The Panama Canal, 100 years old … A $440 million marvel, a dream of men in the 1800s. A completion by men (and probably many women, too) in 1914. A project completed under budget at $337 million.
Today was the day (Tuesday, February 25, 2014, Day 10), to complete the mission we’d set out to accomplish on this trip … to cruise the Panama Canal. We’d spent the night anchored off Fuerte Amador after spending the day on shore. We saw the beautiful city lights, and then the city at sunrise, which was also a beautiful sight. But it was time to move along.
The canal was built here because there was a narrow isthmus, a huge river and an exceptional amount of rainfall, all of which is required for a lock system depending on water. A dam was built and the navigable lake, Lake Gatun, was created above sea level. At one time it was the largest man-made lake, and it stores all the water needed for the operation of the locks.
To get from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Ocean (or the Atlantic Ocean as they also say), there is a series of three locks. The first two would get us to the Gatun Lake level 82-feet above sea level, and the third would drop us 82-feet using three tiers to get us back down to sea level.
|Our ship, the Island Princess, headed under the Bridges of the Americas.|
Our ship hoisted the anchor and set sail toward the opening that would become the canal. Coming from the Pacific Ocean we first sailed through an approach channel that took us under the Bridges of the Americas and past construction on the new lock system. We continued on, until we entered the two-tier Miraflores Lock.
|New lock construction is currently ahead of schedule.|
|Tugs come to meet the ships to assist them into the locks.|
All of the locks are virtually the same, each using about 26-30-million gallons of water, and moving it at the rate of about 3-million-gallons per minute. It takes gravity roughly 8-10 minutes to either fill or empty the water from the lock. While most ships cross through the canal and the locks in 8-10 hours, many are in canal waters an average of 24 hours … waiting to get the clearance to pass, then passing from one ocean to the other.
|The container ship ahead of us is being guided toward the left-side Miraflores Lock.|
|Two guys in a rowboat are not committing suicide, so we are told. They actually grab a rope from the ship and pull it to the dock where it is attached to the electric towing locomotives.|
|You can see the container ship at the left at a lower level, the locks on the right with different levels of water and the ship on the right at the high level waiting to exit the lock.|
Ships use their own propulsion and there are “towing locomotives” that are used for towing, braking and keeping the ship centered in the chamber and preventing it from coming into contact with the concrete walls. There is less than two-feet of clearance on either side. Considering the size of the ships, that isn’t much room. We did see one ship that appeared to have perhaps made an error and had a bit of contact with something somewhere, maybe in a lock at some time?
|Towing locomotives on their little turnabout.|
|The gate is open and we're heading into the lock. You can see how high the other ship is in the lock ahead of us.|
|Traffic moves right along. There's a ship coming in behind us in the opposite lock, the one the container ship had used.|
|You can see the closed gate behind the container ship. There's not much room either at either end of the ship while contained inside of the locks.|
|As our ship goes into the lock, you can tell it's a tight fit, about 2 feet on either side, I was told.|
The maximum locomotive towing speed is three miles per hours, although we saw on our Captain’s Report at one point that we were going 0.9 knots. The ships inch through, sometimes remaining in a set of locks for up to two hours (Gatun).
|The gate ahead is opening, letting us pass through to the next tier. The locomotive is on the left, just ahead. There are usually two of them on either side of the ship.|
We stayed on deck watching for hours as we entered the Miraflores Lock, exited into the Miraflores Lake and headed to the one-chamber Pedro Miguel Lock. From there we entered Lake Gatun for a nice leisurely cruise via a winding course, meeting other ships or smaller ships towing barges. All of it is marked as there are little islands, rocks and trees sticking up. You can look through various channels at the beautiful, lush countryside and we wondered why there were no pleasure craft running around, or small cabins or luxury homes. The entire area is off-limits, and no one is allowed to be there. So that answered the question … a secure area. But it was kind of funny that we passed a lighthouse with graffiti on it … where did that come from?
As we wandered the channels and lakes, we saw dredging
operations pulling mud and rocks out of the channels to make sure they keep a
consistent water level, we saw a barge that was working with dynamite to loosen
rocks and dirt, we passed many ships and we saw the largest floating crane in
The crane is called Herman the German. Three of these cranes were taken as booty
from Germany after the war. One went to
Russia but no one knows what happened to it.
Another went to the British but sunk in the English Channel. The third ended up in California and was
given to Panama to help maintain the canal.
The top of it had to be disassembled to get it to Panama. On our railway tour there was a gentleman who
had worked on it in California. It can
lift 350 tons. It’s also painted a
brilliant red-orange color so it stands out from a distance.
|This little lighthouse has graffiti on it up near the top. Around the side of it, there's also a cat painted, but you can't see it from this angle.|
|All kinds of ships run the canal and locks.|
|There are some pulling barges, too. Interesting since you just don't know what you'll see.|
|There are lots of beautiful passages and islands along the canal and around the lake.|
|Dredging operation. We had a bird's eye view as we went by in the channel.|
|This is apparently the one they use to dynamite and loosen the rocks and dirt for the dredge.|
|Herman the German.|
|The Panama Canal Lighthouse.|
We also have another onshore day coming up the following day … Cartagena, Colombia. This cruise life is very tiring trying to keep up, doing everything, making sure we get to meals or snacks. We’re not sure how we’re going to survive once we’re turned loose on our own in Florida. We may starve.