Part One: Panama Canal Journey:
Diary of an Ocean-to-Ocean Transit
By Susan J. Young
Sea days are not my forte. I’m the destination-type who likes to get off at a port and spend every waking moment traipsing around and seeing as much as possible.
So after a full day at sea onboard Silversea Cruises’ Silver Shadow -- headed south from Puntarenas, Costa Rica, to the western entrance to the Panama Canal near Panama City -- I was itching for some destination action.
As with many cruisers, I’ve done a partial transit – where the ship sails in from the east, goes through the Gatun Locks and then anchors in Gatun Lake, so the lines can launch shore trips. Then in the afternoon, passengers re-board and their ship transits back through the same set of locks eastbound into the Atlantic.
In this case, though, we were about to experience a full canal transit from west to east.
The captain informed us of the approximate time our ship should enter the canal -- about 7:15 a.m. We watch and wait.
At left, the scenery on Panama's western border comes into view just after daybreak.*
Ships are given “slot times” for estimated entry to the canal. They pay a transit fee based on tonnage.
The bigger the ship, the larger the bill. On this day, the Silver Shadow, according to the line, was to pay $40,000 for its transit.
What was the most ever paid for a cruise ship to transit the canal? Our commentator, a local Panamanian guide who spoke over the ship's PA system throughout our voyage, quoted a $300,000 figure for a crossing by Norwegian Pearl .
Besides the tonnage charge, ships also pay more for an estimated slot time, an option cruise ships take to guarantee their schedule.
Vessels with more flexibility might wait for slot to be assigned (as available during the day) and then pay a bit less.
First.... A Bit of History
Before I launch into our modern-day canal crossing experience, it's appropriate to look at the historic perspective.
Christopher Columbus (shown in a portrait at right*) arrived on the Isthmus of Panama in 1502, Eight years later, Spain began settlement of the area. Even then, officials recognized the advantages of a potential water route through Panama.
In 1534, King Charles V of Spain (shown in a historic painting at left*) ordered the first topographic survey for a proposal canal across a section of the 48 mile swath from ocean to ocean.
Clearly, though, such a task was beyond the technological capabilities of the era.
Three centuries later, though, the French began the task in earnest.
Leading the effort was Count Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had successfully built the Suez Canal in the Middle East. He created the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanque du Panama in 1879.
Stock sales and initial construction efforts began in 1880. But the climactic conditions were brutal.
Disease and project mismanagement prevailed. The first effort failed within a few years.
Yet, in 1884, the French gave the canal project a second try with Companie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama.
This group completed a thorough study of the topographical, geological and hydrological characteristics. But that effort too was unsuccessful.
Devoid of funds, government and financial backing, the organizers sold their rights and equipment to the United States for $40 million. The U.S. had signed a recent treaty with Panama and was eager -- with the backing and enthusiasm of President Theodore Roosevelt -- to build an interoceania canal.
As with the French, the U.S. canal builders encountered unprecedented problems, including tropical diseases; constant landslides; the complexity of the excavation; massive size locks; and the need to establish a supply infrastructure with new communities and imported materials.
But the American builders pushed on. Colonel William Crawford Gorgos and his medical team eradicated yellow fever from the isthmus.
Through spraying efforts to control the mosquito population (as shown in the 1905 photo above*), the threat of malaria was also lessened.
Chief Engineer John F. Stevens and his team set up the towns and supply system. Stevens also is credited with organizing a train system to haul rocky material from Gaillard Cut.
Colonel George Washington Goebels and his staff created the final engineering designs and pushed through the construction of the locks, Gatun Dam and the cut’s excavation. Today, the canal crosses the Continental Divide in a deep "cut" through a rugged mountainous range.
President Theodore Roosevelt (shown in the photo at right - he's decked out in white attire and seated in the center of the tram) and other high ranking American officials and their wives visited the Panama Canal in 1906.*
Sadly, more than 30,000 lives were estimated lost in the building of the canal. Most of those were attributable to tropical diseases, but others were a result of construction accidents.
But after a decade-long effort by 75,000 men and women, and $400 million in investment, the canal opened on Aug. 15, 1914.
The Canal was operated solely by the U.S. government for many years.
In 1979, however, the waterway opened in accordance with new guidelines set forth in the Torrijos-Carter Treaty.
That treaty was signed between Panama and the United States in 1977. It outlined how the canal would be transferred to local control over a series of years. Full control of the canal was transferred to the Panamanian Canal Authority (PCA) in 1999.
