Stunt Swims Began Early
The Panama Canal Review - August 1966
Swimming the Panama Canal -- not
considered a sport by most people -- has, during the years, attracted a number of amateur
and professional swimmers.
This has been so despite the fact that even during the early days Panama Canal authorities did not take a wildly enthusiastic view of granting requests to swim the big ditch. In recent years, they have been even more reluctant.
In the first place, ships have priority; in the second place, there are risks involved. Modern safety men don't like the idea at all.
But back before the Canal was opened to traffic, Canal employees and other Isthmian residents took to swimming the waterway, or those parts which were open, on their days off. There were no community swimming pools and it seems that almost anyone would ump into the Canal on a warm day. There were some complaints, too, about bathing costumes and loud and boisterous behavior.
Swimming the Canal as a stunt started in 1913 when two professional swimmers from New York -- a man and a woman -- got permission to make a partial transit. The permit required them to skip Gaillard Cut, then known as Culebra, which still was closed to ships as well as swimmers.
The man was Capt. Alfred Brown, a lifeguard who described himself as the "champion long-distance swimmer of the world." He made the swim before the Canal was opened to traffic.
The woman swimmer, who to this day is the only woman to swim any part of the Canal, was Elaine May Golding. She was billed in the local press as the "champion lady swimmer of America."
Miss Golding bypassed the locks and did not venture into the Cut but she did most of the rest of the Canal from Cristobal to Balboa in stages between December 12 and 16, 1913.
Reports of the swim said that she favored the breast stroke which brought her head under water frequently; that the odor of the water in some parts of the Canal troubled her; that she got badly sunburned but that she was cheerful most of the time. She was accompanied by a motor launch in which rode her manager and a motion picture photographer who made films of the swim. Her feat was not included in the Panama Canal files although it was reported in the Star & Herald of that date. After the swim, she was quoted as saying she had accomplished other long-distance swims that had required more endurance.
The first complete ocean-to-ocean swim through the newly opened Canal was made in 1914 by J.R. Bingaman and James Wendell Green, two Panama Canal employees who applied for permission from the Secretary of War on the premise that the "honor" should belong to a Canal employee.
The permission was granted by Gov. George W. Goethals, August 18, just 3 days after the Canal was opened to the commerce of the world.
"You have my permission to swim through the locks chambers, climbing up the ladders at the ends at a time when the locks are not in use and their operation will not be interfered with," Colonel Goethals said.
"The general use of locks by swimmers cannot be permitted as this practice would be a detriment to the service and the action in this case does not establish a precedent."
The two men started their swim on Sunday, August 22, and, being employees with work to do, swam only on Sundays or at such time as they could be spared from their regular work. They completed the swim on October 18 in a total of 26 hours, 34 minutes swimming time.
An early account of the swim said they were accompanied by boats and timekeepers and made the distance from ocean to ocean, including the lock chambers, in less time than it takes many people to walk. They used the trudge-crawl stroke, the newspapers said.
Bingaman left the Isthmus in 1916 but Green remained in the Canal Zone and later became the Panama Canal's first Treasurer. He retired from service in 1952.
Perhaps the most famous swim, or the one that received the most publicity at the time, was made in 1928 by author-adventurer Richard Halliburton, well-known travel writer of his day.
Written permission was
given by Gov. M.L. Walker who agreed to having a small launch, a cameraman, a newspaper
reporter and an expert rifleman accompany the swimmer through the Canal. In turn,
Halliburton accepted all liabilities of the trip, both to himself and "any damage he
might do the Canal."
Halliburton completed the swim in about 10 days and set some kind of precedent by being the first swimmer to be locked through all three sets of locks. His actual swimming time was about 50 hours.
Newspaper accounts said "it required as much mechanical labor to bring Halliburton, the lightest ship in Canal history, through the locks as it did for the 40,000-ton airplane carrier Saratoga, the heaviest. Charges for the passage were made in accordance with the ton rate, and Halliburton, weighing 150 pounds, paid just 36 cents."
For the next few years, the Canal was free of swimmers -- at least officially. In 1936 two U.S. Navy men stationed at Coco Solo, made an attempt which received the approval of the Canal authorities.
