Thursday, May 22, 2008

Cruising Panama Canal

The sun is starting to rise. You are standing on the bow of your cruise ship along with many of your fellow passengers. There's excitement in the air as the ship approaches the locks. You yawn (did I mention it's 5 am?). The ship is about to transit the Panama Canal. This is a long process; it will take about 9 hours to complete the full transit.

Even though you have an aft balcony cabin, you wanted to watch from the bow, just like many other passengers. Everyone has carved out their own space along the railings, and things are orderly. Another ship is going through the locks at the same time. This is perfect since you'll be able to watch that ship as it completes its journey.

Five days ago, you sailed out of the Port of Miami for a 14 Night Western Panama Canal cruise. There were several choices when you booked your cruise, but you opted for the full transit which would go from Miami to San Diego. You've already completed three refreshing sea days and a stop in Aruba, so you are ready for the highlight of the cruise.

Since we were transiting the Canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific we entered the channel from Limon Bay at the Cristobal breakwater. This sea-level section of the Canal channel on the Atlantic side is 6 and a half miles long and 500 feet wide and runs through a mangrove swamp that is only a few feet above sea level in most places. Our ship was lowered 85 feet in a continuous flight of three steps at Gatun Locks. Each lock chamber is 110 feet wide and 1,000 feet long. The length of Gatun Locks, including approach walls, is one and a half miles.
Besides the locks themselves, the mules which pull the vessel through the locks, are probably the most interesting thing you see as the ship transits the canal. Since most cruise ships are PANAMAX, you'll be able to get very close to the mules, perhaps even being able to talk to one of the drivers.

After going through Gatun Locks, we entered Gatun Lake where we stayed until after lunch time. A Pacific-bound ship enters Pedro Miguel Locks at the south end of Gaillard Cut where it is lowered 31 feet in one step to Miraflores Lake, a small artifial body of water a mile wide that separates the two sets of Pacific locks. The length of Pedro Miguel Locks if 5/6 of a mile.

Shortly before 4 PM, we were lowered the remaining two steps to sea level at Miraflores Locks, which are slightly over a mile in length. The lock gates at Miraflores are the tallest of any in the system because of the extreme tidal variation in the Pacific Ocean.

Be sure to bring lots of sunscreen with you because the sun is extremely hot. The crew made several announcements throughout the day. Those that didn't heed the warning, looked like lobsters at the end of the day.

After completing our transit, our ship tendered near Fuerte Amador, Panama where passengers that wanted to go ashore were able to disembark. We would continue our journey westward around 11:30 PM.

As I mentioned earlier, there are several choices when considering a visit to the Panama Canal. If you don't have the time for a full transit, there are partial transits and some cruises which make a stop at a port near Miraflores Locks (Colon, Panama for example) so that you can visit the information center, see the locks and perhaps take a railway journey between two oceans.

The Panama Canal, which took 10 years to complete (1904-1914), is the 8th Wonder of the World and definitely should be on your must-see list.

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