Panama Canal Stories
Panama Canal Stories
When Sergio Robles was six years old, he lost both legs in an accident that nearly claimed his life. At first, the accident knocked his confidence.
"I thought I would never get a girlfriend or a job," he says.
But despair soon gave way to determination.
"I said to myself, 'I have to grow, I have to live,'" he says.
In the years following his accident, a US charity arranged for Sergio to be flown to a specialist clinic in Washington DC to be fitted with state-of-the-art prosthetic legs. Between visits to the clinic Sergio became interested in the Panama Canal.
"I learned about the canal being this wonderful thing for the world, and I decided I want to work for the canal," he says. He worked hard at school and won a place to study engineering at college.
As part of his course, he is currently working as an apprentice electrical engineer at one of many mechanical workshops serving the canal. His placement involves checking and repairing the motors of dredging vessels and other machines. Sergio hopes his apprenticeship will evolve into a full-time job at the canal.
"I want to help Panama by helping the canal to grow," he says.
As administrator of the Panama Canal between 1996 and 2012, Alberto Aleman Zubieta steered the canal through some of the most tumultuous events in its history. In 1999, ownership of the canal was transferred from the US to Panama.
The US had run the canal as a non-profit business. Alberto helped change the model, overseeing the transformation of the Panama Canal Commission into the Panama Canal Authority, a publicly owned yet profit-making company that channelled its profits back into the country.
Alberto is in no doubt of the significance of the transfer.
"For the first time in our history, we had control of our own geography," he says. "It was a great success story for both the US and Panama." It soon became clear that Panama could run the canal without US help. This was a surprise to some, but not to Alberto.
"I always thought we would do a good job because we had the full support of the Panamanian people," he says. In a 2006 referendum 82% of the electorate voted in favour of investing billions of dollars in an expansion of the canal to enable wider vessels to use the passage.
"I am very proud that the people of Panama voted for the expansion," Alberto says.
"It shows that we are a people who are prepared to take risks, who are prepared to take the baton and run with it."
Matthew Tomlet came to Panama at the age of four, when his father got a job as a tugboat captain on the canal. It was an idyllic childhood, he says.
The family had a house on the beach, and Matthew was allowed to accompany his father on his journeys through the canal.
"I remember the thrill of going out on the canal as a young boy," he says. "Going out on the launch, climbing the rope ladders on the sides of the ships, it was an amazing experience to be able to do that with my father."
A keen painter since childhood, Matthew takes inspiration from the Panamanian scenery and in the 1990s began to specialise in paintings of the Panama Canal.
"It has such a huge variety. Two oceans only 50 miles (80km) apart, mountains, beaches, highlands. It's an amazing country to paint," he says.
His canal paintings sold well from the start, especially among the American expat community, whose lives had been so profoundly changed by it. Matthew's father returned to retire in America, but he chose to stay in his adopted home.
"I could never leave," he says. "When I go back to the States to visit family, I'm counting the hours until I come back to Panama."
Piloting a ship from one end of the Panama Canal to the other is no easy task. The biggest of the vessels are just 12in (60cm) narrower than the width of the locks. To guide their ships in and out of the locks without scraping the sides, the pilots rely on the canal's fleet of 46 immensely powerful tugboats.
Verónica Will is captain of one of these vessels, only the third woman to hold the post in the history of the canal. From the age of 10, Verónica had wanted to work for the canal, after hearing from her father about its importance for the country.
"He told me about the transfer of the canal to Panama, and how it would be vital for my future," she says. "For me, that was the beginning."
After training in Mexico, she spent 10 years on cargo ships, sailing around the world for months at a time. After graduating to captain, she returned to Panama and landed the tugboat job.