Day 14 – Monday – Oct 8 – Transit the Panama Canal

Published: October 9th 2012
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This was the Signature Event of our cruise – going through the Panama Canal!

This was quite an amazing day. I guess ships go through here all the time (40 were scheduled today) but this was our first trip through the canal and it was really special.

The Canal Pilot arrived on the ship at 5:45 and David was up, dressed, and out the door by 6:00. It was a little cloudy on the horizon so sunrise over the Pacific wasn’t real clear. David grabbed a quick breakfast and headed for the highest deck on the front of the ship. He should have skipped breakfast because he was about 3rd or 4th back in the crowd. Fortunately except for the front row, most people were moving around and David got close enough to get some pictures going under the Bridge of the Americas. Then we were headed north, up the canal, and approaching the Miraflores Locks.

Interesting fact: This bridge connects North and South American, but if you wanted to drive from Canada to Chile, you would drive down the Trans American Highway, load your car on a carrier in Balboa to ship it to Columbia, and then drive the rest of the way. There is no road between Panama and Columbia.

Before our ship (or any reasonably large ship) can enter a lock, they need to connect cables from “mules” (electric tow engines) to guide the ship in straight. The mules don’t actually pull the ship through (it uses its own engines and thrusters), but they aid the ship in not hitting and scrapping along the side of the lock. It is quite an exercise to connect the cable to both ship and mule, and it causes a delay in entering if the engines are busy with another ship. But it added to more of the activities in each of the three locks.

David went back to the cabin to check on Janet who was just about to head off to breakfast. She ate in the Horizon Court and had a pretty good view through the front windows as we went through the lock gates and on up the canal. Meanwhile David was scuttling from front to back to each side trying to get the best picture angles. Actually the stern turned out to be a good place to watch as we left locks because the front is so “pointed” that parts of the lower front view is blocked by the ship itself. Also, the cabin balcony gave good views out away from the ship. But close to the edge is blocked somewhat by the stair-step balcony system.

After leaving the Mira Flores Locks (2 chambers), most everyone left the bow and David was able to get a really close spot, even with a chair. So he stayed there as we approached, entered, and left the Pedro Miguel lock (one chamber). David got to record (both camera and camcorder) the full passage through this lock from the bow. Then we went further and passed under the Centennial Bridge (again viewed from the bow). After that (needing to swap camera batteries and download both devices to the laptop) David went back to the cabin.

Janet had watched the first portion of Mira Flores passage from the Horizon Court and then the remainder of the way from our balcony. We booked a balcony this trip to be able to watch things go past in comfort, and she decided to take advantage of it. Channel 42 on the ship TV is the bridge webcam where we can always see where the ship is headed.(this is also available on the Princess website). Today for the transit, the expert lecturer gave commentary on each aspect of the trip – he also was broadcast through the ship’s PA system, so we had play-by-play updates on what to be watching. Janet kept this channel on all day and was able to go to the balcony at interesting moments.

After passing under the bridge, there is the passage through “the cut” which is where large portions of hillsides had to be removed to enable the Gatum Lake to be constructed. A channel was dug deeply enough for ships to pass without hitting the bottom. Ever since then there has been a battle with nature to periodically dredge the channel to offset the silt which washes down during the rainy season. They are also dredging operations to widen/deepen the channel to accommodate the larger ships when the new/bigger locks open in a couple of years.

Now we said “constructed a lake”. It was done by building the Gatum dam and forming Gatum Lake. Previously the Chagres River flowed down to the Caribbean. Now it is managed with a dam and the lake provides all the water necessary to enable the canal locks to operate. This is the only river in the world which flows into two different oceans (water is used from the same lake to feed both east and west sides of the canal.

Interesting Fact: They have measured (or maybe just calculated) that it takes 26 million gallons to raise a ship from sea-level to the lake’s level at 86 feet. It takes another 26 million gallons to lower the ship back to sea-level on the other coast. One ship uses 52 million gallons from the lake during a transit. Since there were 40 ships scheduled today (23 & 17 – northbound and southbound), they used about 2 billion gallons of fresh lake water today, plus however many smaller ships might have gone through as a group of 4, 5, or 6 ship convoy. The lake is huge but that is a lot of water that has to be replaced from the river and associated streams. Fortunately, Panama gets about 60 inches of rain on the Pacific side and 120 inches of rain on the Atlantic side, and much of it flows toward the canal.

Another fact: All the water works of the canal is gravity fed. There is no water pumped back “uphill”, so it eventually all flows into the oceans. That is why management of the water resources is essential to the operations of the canal.

