Question: In 1928, writer and adventurer Richard Halliburton paid a toll of 36 cents—the lowest in the history of this body of water—to complete what historic swim?
Answer: A full transit of the Panama Canal
Richard Halliburton made a career of traveling the world and writing books about his adventures. He famously said, in response to his father’s plea for him to settle down, “I’ll be especially happy if I am spared a stupid, common death in bed.” Indeed, his own death in 1939 was anything but. He perished in an attempt to sail a Chinese junk across the Pacific.
Before his demise, Halliburton’s pursuits included an around-the-world biplane flight and a Mediterranean journey that followed the path of Homer’s Odyssey. But despite the grand scope of many of his expeditions, history best remembers him for swimming the 48-mile length of the Panama Canal, which took 50 hours over ten days.
While Halliburton was neither the first nor the fastest swimmer to accomplish the feat, he was the first to travel through all three sets of locks. In doing so, according to newspaper accounts, “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.” Today, the average toll is $54,000, and the most expensive toll in history—so far—was $375,600, paid by the Norwegian Pearl.
The possibility of swimming between two oceans has captivated many other athletes eager to make a splash in history:
- Incomplete passage: Swimming the canal for sport began in 1913, before the Culebra Cut was open to ship—or human—traffic. Therefore, the first attempt was actually just a partial transit. Professional endurance swimmer Captain Alfred Brown—also an assistant to Harry Houdini—and Elaine May Golding, “champion lady swimmer of America,” got permission to swim from Cristobal to Balboa.
- One day—and one week—at a time: A year later, once the canal was officially open, J.R. Bingaman and James Wendell Green, both Panama Canal employees, sought permission to make the full transit. The governor allowed it, but forbid them from using the locks, for fear that they’d disrupt ship traffic. Instead, they climbed the ladders at the end of each chamber. Their 26.5 hours of swimming time was actually spread out between August and October: As canal employees, they only swam on Sundays so as not to shirk their duties.
- No rest for the weary: By 1962, with shipping traffic greatly increased, canal officials had grown wary of further swimming attempts. So when oceanographer Albert Oshiver appealed for permission, his prospects of approval seemed dim. Nonetheless, he traveled to the Canal Zone to make a personal appeal—which was granted, provided he stayed outside ship channels. He became the first to complete the 29-hour swim without stopping.
- Just passing through: On March 22, 2016 (World Water Day), Slovenian swimmer Martin Strel—best known as the subject of the documentary “Big River Man”—planned to begin a historic around-the-world swim, starting in Long Beach, California. The 24,900-mile route will span 107 countries in 450 days, touching on the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Suez Canal, the English Channel, the Amazon, the Red Sea … and the Panama Canal. According to the swimmer’s website, his departure has been delayed due to “technical escort issues”—but for the man who has swum the Danube, Mississippi, Yangtze, Amazon, and more, the canal will likely be among the easier legs of a truly epic journey.
Panama is much more than its famous canal—as you’ll discover with Grand Circle Cruise Line during Panama Canal Cruise & Panama: A Continent Divided, Oceans United. In this short film, discover how the country’s indigenous people are striving to maintain their culture:
Produced by Matteo Borgardt