wonders of the World. The 51-mile canal was begun in 1881 by France, taken over by the United States in 1904 in cooperation with Panamá, and lastly turned fully over to Panamá in 1999. The Canal opened in 1914 and was expanded in 2016.

Nearly one million ships have passed through the canal, taking about 11-1/2 hours to traverse the locks. Three types of ships use the canal: packed cargo vessels, empty cargo vessels, and passenger ships. Cargo ships are  charged a fee based on the number of containers they carry. Ships passing through today’s expanded canal can pay up to 1.1 million dollars. Empty cargo ships and passenger vessels are calculated differently. The Canal pays for 12% of Panamá’s GDP.

But swimming in the Canal? Yes, it was once done in 1928 by adventurer-author Richard Halliburton. He swam the entire length (locks and all) over 10 days and 50 hours, much as he had swum other canals in the world and even the reflecting pool at the Taj Mahal. “It required as much mechanical labor to bring Halliburton [swimming as the S.S. Halliburton], the lightest ship in Canal history, through the [3] locks as it did for the 40,000-ton airplane carrier Saratoga, the heaviest” [www.gct.com]. Despite the 10 adventure books he published, he is best remembered for swimming the Panamá Canal. Halliburton was born in Memphis in 1900, educated at Princeton, and then took off for parts unknown.

He wrote:

“Let those who wish have their respectability. I wanted freedom, freedom to indulge in whatever caprice struck my fancy, freedom to search in the farthermost corners of the earth for the beautiful, the joyous and the romantic.” [Smithsonian magazine, 2014]

He not only searched, but he found. Some of his caprices included climbing the Matterhorn, riding an elephant through the Alps, cavorting with the French Foreign Legion, spending a night upon the top of the Great Pyramid, and buying a two-seater plane (named the Flying Carpet) and flying off to Timbuktu.

He and a crew in Hong Kong built a Chinese junk to sail to San Francisco. They were to be the opening event of the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939 (a World’s Fair). Even a month after the opening, sadly, he and the crew had not arrived and were never heard from again, presumably lost at sea. Halliburton was only 39 at the time.

Was Halliburton charged a fee to swim the Panamá Canal? Indeed. Based on his weight, like any other ship, he was required to pay 36¢!

Fact: The Panamá Canal is one of the Modern wonders of the world.
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