2009 World Cruise – I woke up early; really early – as 4:30 am and got up at 5:15. I was on the bow before 6 to watch the sail-in to the Panama Canal. There are two parallel lanes making up the canal so two ships go through at once. We followed another cruise ship called “Amedea” into the right side set of locks. John and I spent pretty much the entire day on one or another of the outside decks; mostly on the bow, watching the ship go in and sail out of the locks and the land pass slowly by. The Panama Canal is considered to be the Eighth Wonder of the Modern World and has shortened the trip around the continent of South of America by 7,000 miles (11,265 km). Amazingly the idea of a canal through the Isthmus of Panama was conceived by King Charles V of Spain in 1523. He even commissioned a survey of the Canal area, which was completed the following year. The sheer magnitude of the task though was too daunting for the Spanish and the idea was shelved. The Gold Rush of 1894 brought the completion of the Panama Railroad across the Isthmus and it wasn’t until Panama’s independence from Colombia in 1903 that the idea of building a canal was seriously undertaken.
A deal was struck with the United States. The US would guarantee Panama’s independence and, for the measly sum of $10,000,000, Panama granted the USA power and authority within the then ‘Canal Zone.’ America also paid an annuity of $250,000 beginning nine years after the treaty was signed. This annual fee increased a few times over the years until it reached $1,930,000 in 1955. On December 31, 1999, Panama assumed full responsibility for the administration, operation, and maintenance of the Panama Canal.
The project was originally started by a French company but they went broke and the States bought them out for $40,000,000. It took 10 years and 6,000 lives from yellow fever, cholera and accidents before the $387,000,000 Panama Canal was opened.
It has remained virtually unchanged since the opening in 1914. The installation of lights in the 70’s allowed ships to go through the Canal 24/7. It has only been closed for a few days two times since it opened. The Canal is a neutral zone so any ship that can pay the passage fee is allowed through. (Average cost for a container ship or cruise ship is $100,000 – $200,000. The smallest amount ever paid was 36 cents in tolls paid by a fellow, who in 1928 took ten days to swim the Canal.)
The ships pass through three sets of locks that effectively lift the vessels 26 meters above sea level to the level of Gatun Lake and then lower them back to sea level on the opposite side of the Isthmus. The ships use their own power to navigate the lake but are assisted by pairs of electric locomotives (called Donkeys) on rails that use cables to keep the ships in position within the locks chambers. The transit is 48 miles (77 km) long and each crossing flushes approximately 197 million liters of fresh water into the sea. It is a good thing the area has a very high rate of rainfall.
Our ship, the MS Rotterdam is one of the smaller cruise ships around these days and pretty much the largest that could go through the Canal. We had very little clearance on each side of the concrete walls. All the big cruise liners today just stay on one side or the other and do the same cruise over and over.
The glimmer at the bottom of this photo is the water in the lock. You could easily touch the concrete walls if you reached out from one of the cargo doors on the lower deck.
There is a lot of traffic along the lake shore and within Gatun Lake as you sail from one set of locks to the other. Everyone moves dead slow so it takes all day to make the crossing. We passed the Panama Railway Bridge and sailed under the beautiful Centennial Bridge before entering the Gatun Locks on the west side of the lake (The locks on the east side, where we entered the Canal, are called the Miraflores Locks). After we passed through the last lock and past the Visitor’s Center, whose three levels of balconies – and the roof – were packed with people watching the ships; we entered the Pacific Ocean. We made our way to the beautiful Golfo Dulce coast of Costa Rica where we did scenic cruising all the next day.