Anatomy of a Transit
Stretching from just south of Colon, Panama on the Atlantic side to the Pacific Ocean just west of Panama City, the canal itself is 80 kilometers or about 50 miles long.
The canal uses a system of locks – chambers with gates that open and close for the transit of ships.
The locks are essentially water elevators that raise the ships from sea level to the level of Gatun Lake (in the center of the isthmus). The lake is 26 meters or about 85 feet above sea level.
Each of three sets of locks was named for a local town at those sites: Gatun (Atlantic side), Pedro Miguel (Pacific side) and Miraflores (the closest locks to the Pacific).
Above right, the Silver Shadow's bow is shown in the foreground as the ship approaches the Panama Canal.*
Wondering where the water comes from? Water used to raise and lower vessels in each set of locks comes from Gatun Lake by gravity. It flows into the locks through a system of main culverts; these extend under the lock chambers from the sidewalls and the center wall.
In the morning, all ships from the Atlantic heading eastward enter the canal at Miraflores. In turn, all ships headed westward enter the Atlantic-side Gatun locks in the morning.
The ships then meet in the lake and transit out the other side. That allows for the most ships to be handled through the locks.
It requires eight to 10 hours for a ship to transit the canal. Most cruise ships – like Silver Shadow – remain longer in the canal, in order to disembark guests at Gatun Lake for shore trips.
As our ship prepared to enter the Miraflores Locks, Silver Shadow's passengers left their suites and opted for views of the canal entry from outside the ship’s forward Panorama Lounge. See photo at left*
We were also wowed by the modern skyline of Panama City rising from the mist on the starboard side of the vessel.
Another impressive site was the massive Bridge of the Americas (shown below and below left).
This bridge crosses the Pacific entrance to the canal just outside Panama City near Balboa.
Completed in 1962 by the United States, the Bridge of the Americas cost $20 million to construct. The highest point of the bridge is 117 meters or 384 feet above sea level.
Until 2004 (when the newer Centennial bridge opened upstream), this truss-arch bridge was the only permanent crossing over the canal.
Approach to the First Locks
As the early morning mist and haze cleared, we had a gorgeous day for our Panama Canal transit.
However, it was clear very quickly that the pace for this transit would be one speed: slow, slow, slow.
Dozens of ships transit the canal daily. A canal crossing simply takes lots of patience.
Silversea’s crew helped get us in the “slow and relaxing” mode by bringing around complimentary Bellini’s, a mix of orange juice, peach schnapps and champagne.
Photos of scenery leading up to the first locks at Miraflores is shown above; at left, a Silversea officer oversees the canal lock approach; and the Miraflores locks entry is shown below.*
As we waited our turn to enter the Miraflores Locks, our Panamanian guide spotted crocodiles on the port side. Look carefully and you can see the very small line in the center of the photo below right.* Yes, you'll have to take my word: "That's a crocodile!"
Two other crocs were also spotted in the area, although they're not visible on this photo.
Passengers scurried to grab photos of the reptiles. But then our attention turned to awe, as Silver Shadow moved closer to the locks.
For the number crunchers out there, each Miraflores lock is 33.53 meters or 110 feet wide and 304.8 meters or 1,000 feet long.
These locks connect the Pacific Ocean with the man-made Miraflores Lake. Ships are lowered and raised 16.5 meters or about 54 feet in two separate chambers.
So the Silver Shadow entered at sea level, then when the freighter above us (its aqua-colored hull is seen above) transited out the other side, the first set of massive doors opened, and our ship moved into position.
The ship was positioned properly within the canal under its own power.
The canal authority's locomotives were a bit akin to tinker toys in appearance as we peered down at them from our ship perch (see photo at left*).
But these tiny locomotives packed a lot of horsepower punch as they motored along the canal and up the Miraflores lock grade.
Lashed via cables to our vessel, the trains generally aren't needed to pull vessels. They're simply there to assure stability and aid the positioning of each ship within the canal.
As the massive lock doors in front of the Silver Shadow opened (see photo at right*), the ship slid into position -- stabilized by the locomotives and their tie lines.
After the ship was safely positioned in the first lock, the doors closed behind the vessel.
Water then began pouring into the first chamber to raise Silver Shadow to the next chamber's level.
The same process was completed for the second chamber.