Marvin Beacham of the Submarine base and the Regis Parton of the Fleet Air Base, both members of the Southern Cross Swimming Club, planned to make the first non-stop swim from the Atlantic to the Pacific. They were to be accompanied by two U.S. Navy launches carrying men with rifles. The launches were to have towed a net especially prepared for the swimmers to "insure their safety against fish, alligators, suction and other accompanying dangers."
The project was canceled, however, when the plan was firmly vetoed by the Commandant of the 15th Naval District in Balboa.
During World War II, the Canal was a busy place and so were the people who might have had a yen to swim the Canal.
It was not until 1950 that a request was received from another aspiring Canal swimmer. He was Charles McGinn, a U.S. Military Academy cadet in the class of 1953 who was coming to the Canal Zone to spend his leave with his parents in Gatun.
Permission to make the swim while he was on leave was given with various degrees of enthusiasm and reservations. The Panama Canal Safety Engineer pointed out the usual dangers and the Health Bureau director recommended typhoid booster shots and fresh drinking water while the swimmer was enroute. The Navigation Division asked him to swim only in daylight hours and to keep out of the usually traveled land of shipping.
Accompanied by a rowboat manned by Robert Kariger, McGinn started his swim June 22 from Pier 6 in Cristobal. He made the transit in 6 days with approximately 5 hours spent on each daily lap. He ended at 3:45 p.m. June 28 at the Balboa Yacht Club pier and newspaper accounts say there were some who suggested that he continue on to Taboga.
McGinn, however, looked the situation over with a practiced eye and decided not to make that trip.
Kariger was reported to have lost weight operating the rowboat through the Canal but McGinn, who stoked up on hot soup and sweetened coffee, weighed about the same as before. His swimming time of 36 hours was less than the time taken by Halliburton but 10 hours more than the time taken by the two early Canal employee swimmers Bingaman and Green.
Capt. Robert F. Legge, the 15th Naval District Medical Officer, made headlines in the local press when he swam the Canal from Gatun to Pedro Miguel in October 1958.
He made a number of practice swims in Madden Lake and then charting his course like a sailor shoving off for a long cruise, Captain Legge swam the 35-mile stretch in what he claimed was a record time of 21 h ours and 54 minutes.
The 52-year-old physician climbed out of the water at Pedro Miguel to the applause of 100 or more Canal Zone residents lining the east bank of Paraiso Reach. During his swim, he had some trouble with cramps and a stiff shoulder but encountered no reptiles except an IGUANA which crossed his bow on his way from one side of the Canal to the other. He was charged 72 cents in tolls, the rate for a 1-ton vessel in ballast.
The following May, 1st Sgt. George W. Harrison, a 32-year-old Army sergeant sponsored by the First Battle Group of the 20th Infantry, swam from Gatun to Miraflores Locks. Although he started the swim May 12 and completed it the following day, he took time out for rest and food and had problems with currents and passing ships. He did not swim through Pedro Miguel but walked around.
By the time that Albert H. Oshiver, a 42-year-old oceanographer from Washington, D.C. arrived on the scene in 1962, the Canal officials were inclined to take a dim view of any other attempts to swim the Canal.
When he asked for permission from
Washington, he was advised that due to the increase in ship transits he could not be given
any encouragement. Nevertheless he appeared in the Canal Zone and made a personal
appeal to swim through Gatun Lake. He made several practice swims. After
signing a release he was given permission to swim from south Gatun to Gamboa and advised
to stay outside ship channels.
Oshiver set a record by making the 29-hour swim without stopping. He was accompanied part of the way by a motor boat operated by W.R. Byrd of the Terminals Division and all of the way by a cayuco attended by Pedro Torres.
At night he wore a flashing red light strapped to his forehead and Torres had a battery powered light on his finger to show the swimmer his course. Spectators observed that Oshiver seemed to pick up speed during his last 6 hours in the water. He said he had to because he was cold. He landed at Gamboa at 5 a.m. December 30.
Both Oshiver and Captain Legge were measured by the Panama Canal admeasurer for tolls and both paid. They were presented with the key to Panama Canal Locks by the Governor of the Canal Zone.
April 21, 1999