Back to the story: David cooled down in the cabin for awhile before we went to lunch. There had been clouds all around the ship but we seemed to stay under an open patch of sky most of the day. It was better than watching the transit in the rain, but it got kind of hot too. Anyway, we went up to the horizon court for a light lunch and then David dashed back to the Sun Deck and Janet went back to our cabin. The meal was ok but we both got to enjoy the reminder of the passage as we liked it - across the rest of Gatum Lake and out through Gatum Locks.

A cargo carrier was in line ahead of us, so we got to see them move from step to step through the locks before us. We were followed by the Norwegian Jewel so we could see them doing what we’d just done. We couldn’t really take pictures of our own ship, but David got pictures of the other ships doing the same thing as us.

There are three chambers in Gatum Lock and it all went well. It happens that there is only one vehicular bridge across the canal on the eastern side of the Continental Divide. It is a single lane movable bridge that swings out of the way every time a ship leaves the Gatum Lock.

Coming out of Gatum (as well as going into Mira Flores) we were able to see where they are working on the new locks. Once they are opened for business, both the old and new locks will be in operations. This ship paid a fee of about $320,000 based on size and number of passenger (comes out to a little more than $160 per passenger). The new lock will charge even more, so any ships that can still fit in the old locks will still use them. If somebody wants to travel through the new locks in 2015, book a really big cruise ship. However, it was interesting to see the work they have done so far and to visualize how these will connect to the existing channel/lake.

Interesting Fact: The Panamanian government owns all the land around the whole lake, so no development of the land is permitted. That means there are no roads needed since there is nowhere to go, and no real access to the lake. This rule about no development is essential for the maintenance of the watershed, since the canal is the single most important asset of the country.

An interesting thing that happened in the afternoon was that Janet went down to Deck 5 for her afternoon coffee and discovered that the lower decks had views of brick/cement lock walls. That was somewhat unexpected.

Janet’s loving husband came down from the deck after clearing the last lock and the ship headed out into the bay. There were numerous ships forming up on the Atlantic side, probably awaiting transit tomorrow (Southbound and Northbound “launch” ships in the morning, they cross paths in the middle of the lake, and then each exits the opposite locks in the afternoon) because they don’t have ships in the passage after dark. Anyway, after pretty much neglecting her all day, this loving husband went past the ice cream station and brought her a cup of chocolate ice cream. Wasn’t that nice?

The weather remained sunny and pretty hot all day, until it finally started raining shortly after we left the last lock and headed off for the Caribbean. Even that did not last too long, but we were really lucky with the weather today (Oct & Nov are their rainiest season). Now we are headed for Columbia. It was a really terrific day’s excursion.

One of the chores we dealt with this afternoon was to get our exit plans straightened out. We changed status to being the first group to disembark the ship and we will take a cab to the airport instead of using their shuttle service. We will have to handle our own luggage, but we can manage and then we will be sure to make our flight home. Their service could not guarantee is making the flight.

It seemed curious to see people swimming and lounging around the pool today, instead of watching every moment of the canal. It was certainly warm enough for swimming, but somehow it seemed like missing a minute of this wonderful excursion would be a waste in the pool. Maybe these folks had done it before and were not as enthusiastic as us. Anyway, we had a great time.

Dinner this evening was Italian Night. Virtually everything was an Italian dish (or at least given an Italian title). We both had the Prosciutto and Cantaloupe appetizer, the Ice Peach Bellini Soup, and Janet had the Veal Scaloppini while David had the Pot Roast with all the trimming (can’t remember the Italian name). AND, the waiter serve shot glasses of Lemoncello which was a tasty Italian aperitif. We both had a slice of chocolate cake (sharing Vic & Carol’s 2nd anniversary cake) and David had a slice of the Tiramisu. So once again we had a great dinner.

For the evening’s entertainment, they were showing a movie in the Princess Theater (Your Life with Marilyn) which Janet had seen before, so we went to the Universe Lounge where the same Guitarist/Comedian as a couple of days ago was performing again. David had really enjoyed the first show and dragged Janet to this one. Afterwards, she thought it was a good show too.

We are happy to see that the Cardinals are back into the post-season race, with a big win in the 2nd game against Washington after letting the 1st game get away from them. Good luck and keep it going until we get back to watch some more games.

Alas, we did not get to see the sun set in the Atlantic this evening (we were at dinner). However it did what was said, even if we didn’t actually see it. But we’re heading off to bed tonight and will be all recharged for tomorrow’s adventure. By the way, Janet’s cold is little better today and she only coughs occasionally. Hopefully tomorrow she will be just fine again.

FYI … We had trouble connecting to the internet last night, so this is a little late being posted.


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