Waking up on Friday morning in the dark was exciting. We were entering the Panama Canal zone and beginning the transit that was the focus of our entire cruise. We could see the pilot boat coming alongside to escort us into the locks. (Thanks to several pre-transit lectures, we knew that it was a “pilot boat”.) The lights of Colon sparkled in the misty air as we dressed and headed up to the top decks to watch our entry. The weather was warm, cloudy, and humid, with a stiff warm breeze blowing from the east. We watched the sun come up through the palms of the tropical forest, shimmering on all the lush tropical leaves.
The Panama Canal is truly one of the world’s great wonders. As an engineering achievement, it has few parallels. In its strategic location between two oceans, straddling two continents, it has changed forever the way the world manages trade. Most of us learned a bit about the canal during the mandatory 8th grade exposure to US History, and I even made a model of the locks for a science project. The learning faded considerably in the past half century, and I spent a few months reading about Teddy Roosevelt’s commitment to finishing what the French started. As a result of my research, I also read more about Teddy Roosevelt, and developed a real appreciation for his character, and his place in American History.
The transit is fascinating and exciting, even for experienced cruisers. As we approached the canal in the morning light, the huge scale of the project is apparent. The man-made miracle of lifting a ship 87 feet into a tropical rain forest lake, and setting it gently back down in a new ocean is amazing. The beauty of the locks is in the simplicity of how they work. Water, provided by the abundant rainfall of Panama, and gravity, and of course, the engineers who figured this all out. The canal first opened in 1914 after many years of frustrating work, first attempted by the French beginning in 1880 and completed by the US. Many workers died from cholera, dysentery, malaria, and yellow fever. The loss of life was huge, with more than 20,000 people dying in just 10 years. During the transit we had the opportunity to learn the details of how the locks operate and some of the engineering difficulties that were overcome as the canal was built.
Approaching from the Caribbean side, Mo and I stayed on deck until we passed through all three of the Gatun locks. We watched as the “mules” (huge engines that keep the ships between the walls of the locks) were attached by ropes to the ship. Another large cruise ship was going into the left side of the locks just before our ship, and we could watch as the locks were opened, closed, filled, and emptied, and watch the huge ship rising gently to the next level. After our third lock, we entered man-made Gatun Lake, at an elevation of 87 feet above sea level. Creating this lake was the only option for building the canal, because moving the massive volume of earth required to reach sea level was impossible. The water of the lake was brown and murky, and the islands left from what were once mountaintops are covered with thick vegetation and filled with birds. We watched for crocodiles, but didn’t see any. Finally, succumbing to the heat and humidity, we escaped to the air conditioned Edge of the World Bar to watch the rest of the crossing. We ate lunch inside and played cards in the Rendezvous. It was incredibly steamy outside, and we were grateful for someplace cool to hang out for the latter part of the day.
A high point of the transit is the nine mile section called the Culebra Cut. This area presented the main engineering challenge throughout the entire 40 years of construction. The Cut crosses the continental divide, and even though the elevation is only some 400 feet or so, landslides were and still are a constant problem. On one occasion in 1907, 500,000 cubic yards of soil slipped back into the canal, burying miles of track and equipment.
As we approached the final Milleflores locks that would set us back down to sea level in the Pacific, we again went outside and down to the front of the ship on Deck 5. The ships officers opened the heliport that is usually closed to passengers while we transited so people could see the locks up close. After eight fascinating hours we emerged from the canal, cruised past Panama City, and entered the Pacific Ocean.
There are now over a million people in this city, and huge skyscrapers emerge from flat land fill man made peninsulas. From some viewpoints, it looked as though they were emerging directly from the sea. Watching Panama City emerge from the ocean like a mirage was fascinating. As it receded into the distance and the air began to cool, we found deck chairs on the shady side of the ship and spent some perfect snooze time watching the skies and seas.
The Atlantic/Caribbean side of Panama seems much prettier than the Pacific side, but the Pacific ocean feels so incredibly familiar. The water isn’t as blue, but the air smells more fresh, like the ocean I am used to. Later, after dinner, we made it to see Perry Grant in Michael’s lounge. The show was usually so full we couldn’t even get into the lounge, and after seeing him it was obvious why he was so popular. He sang and played very old fashioned music and joked around a lot and was very very funny, very gay, and very out about it. We went to bed early , completely worn out after a long hot day, happy to be gently rocked to sleep in our cabin.
The rest of the photos are here.
One thought on “Transiting the Panama Canal January 8”
The Panama Canal transit is simply fascinating … even the second time around when we did a partial transit, we were up early for the entry into the locks. I'm wondering how well the new canal is going to function … I think it's supposed to open in 2015.