Transiting the Panama Canal

Transiting the Panama Canal is definitely a bucket list item for me. When I was in college I was a frequent visitor to the Ballard Locks in Seattle. I loved to watch the boats enter the locks and then see the water rise (or fall) to allow the boat to move from Puget Sound to Lake Elliott. It was endlessly fascinating to watch the process. I have been very excited about being able to experience the same thing but on a much grander scale.

In preparation for the transit I attended a lecture onboard. Often, the onboard lecturers are not that spectacular. More often than not, port lectures have to do with getting you to shop at certain stores rather than giving information that would help you understand the culture and history of the places you are visiting. This time, NCL had hired a true expert on the canal, Doctor Dave Roberts. He gave a series of lectures on the building of the canal. I missed the first lecture on the French effort, which was a dismal failure but was able to attend the main lecture on the American effort.

According to Dr. Dave, the French failed by a factor of ten due to diseases and having a flawed plan. In 1902 the US offered to buy out the French for $40 million. The US wasn’t in a negotiating mood – they had a backup location (Nicaragua). The French had already spent $287 million; $1/cubic yard excavated plus $10 million in equipment. Teddy Roosevelt was negotiating with the Colombians. His offer was rejected so he created a new country – Panama. The entire Pacific fleet showed up to support the rebels. The US made a deal with the French representative 4 hours before the Panamanians arrived. The Panamanians received $10 million upfront and $250,000 per year when the canal became operational. Needless to say, the Colombians were not happy…

Panama was now a country that was protected by the US. The US started work on the canal. Yellow fever was still a problem and the US had to use equipment left behind by the French. Some progress was made. A year later, the man in charge (John Findley Wallace) quit. John F. Stevens replaced him. Stevens was a railroad guy. He replaced the French system building bigger bridges which could support larger cars. A year later, Stevens quit. Colonel George Coethels took over. He was a military guy and so could not quit. He knew how to move dirt and motivate men. He increased sanitation efforts and sent in the mosquito army that used oil to kill the critters. Landslides were common, but work continued. Machines were created specific to the task at hand. For example, a track shifter was created that did the work of 60 men. It literally picked up and moved entire sections of railroad tracks.

I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that the locks are the culmination of some incredible engineering ingenuity. 63 pyramids of Giza worth of earth was moved by the US to create the canal. Five million cubic yards of concrete were used. The final connection was made on May 18, 1913 at 2 pm. The canal provided a quick way for US military vehicles to get through during WWI. And now, back to our journey!

We were transiting from east to west so would enter the Gatun Locks at 7 am. We had been instructed to keep our balcony doors closed to keep mosquitoes and other flying critters from entering our cabins. Many people spent the day observing from the public decks but it was so very hot out that we opted to view from our balcony. That way, we could go inside when needed. Commentary was given over the public address system throughout the day. Unfortunately, we could not hear the commentary from our balcony so missed out on most of the information given. We could hear the commentary on the tv in our cabin or in the hallways which wasn’t very practical!

I did pick up a few pieces of information:

  • Our ship is known as a “Panamax” ship – it was built as large as possible to fit through the locks with a mere 2 feet of clearance on each side
  • The ship would require 8 locomotives to guide us into position
  • Forty people would board the ships to toss the ropes from the ship to hook up to the locomotives. Various other methods have been tries through the years but human labor is what works best

Other than the need for locomotives, it was really surprising to me to see that the locks of the Panama Canal were essentially the same as the Ballard Locks, just much, much bigger. As we entered the Gatun locks, 1″ steel cables were dropped down and hooked up to the locomotives. There were two starboard and two port trains at the front of the ship. They pulled the ship forward, going up a little hill. When the ship was moved far enough forward, the trains at the back of the ship were hooked up. We then slowly moved forward again and the locks behind the ship closed. We were gaining elevation as we entered Gatun Lake. As you can see, there are markers along the side that show the distance forward and back from your location. When the ship was in position, the locks started to slowly fill with water. When sufficient water had raised the ship to the correct height, the forward locks opened and we passed into Gatun Lake. The entire process was supposed to take 1 hour and 45 minutes. I have no idea whether or not we stuck to that schedule; I was too busy watching the action!

Gatun Lake used to be the largest man-made lake in the world until Mead Lake was created from building Hoover Dam. There are small islands visible all around. These islands used to be hilltops until the area was flooded to create the lake. Building is not allowed so the area is basically jungle-like and natural. We saw freighters and cargo ships awaiting their turn to enter the westbound locks; we also saw a few small tour boats. Many of the container ships enter the locks at night; it is cheaper. The cost for the NCL Pearl to transit the locks? $490,000! As the ship floated down the lake, the channel narrowed. We passed through the Continental Divide. For some reason, we ended up behind schedule. We were supposed to enter Pedro Miguel Locks at 12:40; I believe it was closer to 2:30 when we entered them.

I decided to go out on deck for this portion, thinking that the view would be better. The problem is that there are so many people there that I couldn’t get close enough to the edge of the ship to see anything. And, it the temperature was in the upper 90’s so it was miserably hot (and humid). I tried to take a couple of pictures but as soon as I lined up a shot, someone would step in front of me. I gave up and went back to our cabin; the view was actually much better there. We were dropping elevation this time so when the gates closed, our ship slowly dropped lower and lower, back towards sea level.

After passing through Pedro Miguel Locks we very quickly entered the final set of locks – the Miraflores Locks. We could now see the new, larger locks parallel to where we were. The really big ships go through the new locks. Just past the Miraflores Locks we passed under the Bridge of the Americas and were on our way to our next port, Puntarenas, Costa Rica.