By Corey Sandler
I’ve not been doing much traveling of late.
For more than two years now, we have been steering between threats that line the shores on each side, metaphorically speaking. We have been like Odysseus, navigating down the center of the channel between Scylla and Charybdis on the opposing banks.
I’ve made that particular passage many times without problem from the supernatural six-headed monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis. Not in the past two years, though.
It’s a natural passage known today as the Strait of Messina, which lies between Italy’s toe and the island of Sicily.
What I’m looking for now is a way to change the channel, either backwards or forwards to a time of safe passage. Fair winds, a following sea, and healthy air.
So speaking of channels, I’ve been thinking of canals, which are by definition are not natural or supernatural, but human-made passageways dug to provide safe passage.
I love most everything about sailing, including the open ocean beyond sight of land as well as travel along the coastlines and amidst islands. But there is something very special about traveling within the tight confines of an artificial canal. Every one of the major canals on our planet has a backstory of human triumph and failure and resurgence.
As we look forward to eventually returning to near-normalcy, I’m looking back at some of the passages I have made.
The Corinth Canal
The Corinth Canal is perhaps the most supernatural-looking artificial waterway in the world, a frighteningly narrow rock-lined passage separating the Greek mainland from Peloponnesia, saving a 430 mile or 700 kilometer voyage down and around.
It is only 4 miles or 6.4 kilometers in length, but I have been up on the bridge with captains and pilots as we have made the passage and I don’t believe any of us drew a breath in the hour-long transit.
The canal’s original concept dates back two thousand years, but the V-shaped cut was not completed until 1893. There have been landslides and wartime damage since then, and today only a small number of cruise ships are narrow enough to get through.
It’s only 70 feet wide at its base and several ship’s masters I know hang large rubber bumpers from the sides of the ship as a precaution; on one trip through, we left one of the bumpers behind, impaled on a rock.
The Suez Canal
I knew the photo I wanted to take at the Suez Canal before I arrived in Egypt. The 120-mile or 193-kilometer waterway is just a ditch in the desert, but that is what makes it so astounding to see. There are places where you can stand on the land and see what seem to be massive ships plowing through the sand.
The canal was completed in 1869, spearheaded by the Frenchman, Ferdinand de Lesseps who was not an engineer or a builder. He was a promoter, mostly of himself. Sound familiar?
The massive undertaking was completed more or less on schedule and under budget, which is easier to do when your workforce includes tens of thousands of forced laborers conscripted by the Khedive of Egypt at the time.
The Panama Canal
Ferdinand de Lessups’ next project was the path between the seas, across the isthmus of Panama. He thought he could replicate the ditch through the sand at Suez but the topography could not have been more different. Not only was there a wet, thick jungle teeming with disease-carrying insects but there was also the rocky ridge of the Continental Divide.
de Lessups’ project collapsed in financial, engineering, and medical failure in 1889. American President Teddy Roosevelt threw the resources of his surging nation at the project–along with some sketchy diplomatic and military maneuvers in the region–and completed the job in 1914.
What I love about the Panama Canal is that all of its machinery–the laws of physics–are out in the open to be seen at the three locks up and three locks down at each end of the 50-mile or 82-kilometer passageway.
The Erie Canal
The launch of the modern era of artificial waterways can be seen in the Erie Canal, which runs 363 miles or 584 kilometers west to east across upstate New York. When it opened in 1825 it established a watery passage from the Great Lakes in the midsection of the United States and Canada across to the Hudson River and from there out to the Atlantic Ocean.
It remains today the second-longest canal in the world, after the Grand Canal–the one in China, not Venice.
The huge amount of trade that moved along its hand-dug path with 34 locks and an elevation of 565 feet, established New York City as one of the great financial and trade centers of the world.
Today the canal is too narrow and shallow for large ships; it is paralleled for nearly its entire length by railroad tracks and the New York State Thruway. But I have sailed the Erie on small cruise ships and private vessels and it remains one of the wonders of the world.
The Kiel Canal
Sailing the Kiel Canal in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein always reminds me of taking a long train trip; for much of the 61-mile or 98-kilometer trip you are looking the backyards and back pastures of homes and farms.
Not as well known as the others I have written about earlier, the Kiel Canal is by some measures the busiest artificial waterway in the world with about 90 ships making the transit per day.
It opened in 1895, saving about 250 miles of 460 kilometers of sometimes bumpy seas in and around the Danish straits. The canal was widened in 1914 to allow huge battleships to pass through, and when you exit into the Baltic near the city of Kiel, over your shoulder you can see the shipyards where Germany built most of its dreaded fleet of U-boats for both both World Wars.
The Cape Cod Canal
Perhaps the least-known of the six canals I’m writing about today, the Cape Cod Canal is a testament to the search for safe passage.
The hook built into the arm of Cape Cod has caused hundreds of shipwrecks over the years. To avoid that, sailing vessels and more modern ships have had to head due east out to sea and then down and around the bottom of Cape Cod. But there is a problem there, as well: shoals and rocks that lie between the cape and the island of Nantucket to the south.
The Cape Cod Canal was begun as a private enterprise in 1909 by August Belmont Jr., who had enhanced his inherited banking fortune with major construction projects like the New York City subway system.
The 7-mile or 11-kilometer canal managed to beat the Panama Canal to completion by a month, but it was never a financial success.
And although it is arguably safer than sailing out to sea and below Nantucket, the Cape Cod Canal has its own challenges: a swift current and a dogleg bend at the middle. That combination makes for difficult navigation, and if you see me aboard ship and buy me a drink I’ll tell you a tale of a master who came very close to losing his stripes–and his cruise ship–at the dogleg. I was there and lived to tell the tale of what in the end was a safe passage.
All photos copyright 2022, by Corey Sandler. If you would like a copy of one of my photos or would like to use one in a project of your own please contact me.