THERE are few places on the planet more appropriate to contemplate a sea journey than at the Miraflores Locks, on the western end of the Panama Canal. It is a balmy March evening, and the red tropical sun hangs low over the jungle-covered hills. At eye level a container ship slides silently by, seeming close enough to touch. The size of a lengthwise Chrysler Building and stacked high with multicolored metal boxes, it slips into the lock, and great steel gates swing closed as the 65,000-ton ship is lowered in its final stage from Lake Gatún. The lower gates open like the doors of a cathedral, and the enormous vessel is pulled forward by tow lines. It fires up its engines and churns toward the Pacific.
I have come to Panama to join a ship. Not a tanker or freighter bound for the Far East, but rather a 48-foot, two-masted sailboat named the Shangri La, owned and captained by my college friend Andrew Whyte and his wife, Francesca. Our primary destination is the Galápagos Islands, a two-week sail to the southwest across a thousand miles of open water. ...[continue reading here]