On our 15 day Panama Canal Cruise, only two days were spent in Panama. (All the other days are detailed in the previous post Mom’s Bucket List Cruise.) We met people on our ship who had traversed the canal several times. We met people who had entered on the Atlantic or Pacific side, sailed a bit and then exited to the same ocean. We opted for our Panama Canal crossing to be the whole thing – ocean to ocean.
We were novices at canal crossing but not novices on Panama, at least that was true of my mother. My parents and brother lived in the Canal Zone for three years while it was still operated by the United States. They lived on the Pacific side and boated often in Gatun Lake. My memory of a brief visit there was of seeing a cruise ship in the jungle! This was our opportunity to experience the canal in a different way.
As soon as we boarded the Coral Princess, we started learning about the history of the Panama Canal through lectures and ship TV. Thoughts of a waterway began in 1513 when Spaniard Vasco Nunez de Balboa walked the 43 miles across the isthmus, the first European to do so. Many dreamed the dream. The first sustained effort to build a waterway across the isthmus was by France after their 1860s success building the Suez Canal.
France’ desert based Suez experience didn’t translate well to the jungles of Panama. The isthmus was rocky, the jungle was thick, and the bugs carried all kinds of diseases killing thousands of workers. Ultimately the failed project cost France $240,000,000.
Rights to the project were sold to the United States in 1902 for $40 million. Under the vision, determination, calculation and bullheadedness of Theodore Roosevelt, the US began work on the canal in 1904. The newly independent government of Panama granted control of the Panama Canal Zone to the US.
The United States learned from the earlier attempt and improved living conditions for workers. They also determined a single waterway going ocean to ocean was not viable given the terrain. The US design called for a man made lake allowing fresh water to flow through lock systems on either side of the isthmus to raise and lower ships. Gatun Lake, the largest man-made lake in history at the time, is 164 square miles in size and 85 feet above sea level.
The most difficult challenge of the canal project was cutting through the continental divide. The Culebra Cut, an excruciatingly difficult eight miles, was necessary to connect Gatun Lake to the locks on the eastern Pacific side.
You read that correctly. Depending on your location, the eastern side of Panama is the Pacific side while the Atlantic/Carribean is on the west.
The Panama Canal opened in 1914 servicing about 1000 ships that first year. Two weeks are saved by not having to navigate around South America.
This lecture picture is of an Iowa class American battleship, clearing the canal by a comfortable 11 inches! The Coral Princess wouldn’t be quite that tight but was built slightly narrower than most cruise ships to be able to traverse the canal. We noticed the difference right away in hallway width in the cabin areas.
During the lectures we also were introduced to how controversial the decision to turn the canal over to Panamanian control still is with some Americans. Our lecturer indicated that the US “occupation” was never meant to be permanent. President Jimmy Carter signed the Panama Canal Treaty in 1977 and it was narrowly approved by Congress. There was a period of joint control and then full control was given to the home country at midnight on December 31, 1999. My parents and brother lived in Panama during that transition period. They agreed with the decision to return the Panama Canal to Panamanian control.
We sailed into Puerto Amador the day before our actual crossing. We opted for a tour of the new locks and a boat ride on Gatun Lake.
As ships were getting bigger Panama recognized the need to build new locks to accommodate larger vessels. Panamanian citizens approved expansion by vote. The five billion dollar project was completed in 2016 doubling the capacity for goods to traverse through.
The new locks use a sliding gate mechanism and also gather 60 percent of the fresh water for reuse as the locks raise and lower ships. The original locks let the fresh water from Gatun Lake free flow to the oceans as the lock gates are opened. Gatun Lake depends on annual rainfall to refill the lake and keep the locks viable.
Our tour also gave us an opportunity to see some of the former canal zone facilities on the Atlantic side. These former quarters had been restored as a lovely hotel.
Our transit day began with a 27 member pilot team coming on board to drive the Coral Princess through the Panama Canal. This transit cost Princess $330,000 and was determined by passenger count. They also paid a $35,000 booking fee a year ago to reserve our spot. The average toll is $54,000 with the largest ever paid being $829,000 for a container ship in 2018.
Our first event was to travel under the Bridge of the Americas. Some of the largest cruise ships can’t go through the canal because they won’t fit under the bridges, even though they would fit in the new locks.
As we approached the Mira Flores Locks we saw this COSCO container ship beginning its transit in the new locks. Over the course of the day I watched its progress. They made it through sooner, perhaps because there were only 3 ships scheduled to use the new locks that day while 26 were scheduled for the old locks.
The old locks are two lane, sometimes both ships are going the same direction and sometimes they are going opposite.
Over the course of our eight hour transit we passed under two additional bridges and traversed two more sets of locks. We had the option of watching our ship’s progress on deck, on our cabin TV (in the air conditioning) and on the Movie Under the Stars screen. We did some of each. We appreciated the commentary by the ship’s destination expert. He did a fine job with quality and quantity of content.
For a time our transit seemed to be ahead of schedule. We were sailing right along and then we came to the Gatun Locks on the Atlantic side…
All in all it was an exciting day. I’m glad my mom’s bucket list trip gave us this unique experience.
Thanks for sailing along!
Once again, I apologize for the length of this blog – I think it took me longer to write it up than to do the transit itself..Whew!