Panama Canal (2019)
We approached the entrance to the Panama Canal just before sunrise on January 9. This was our fourth trip through the canal, which is always interesting even if not as thrilling as the first time through. You can see the pictures and commentary from our earlier visits here:
There is a lot of commentary about the canal and its history in the prior postings, which we will try to avoid repeating too much here. The Gatun locks take the ship up 3 levels in a row from the Caribbean side. It’s always a nice view in the early morning light, but unfortunately this time it was raining off and on.
HAL serves “Panama Rolls” on deck as we enter the canal (they often turn up under different names, like “Waitangi Rolls”, when we have an interesting sail-in). We had one, but then went to breakfast while in the locks. Afterward we passed the Gatun control building and exited the upper locks into Gatun Lake. The “mules,” metal cars on rails, attach ropes to the ship & are responsible for ensuring the ship doesn’t touch the canal walls, which are very close.
The lock doors have walkways at the top, permitting workers to go from one side to the other. A horn sounds before the doors open so they will know not to venture across.
A good part of the day is spent traversing the lake. The lake was created during the building of the canal by diverting a river. The canal’s locks have no pumps to move the water in and out, it is all done by gravity and very clever engineering that directs the natural water flow from higher ground. The water in the locks is fresh water from the lake and river, not salt water from the sea. The shore around the lake and on the islands is dense rain forest.
At lunch we noticed for the first time some food sculptures. Always fun, we hadn’t seen these since the last time we were on Prinsendam in 2013.
During the afternoon HAL organized a group picture to commemorate Prinsendam’s final transit through the canal. We were there, but finding us is a little like “Where’s Waldo,” only harder. Can you find us? Hint: we are not far from the upper right corner of the swimming pool area. Everybody received a complimentary copy of the photo.
The hardest part of digging the canal was cutting through the rocky continental divide. This area is called the Culebra Cut, and it cost a number of lives to dynamite it away. The sides are terraced in a number of places, partly to discourage erosion most likely, but also representing the levels where trucks were driven in to carry away the rock after it was blown up. Erosion is a continuing problem here; we were told that they have planted grass imported from Vietnam that has particularly good root systems for stabilizing the hillsides. We passed under the Centennial Bridge & headed for the Pedro Miguel locks that begin the descent toward the Pacific Ocean.
As we approached Pedro Miguel a train passed on the left. The train traverses Panama between the seas as well. It was built to accommodate travelers heading from the Atlantic coast to the California Gold Rush. Even today some companies find it cheaper or easier to unload cargo onto the train and load it onto another ship when it reaches the opposite side. The cost of sailing through the canal is substantial and based upon the size of the ship. We have heard of large ships having to pay Well over a million dollars to cross, and it has to be a cash transaction. A ship cannot enter the canal until the money has been transferred.
At Pedro Miguel the ship throws a rope down to a couple of guys in a rowboat, who connect it to a rope from a mule that they have brought out with them. On the other side the ship is close enough to throw the rope directly to the workers on the canal wall. We were told that they tried some higher tech methods to attach the ropes but none of them worked as well as two guys in a rowboat.
Flags were at half mast because it was Martyrs’ Day, a national holiday honoring several students who were killed in a protest of American occupation of the Canal Zone some 50 years ago. On the right we could see a Super Panamax ship traversing the new locks just opened a couple of years ago. The new set of locks were built because the larger modern ships wouldn’t fit through the existing locks.
At the last set of locks, called Miraflores, is an observation building containing a museum. It has several levels of viewing platforms where you can watch ships coming through the locks. It is always crowded with onlookers waving and taking pictures of the ship. This is quite a welcome and was rather a surprise the first time we came through here. We also caught our first glimpse of the white towers of Panama city on the other side of the hills lining the canal.
We came out of the locks and sailed under the Pan American Bridge, part of the Pan American Highway that stretches from Alaska to Patagonia. The container cranes of Balboa port are near the bridge. We sailed out toward the Pacific Ocean, passing the brightly colored Biodiversity Museum, designed by American architect Frank Gehry about ten years ago. We sailed around to our anchorage on the other side, where we had a full view of the startling expanse of white skyscrapers along the shoreline of Panama City. If they were green you might think this was the Emerald City.
After dinner there was a performance of Colombian songs & dances by the Colombian ambassadors who had been on board since Ft Lauderdale. It was a rousing show, with very professional dancers & an excellent singer. Not all of the ambassador groups we have seen are such professional performers.
We ended the day with a view of Panama City at night. This was a very full day & the canal is always interesting. Of course, there was a towel animal. And here is a picture of where we sleep (and where the towel animals appear each night).