3/29 Cruising Through the Panama Canal

Published: April 5th 2018
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It's about 6am and almost light outside. There are a number of large ships off our starboard side. They appear to be just sitting in the water, probably waiting for permission to enter the Canal but we are rolling right along. We've been through the Panama Canal back in 2012 on the Zuiderdam and we understand the operation of this transport system but it's a fascinating piece of history I'm eager to revisit. Karen can't understand such excitement this early in the day but quietly prepares for the day. I'm out the door and up to Deck 9 aft to take a few pictures of the new bridge crossing the Atlantic end of the canal, the Centennial Bridge. The one at the Pacific side has been there for many years, part of the Pan American Highway. This new one is partially complete, with each side reaching out to touch each other and it makes for a good photo. With a hot cup of coffee in my hand and a bag full of cameras, I move down to Deck 3 and film the canal operation from a closer vantage point. Most everyone is crammed into the bow area and, with people five
Centennial Bridge Nearing CompletionCentennial Bridge Nearing CompletionCentennial Bridge Nearing Completion

This is at the east end of the canal.
and six deep, it's impossible to get good pictures under those conditions unless you're in the front row. No one is out here with me, however, so I wander freely about the Promenade. Karen arrives shortly after and takes a few pictures of her own.

It's fun to watch the canal team hook up the cogwheel tractors to the ship. There are generally 8 per ship, four on each side. They work in pairs, two at the bow and two astern. The ones that I'm videoing are the two astern on the port side. The rear-most unit runs its cable straight out to the ship, keeping tension on the line and working with another unit on the other side of the ship. These two guys keep the aft end of the ship centered in the canal. The tractor unit in front of that one uses its cable to pull the ship along. They have the same setup at all four corners of the ship using 8 total tractors or "mules". The mist and drizzle slowly now turns into a real downpour, chasing the bow crowd down toward us. With our photos already taken from this location on the ship, I think it's time to leave and get breakfast so off we go up to the Lido. No crowds are up here in the Lido and no lines, plenty of seats. I even order a waffle. I continue shooting videos and pictures while Karen chats with a lady from breakfast, comparing California to Colorado. It's now 11am so we return to our room. I'm curious why the blog wouldn't download last night and I'd like to send out a couple more. After researching, I find I had no destination entered in that portion of the blog form and it will not publish without that information. With that info filled in, I send out two more blogs and start downloading pics for another. That's when the Internet slows to a crawl, I abandon this project for a while and we leave to wander the ship, the computer still working on uploading the pictures while we're gone.

Karen checks out the stores again, heads up to the Lido and finds a lounge chair by the pool. I retreat to the Exploration Lounge one deck above to work on today's blog. It's busier than usual because of the canal transit in progress but I find a seat and begin. I've been up here for over an hour and she's supposed to meet me here. With no sign of her, I gather my things and return to the pool where I find her, still lounging on her chair. Now we return to the stateroom where she gets her swim suit and prepares to go to the spa. We have at least two hours before dinner and it's been a couple of days since she's been there. Meanwhile, having left the computer on while uploading pictures to the site, they're now complete and I send out two more blogs from the room. Our Panama passage is still underway and make a couple of trips up to Deck 9 for more pictures of the canal, bridge and some video of the operations too. Karen decides to forget the spa altogether and so we just go to dinner.

The dining room menu doesn't look that exciting to us tonight so we opt for another "pay to eat" restaurant, the Canaletto. It's an Italian style eatery that we have visited before on other ships. For tonight’s dinner we choose salad, anti pasta, spaghetti with meat sauce, sea bass with vegetables and gelato. We also finished off our bottle of white wine held for us in the dining room. We ordered a bottle of white wine the night of our wine tasting followed by a bottle of red wine the next night as part of a four bottle wine package. We've never seen a charge for any wine so far, either a bottle or a package and I'm not saying anything.

