A man, a plan, a canal – Panama! is probably the world’s most famous palindrome – a sentence that reads the same from right to left as it does from left to right. This blog documents the day we spent in transit through this most iconic man-made waterway, sailing from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.
The Panama Canal is an artificial 74km waterway that cuts across the Isthmus of Panama. Central to the canal is Gatun Lake, an artificial lake created to reduce the amount of excavation work required for the canal. The lake is 26.5 metres above sea level, so there are twin lanes of locks at each end of the lake to lift and lower ships so that they can access the lake. The original locks are 33.5 metres wide, and ships which just fit into these locks are called Panamax ships. A third, wider lane of locks was constructed between September 2007 and May 2016 and began commercial operation on June 26, 2016, allowing the transit of larger Post-Panamax ships, capable of handling more cargo.
This map shows the location of Gatun Lake and the various sets of locks:
France began work on the canal in 1881 but stopped in 1894 due to engineering problems and the very high mortality rate of the workers. The United States took over the project in 1904 and opened the canal on August 15, 1914.
The Panama Canal is one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken. It greatly reduced the time taken for ships to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, enabling them to avoid the lengthy and hazardous route around Cape Horn.
The day we sailed through the canal was forecast to be sunny and very hot & humid, so it was out with my shorts, loose shirt and hat; and of course copious quantities of high strength sun cream. I had a quick breakfast as soon at the restaurant opened, so that I could rush up on deck to the prime spot high up in the bows of the ship. Even at around 7:50 as we sailed towards the Gatun Locks the sun was beating down and the air felt humid.
Just before we reached the Gatun Locks, we could see a huge new bridge under construction:
Very slowly and sedately we then approached the Gatun Locks. We were to enter the right-hand locks, following a larger German cruise ship, the Artania. As we neared the longer central pier on our port side, a rowing boat was used to bring across to our ship steel ropes which would connect our ship to mules – electric rack and pinion locomotives used to provide side-to-side and braking control in the locks. A deck crew employed by the canal authority came onboard to handle these ropes:
The ship’s engines still provided the forward propulsion through the locks. As we neared the other pier on our starboard side, ropes were thrown down to the pier, and used to haul onboard the steel ropes to connect to the mules on that side of the canal:
The Gatun Locks are a three-stage flight of locks 1.9 km long. As we slid slowly into the first lock, Artania was in the third lock ahead of us:
Once safely in the lock, and held in place by the mules, the lock gates were closed behind us. Each gate has two leaves, nearly 20m wide, which close to a “V” shape with the point upstream. This is so the force of water from the higher side pushes the ends of the gates together firmly. The gates can be opened only when the water level on both sides is equal. The gates are hollow and buoyant, much like the hull of a ship, and are so well balanced that two 19 kW (25 hp) motors are enough to move each gate leaf. If one motor fails, the other can still operate the gate at reduced speed. They were originally operated by electric motors, but in recent times this has been replaced by a hydraulic system.
Water was then flooded into our lock until the water level matched that in the second dock. The lock gates ahead of us were then opened, and with the attendant mules keeping us straight, we sailed into the second lock:
The process was repeated again as we sailed from the second to the third dock. The third dock, which is the upstream dock, has twin gates at the end nearest Gatun Lake – there always at least two gates in each flight of locks that would have to fail to allow the higher level of water to pass downstream. The additional gates are 21m away from the operating gates:
Finally nearly three and a half hours after approaching the locks, we were able to sail through the last double gates and out into Gatun Lake. By this time I was unbelievably hot and tired, and I retreated down to my cabin to wash and change my clothes before having some lunch.
Later I went back on deck, but remained in the shade on the sides of the ship, as we sailed down the Culebra Cut, which slices 12.6 km through the mountain ridge, crosses the continental divide and passes under the Centennial Bridge. In the cut we saw a large crocodile hauled out on the bank, dredgers, and the huge crane ship Titan, which was originally built by the Germans in World War Two:
After passing under the Centennial Bridge, we soon arrived at the first of the sets of locks between Gatun Lake and the Pacific Ocean, the single-stage Pedro Miguel Lock. This lock is 1.4 km long, with a lift of 9.5m. Once again it was the familiar routine – the rowing boat to bring the guidance ropes out to the port side of the ship, thrown ropes to bring the starboard guidance ropes onboard, and the mules steadying the position of our ship as this time we dropped down in level:
As we passed through this lock I could see the Bridge of the Americas in the distance ahead:
The artificial Miraflores Lake, 1.7 km long separates Pedro Miguel Lock from the two-stage Miraflores Locks, which are 1.7 km long, and have a total descent of 16.5m. Sadly time was against me, and before we reached these locks it was time to return to my cabin to get changed in time for my evening meal. Sitting at the dinner table we just caught glimpses of the final locks and of the bridge as we sailed underneath it in the increasing darkness.
The next day we would celebrate crossing the Equator a few hours early as we sailed south-west towards Ecuador and our next port of call, Manta. The ‘Crossing the Line’ celebrations will be the subject of my next post.