Passage Through Panama

Written by Rosemary Gemmell
(A highly commended runner-up entry in the Travel and Water Writing Competition.)

Double-laned Locks on the Panama Canal
Double-laned locks on the Panama Canal

Traversing the Panama Canal on one of the largest cruise ships to make the journey, we felt a slight frisson of apprehension as we entered the narrow passage. Was it really wide enough to accommodate us and allow us to maintain a straight path, with no space for misjudgement?

We were about to find out for there was, literally, no turning back. The only way to experience such a modern wonder of engineering is to sail through it and marvel at its ingenuity at each stage of the journey from the safety of the ship’s deck. The slow, careful passage through the canal was the highlight of a cruise that took us from the Caribbean to Mexico, via Costa Rica. It is usually one of the hottest and most humid areas of the world and we were warned to be suitably sun-creamed, hatted and watered. In the event, there was enough cloud to weaken the overpowering sun and a faint breeze made watching the procedures more enjoyable.

The Panama Canal was many years and thousands of lives in the making. A vital trade link between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, it officially opened in August 1914 and is an awe-inspiring series of locks that allow ships to be gently lifted from the Atlantic and lowered onto the Pacific. In between this fascinating manoeuvre at either end of the Canal, lies the sail through the still and sultry Gatun Lake (Lago Gatún), one of the largest man-made areas of water in the world.

It is approximately fifty miles long travelling, maybe surprisingly, in a south-easterly direction from the Colon on the Caribbean Sea to Panama City on the Pacific Ocean. All ships pay a toll depending on weight and cargo, which brings in over $300 million a year. Over 880,000 vessels have proved the Canal’s worth, with a huge variety of cargo, including London Bridge.

Sailing through the canal today is the climax of any cruise. It is one thing to read about its troubled construction and to see the locks from a distance, but experiencing the passage made us appreciate what an engineering colossus it is. Three locks on either coast of the Canal allow the safe passage of vessels from one ocean to the other. We were surprised to see these were double-laned, allowing the simultaneous passage of two ships. Even better, as we craned over the side to watch proceedings, a cargo ship just ahead of us in the other lane meant we could easily watch the rising and falling of the water in the locks. It is one of the most fascinating sights.

Massive lockgates and a 'mule'
Massive lockgates and a ‘mule’

On the Caribbean side of the Canal, the first of the three Gatun Locks raises the ship up a level. It sits there until it is raised into the next two Locks, a total of 85 feet altogether, and is then able to sail through Gatun Lake for the major length of the Canal. As our ship had only a few inches leeway from the canal sides, we were relieved to see they provided some assistance. Cables attached to mechanical ‘mules’ on tracks alongside the canal guided the ship’s transit by pulling it through the locks, while Panamanian pilots oversaw the operation after boarding the ship.

The sail through Gatun Lake was fully under the ship’s own power until it reached the other end of the canal. Here the process was reversed; the ship lowered through the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks until it once more rested on sea level. It takes over 26 million gallons of water from Gatun Lake to fill the locks for the passage of a ship, which is supplied naturally by the Panamanian climate.

The author and husband on Panama Canal
The author and husband on the Panama Canal

The story of the Panama Canal continues as it is now expanding in one of the biggest engineering operations in the world: constructing a third set of locks. It is still beset by problems and setbacks, including quarrels over rising costs and workers going on strike, and the project is already behind schedule. Meanwhile the Canal continues to allow the safe passage of up to 14,000 ships a year.

As we serenely sailed across the peaceful lake and negotiated our passage through the Miraflores Locks to the Pacific Ocean, Panama City soon became visible in the distance bordered by lush green trees, its high buildings reaching to the sky. And it was too easy to forget the human history that had created such a masterpiece and made it possible for our huge ship to safely traverse from one ocean to another.

Name of cruise/tour operator: Celebrity Cruises

POSTED 11th July 2016 by STE Web Editor STEVE HANSON on behalf of ROSEMARY GEMMELL. The photographs were supplied by the author after the competition had been judged.