Tonight's show at 8pm in the theater is a comedian, Anthony Padilla. He's OK at times but not as good as the ventriloquist on the other ship. Again we make a break for it right after the show to watch one set at the BB King Show. At 9:30 we return to our stateroom where I finish this blog while watching some news on TV. I hear we are getting back another hour of sleep tonight as we move westward. I can use that after running around the ship today taking pictures and video of the Panama Canal.

I thought I’d include some history and facts regarding the Panama Canal that we learned while on this trip.

The Panama Canal is an artificial 48 mile long waterway in Panama that connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. Canal locks at each end lift ships up 85’ to Gutan Lake, an artificial lake created to reduce the amount of excavation work required for the canal, then lower the ships at the other end. The original locks are 110’ wide. Recently, a larger canal was constructed between September 2007 and May 2016 parallel to the existing one. The expanded canal began commercial operation on June 26, 2016. The new locks allow transit of larger ships capable of handling more cargo.

The first attempt to construct a canal through what was then Colombia's province of Panama began on January 1, 1881. The project was inspired by the diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps, who was able to raise considerable finance in France as a result of the huge profits generated by his successful construction of the Suez Canal. Although the Panama Canal would eventually have to be only 40%!a(MISSING)s long as the Suez Canal, the former would prove to be far more of an engineering challenge, due to the tropical rain forests, the climate, the need for canal locks, and the lack
Back One Pulls Sideways Keeping Ship CenteredBack One Pulls Sideways Keeping Ship CenteredBack One Pulls Sideways Keeping Ship Centered

One in Front Pulls Ship Forward.
of any ancient route to follow.

De Lesseps wanted a sea-level canal just like Suez, but only visited the site a few times, during the dry season which lasts only four months of the year. His men were totally unprepared for the rainy season, during which the Chagres River, where the canal started, became a raging torrent, rising up to 35 ft. The dense jungle was alive with venomous snakes, insects, and spiders, but the worst aspect was the yellow fever and malaria (and other tropical diseases) which killed thousands of workers; by 1884, the death rate was over 200 per month. Public health measures were ineffective because the role of the mosquito was then unknown. Conditions were downplayed in France to avoid recruitment problems but the high mortality rate made it difficult to maintain an experienced workforce.

In France, de Lesseps kept the investment and supply of workers flowing long after it was obvious that the targets were not being met but eventually the money ran out. The French effort went bankrupt in 1889 after reportedly spending US$287,000,000 and losing an estimated
One of the Tractors Pulling our ShipOne of the Tractors Pulling our ShipOne of the Tractors Pulling our Ship

They're called "mules" because mules were originally used.
22,000 lives to disease and accidents, wiping out the savings of 800,000 investors and work was suspended.

The U.S. formally took control of the canal property on May 4, 1904, inheriting from the French a depleted workforce and a vast jumble of buildings, infrastructure, and equipment, much of it in poor condition. Thus in 1904, the United States purchased the French equipment and excavations, including the Panama Railroad, for US$40 million, of which $30 million related to excavations completed, primarily in the Gaillard Cut (then called the Culebra Cut), valued at about $1.00 per cubic yard. The United States also paid the new country of Panama $10 million and a $250,000 payment each following year. The design was changed, adding locks to the French design.

Artificially created in 1913 by damming the Chagres River, Gatun Lake is an essential part of the Panama Canal, providing the millions of gallons of water necessary to operate the Panama Canal locks each time a ship passes through. At the time it was formed, Gatun Lake was the largest human-made lake in the world. Each lock where ships are held is 110’ wide and 1,050’ long, with the walls ranging in thickness from 49’ at the base to 10’ at the top. The steel lock gates measure an average of 6’ thick, 64’ wide and 66’ high. It is the size of the locks along with the height of the Bridge of the Americas at Balboa that determine the size of ships that may use the canal. The average toll is around US$54,000. The toll for our ship, the Westerdam, is reported to be about $130 per person (including crew) plus additional miscellaneous charges.

Additional photos below
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Bridge of the Americas Near Panama CityBridge of the Americas Near Panama City
Bridge of the Americas Near Panama City

Part of the Pan American Highway.

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