PANAMA CANAL: The World's Most Famous Shortcut

Cruising is my least preferred way of travel. But in order to have a full transit experience of crossing the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean through the Panama Canal, I booked myself on a Holland America Cruise. I knew very little about the history of the canal, except that it’s an engineering marvel. I’m sure there are many books written about this subject, but the tagline from a promotional video, “…to create a canal to join the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean…to cut the continent in half and carve a waterway on one of the most astounding and unforgiving terrain on earth”, pretty much summed up the wonders of Panama Canal for me. Luckily we had a travel guide, Wallis with a PhD in geophysics, on board. She shared a few “Did you know…” questions, and explained the Canal’s history, construction, and the step-by-step process of going through the canal.
The scale of Panama Canal is astonishing: The canal runs through Panama North to South, connecting the Caribbean Sea (North) and Pacific Ocean (South). It is approximately 50 miles long and features 3 sets of locks, each with twin chamber side by side. Each chamber measures 1000 feet long and 110 feet wide. The largest permissible vessels, called “PANAMAX” ships are 965 feet long and 106 feet wide. At Gatun Locks, the vessels are raised 85 feet above sea level. In Miraflores the vessels are lowered to the Pacific Ocean level. And it works the same today as it did 100 years ago. There is a toll to pay to cross the canal. According to Wallis, Holland America paid $35,000 just to reserve our transit, but the toll cost is closed to $300,000. The canal shortens the distance between many Atlantic to Pacific ports by 8,000 nautical miles. It cuts the total mileage from Great Britain to New Zealand by 1500 miles, which saves vessels time and money, even with the cost of transit factored in.

Gatun Locks.
After 3 days at the Caribbean Sea, we entered the the channel at the Bay of Limon and sailed 6 more miles to reach Gatun Locks. Since this was the highlight of my trip, I was well prepared for the Panama sun, with sunscreen and hat. I set my alarm at 4:00am. But it was still dark when the alarm went off. I stayed in the cabin and went back to bed. It was around 5:00am when I saw a flicker of light through our cabin window. Then I saw the most dramatic sunrise. I rushed to the bow of the ship thinking that I would be able to snag a spot at the very front of the bow and still had time do an impression of “Kate” sans Leonardo Di Carpio in “Titanic”. I was wrong! A bunch of passengers had already started assembling on the bow. It appeared that crew members had been on deck to serve coffee, juice, water and Panama rolls for a while. The 1st pilot came on board at 5:27am (noted on our cruise log), followed by a tug boat with an announcement, “Good Morning! Welcome to Panama”. Our ship’s videographer got off the ship to take pictures of the passengers partaking in the whole process.

Then our cruise ship entered Gatun Locks at 6:30am. Somehow, I managed to get in front of the bow. No, I did not take advantage of my fellow passengers’ (average age of 70) proper demeanor. But there’s an advantage to being short and small. My fellow passengers let me get in front of them. So I had the best vantage point to take pictures and appreciate the full scope of the process. [I thought it was Wallis who was explaining the step-by-step process through the ship’s intercom as we went through the locks, but I was talking to her in person while the narration was going on. I found out later that a Panama Canal representative went on board to explain the whole process.] As we approached Gatun Locks, we were told that 52 million gallons of fresh water would be flushed to sea with our ship’s passage. The travel guide also emphasized the importance of the rainforest to Panama Canal. She explained the significance of the flashing red light and the arrow with red and green lights. I watched the chamber ahead of us filled with water. Then at the sound of a signal (loud bells), two locomotives (called mules), one on each side, passed through narrow tracks. They were tied to our ship and worked in tandem to keep the ship aligned. Our ship moved under its own power and was raised to the level of the Gatun Lake. 

Gatun Lake
We sailed smoothly on Gatun Lake, once hailed as the biggest man-made lake. Today, it’s dotted with islands, lush and green. According to our travel guide, these islands were actually forest mountain tops. I also saw navigational markers. We learned that these markers are used to help guide ships throughout the channel and the lakes. Our travel guide would point out things of interest as we traveled through Gatun Lake. For example, when she spotted a crocodile on the side of the lake, she brought it to our attention. The Bridge of the America loomed overhead as our ship passed beneath its broad span. Within minutes we passed the commercial port of Balboa and saw high-rise building from a distance. These buildings are actually condos used by Panama Canal workers. About 2 miles from the bridge, we passed construction of the Canal Expansion project. It’s a site known as the “Third Cut”, an unfinished canal that was dug to allow the passage of the US battleships.

Pedro Miguel Locks and Miraflores Locks
Entering Miraflores Lake, we approached Pedro Miguel Locks. The canal narrows through the Gaillard Cut, spanned by the twin-towered Centential Bridge. A few yards away from the Centential Bridge we saw the stepped-rock face of Gold Hill, and the Contractor Hill on the left side. At 1:30pm our cruise ship entered Pedro Miguel Locks. I saw the same process with the signal lights and sound and the mules in Gatun Locks earlier. But this time it was the reverse and more dramatic.

Then at 2:40pm our ship entered Mira Flores Locks, the final locks. Going through the Miraflores Locks put everything in perspective. As our cruise ship approached, the water level was closed to the top of the massive metal gates. Then I saw how the massive gates opened to empty the chamber. The water surged through the 2nd chamber. Then our ship lowered to the level of the Miraflores Lake and the Pacific Ocean. Our transit took approximately 8 hours from Bay of Limon to Miraflores Locks. Thanks to the red tanker that passed through the adjacent locks, I was able to see how the entire system works. After the gates closed behind the red tanker, water surged through the giant drains, and poured down the canal. I realized how it was powered by nothing more than the flow of fresh water and gravity. Then as if by design, the rain started to pour (see video). This great engineering achievement aided by nature had something magical and spiritual about it. I'm glad I did the cruise because the full transit experience of crossing the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean through Panama Canal was an amazing experience. An experience of a lifetime indeed!



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