As Silver Shadow was cocooned within the canal, a chemical tanker entered the parallel locks next to our ship. This vessel (at left*) was headed in the same direction.
The maximum dimensions for ships transiting the canal are as follows: 32.3 meters or 106-feet wide, and 294 meters or about 965-feet in length, depending on the type of vessel.
Above, a freighter sails out of the Miraflores locks in front of Silver Shadow.
At left, a lomocomotive attached by cable to the bow of the Silver Shadow motors up the Miraflores lock grade.
At right, the locomotive climbs the lock grade.*
The 1913 date is shown on the original Miraflores Locks building shown above.* The "wings" on the eaves of this building's roof were removed so larger ships could navigate through the locks.
Despite the fact that the workers within the locks area including the locomotive drivers clearly see dozens of ships – including many cruise ships – every day, I was amazed at how personable the PCA employees were.
If passengers waved, they generally waved back.
One PCA worker handling a line lashed to our ship for stability called out to me: “It looks like you have a good helper there,” referring to my 82-year-old mother who was out on deck and fascinated by the happenings. I smiled and nodded.
It is easy to get caught up in the “technology” or "mechanics" of the canal project. So it's important to recognize too that 9,000 people working in consort with that machinery run the canal.
More than 14,000 ships annually rely on these skilled workers for a safe transit.
On to the Pedro Miguel Locks
As Silver Shadow completed its transit of the Miraflores locks, the ship passed the entrance (shown at left*) to what will ultimately become the new set of western canal locks to accommodate larger, post-Panamax vessels.
With the approval of Panamanian voters, the PCA is poised for a $5.6 billion canal expansion.
Preliminary work has begun, requests for construction proposals are "out," and the full construction contract will be awarded later this year.
Two sets of new post-Panamax locks -- at Miraflores and Gatun -- will have three levels, also called chambers, and will rely on gravity to operate. Each lock chamber will be accompanied by three water-saving basins, allowing the reutilization of 60 percent of the water in each transit.
For an animated simulation of the new locks, you might check out www.thenewsmarket.com/panamacanal.
Back to the present, though.....
After our ship exited the Miraflores Locks, we were a bit tired of standing. So we opted to see the upcoming Pedro Miguel Locks from the comfort of our suite and our own balcony.
Thus, we had our own private experience within the canal – from the cocooned luxury of our suite (with an attentive butler and room service). A balcony is a great asset on a canal cruise.
Otherwise, to see the sights and take good photos, you’re basically committed to staying up on deck for nearly a day if you want to see all the happenings.
Using the Silversea-provided binoculars we scanned the riverbanks and forests in search of wildlife. We spotted several hawks and one tiny, black and white exotic bird; it fluttered by my balcony but it was too quick for my camera.
At the Pedro Miguel Locks, also on the western side of the canal, ships are raised and lowered in one 9.5-meter or 31-foot step.
From our balcony, we had great views of the Pedro Miguel canal maintenance facilities (shown below left*) and the Centennial Bridge, opened in 2004 (shown below*).
The Pedro Miguel locks link the man-made Miraflores Lake with the Gaillard Cut, also known as the Culebra Cut or just "the Cut."
The Cut is the spot where the canal was forged through the mountainous terrain of the Continental Divide between North and South America.
Named in honor of Colonel Gaillard, who engineered this section’s construction, the cut was carved through 13.7 kilometers or 8.5 miles of rock and shale.
Keeping the cut open is a constant maintenance process. A short distance beyond the bridge, a Panamanian-owned dredge rig with explosives (shown above right*) was spotted helping keep the channel clear.
The original channel width in the Cut was 92 meters or 302 feet wide. Over time, the Cut has been repeatedly widened.
In 2001, for example, the Cut was widened to 192 meters or 630 feet on straight stretches and up to 222 meters or 728 feet on curves.
As a safety precaution, PCA doesn't usually permit two full-size Panamax (the largest ships that can fit through the canal) to cross the Cut at the same time.
Further widening is under way. With post-Panamax vessels eventually navigating the canal, the Cut will need to be substantively widened over the next several years.
As our ship traveled through the Cut and into Gatun Lake, our ship passed many diverse vessels (such as the freighter above and the car transport ship carrying 5,000 vehicles, at right*)
Check out Panama Canal: Part Two covers the voyage through Gatun Lake; the Silversea Experience at the Gatun Yacht Club with local cultural groups and Indian dancers; the Gatun Locks; and the future of the Panama Canal.