March 8th: The Panama Canal
It was still dark at 5.30am when I opened our cabin curtains and looked outside. There were lights all around us. At first I thought it was the shoreline, but then realised these were the lights from other vessels all queuing up with us for their turn to enter the canal.
As dawn broke we could see the entrance to the canal ahead as we entered the channel. There are now effectively two canals – the original, and a newer, larger one. As a smaller ship, we used the older, and cheaper, passage. The new canal handles massive container and oil ships as well as some of the gigantic cruise ships which are now being built.
The price per ship to transit the system is based on the amount of water it displaces. I’m surprised they didn’t disembark us passengers and make us take the train across. My own water displacement levels have increased markedly since coming aboard. We heard that the price for some of the larger vessels to use the canal was easily in excess of $300,000 US. I suppose that has to be set against the additional cost in time and distance that rounding Horn would represent.
I’d always thought of the canal as being an East/West channel, but it is more true to think of it as running North/South, so our route from the Caribbean took us south. Each ship is given its own call sign for the transit, and displays this in the sequence of flags it flies.
The canal proper involved entering the first of three locks which raised us incrementally a total of 185 feet from the Caribbean to the level of lake Gatun. We followed directly behind a large white and orange vessel, and watching it enter each gate and rise up as the lock flooded gave us an excellent visual of the process we were experiencing ourselves. Even better, a ship heading to the Caribbean passed us in the opposite channel, so we watched it beside us, descending steadily as we climbed in the opposite direction.
There is only six inches clearance between each side of the ship and the canal walls. The ship moves under its own propulsion, but its harnessed to ‘mules’, or large tractors, which keep it straight laterally. It took six mules to make the journey with us. We returned to our cabin at one point, and looked out of our cabin window which was below the level of the lock. There really is diddly-squat clearance between ship and shore.
Once we’d reached the lake we had a delay of an hour or so as a large vessel in the new canal transited. It was carrying LPG and the safety protocols meant we couldn’t continue our own journey until that ship was well clear.
Lake Gatun is enormous and stretches as far as the eye can see. The lake is partly natural, and partly the result of human intervention which enlarged the surface area to clear passage across the central area of the canal. The lake is also monitored to keep a steady water level As the old locks use gravity to feed the water through the system, it is fortunate there is a lot of rainfall filling the lake regularly. Apparently the canal has been closed twice for lack of water.
Later in the afternoon we reached the far side and started our descent. First descending the Pedro Miguel lock, then sailing across the small lake Miraflores, before finally descending the last two Miraflores locks to the level of the Pacific Ocean.
Ships are considered to have entered Pacific waters when they sail under the Bridge of America which joins North and South America, and essentially replaces the land passage that the canal destroyed.
It was a fascinating day. The canal is a tribute to man’s vision, skill and bloody mindedness. It took years to build; uncounted lives were lost during construction; and it cost a fortune. But it’s a magnificent achievement.