The Panama Canal

The ship on the right is the Island Princess

First off, let me just say that after all the hype, after reading David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas, after hearing about this wonder-of-the-world all my life, the actual passage through the Panama Canal is not that exciting of an event. There were thrilling moments, to be sure: the initial approach to the locks in the morning; the few minutes when you are actually rising and then descending in the locks; the narrowness of the Gaillard Cut, which we happened to experience during a torrential, tropical downpour. But mostly, it is just a very leisurely trip through a lake in the jungle. Gatun Lake comprises the longest part of the journey. The stately traversing of this body of freshwater allowed us time for lunch between the sets of locks. We sat at the window, gazing out at primeval forest which has been allowed to grow back as a security measure.

We awoke that morning to find our ship positioned, along with a dozen or so others, in a bay outside the Canal. We would be entering just after the only other cruise ship of the day, the Island Princess. Cruise ships are always allotted daytime passage appointments, while freighters pass all times of the day and night. The locks themselves come in three sets. The first set we entered, at Gatun, are the northernmost. (Look at the map and you will see that a trip through the canal from the Caribbean to the Pacific actually runs from northwest to southeast, not east to west as you would think!) Nearly all of the ship’s 2400 passengers and 1000+ crewmembers crowded near the front of all the open decks and the glassed-in Spinnaker Lounge, craning their necks and cameras for a good view. It was a moment of typical human behavior as the taller and more aggressive members of the herd pushed their way to the rail.

You could feel the excitement in the air as we slowly manuevered into the first lock. The ship is actually guided and powered completely by tugboats at this point. Each lock is only a few feet larger than the ship itself. There are just two feet of clearance on either side of the ship and less than a dozen at either end. Once the craft is in the channel, it is attached with steel cables to a trio of electric locomotives, known as mules.  The cables are drawn tight, keeping the ship centered in the narrow lock.  At this point, all forward motion is accomplished through the movement of the mules.  The electricity to power the mules is generated by the dam on the Chagres River;  the water to raise the boats in the locks comes from this same source.  The large amounts of rainfall in the surrounding area provide the water to make all of this happen. In this way, the system is almost completely self-sufficient.

An afternoon thunderstorm sent water cascading down the side of the Cut.

By the time we reached the locks on the Pacific side, it occured to make to take advantage of my access to the spa and its amazing views.  Located all the way forward on Deck 12, sandwiched between the Bridge and the aforementioned Spinnaker Lounge,  I was able to take the photos that I had such difficulty snapping in the morning.  With about 25 feet of floor-to-ceiling windows and only four guests at them, I got the best pictures imaginable.  I re-joined Tony on the Promenade Deck as we passed underneath the Bridge of the Americas, completing our transit of the Canal.

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