I've always loved living history museums as a way to have a learning experience while feeling like you've stepped into another time. That's what I felt recently while transiting the Panama Canal. Panama City is pretty much synonymous with the Canal and, because I always try to look for the undiscovered on my journeys, I have to say that visiting the Canal was not top on my list. (It wasn't even on my top 10.) But spending most of the day on the Canal and watching its operation while transiting on a small 120-foot cruiser, the Pacific Queen run by Panama Marine Adventures , completely changed my mind.
In fact, unlike cruise ships which claim you'll have a birds' eye view of Canal operations, that turns out to not be the case -- the cruise ships are just too big for anyone to see the full operation like I did. Our boat was small enough so that you could easily walk from from bow to stern to see the locks opening and closing, lines being tossed and caught, and waters churning all about once we're locked up. The entire operation is captivating, particularly since this engineering feat that's been in operation since the early 1900s, involves so many steps and yet works like a synchronized dance in a fashion. Here's a first-hand account of passing through the first two locks as we transited from the Pacific to the Atlantic. (An entire transit from Pacific to Atlantic can take eight to ten hours.)
Shortly after leaving the port on the south end of the Amador Causeway, a motor boat parallels our path, allowing a pilot to jump aboard (while we're cruising) and present our transit paper. (No one goes through the Canal without their papers.)
Atop Flamenco Island I spot a radar station which monitors all traffic entering the Canal. Massive cargo ships, some carrying thousands of containers, can be seen around us. They are waiting their turn to enter the Canal.
We travel under the Bridge of the Americas that's part of the Pan American Highway. An old ferry terminal with its wooden pilings and breakwater is visible on one side. On the other are cranes and other equipment that are involved in the expansion of the Canal. (It's supposed to be completed in 2014.)
Curiously, two men in a small boat row up to the ship ahead of us. This quaint practice that's been ongoing since the Canal went into operation in the early 1900s allows the transfer of heavy electrical lines that will connect each ship to motorized mules. These miniature train cars side atop the Canal walls and are key in aligning each boat within the center of the Canal. (We're so small that we don't need them but the container ships can use eight of them.) Once they throw the lines, the men, wearing life preservers and rain gear, position their row boat against the lock wall.
Then we approach the first lock, Miraflores, which, like all the locks, are like giant escalators, bringing each boat from sea level up 85 feet to Lake Gatun and then down again to sea level. Miraflores is a double-step lock, which means the boat is raised up in two stages. The second lock, Pedro Miguel, raises the ship in a single step.
I stood or sat in the blazing sun the entire time, rather than going down below, because I didn't want to miss any of the steps in this operation. When I wasn't watching the ships all about, I was captivated by the dense jungle that carpeted the land on either side of the Canal.
The action at the locks is some of the most interesting in the journey. Ahead we see birds circling basically because they're looking for the fish that are shocked as a result of the salt mixing with the fresh water that comes from Lake Gatun. (Our guide calls it instant sushi.) Once we're positioned in the lock -- and we share it with another small boat -- the giant iron gates slowly and simultaneously close in a "v" shape. (With the tip of the "v" facing upstream. The water churns around us as fresh water from Lake Gatun enters culverts in the lock to raise our level. (No pumps are used; it's all gravity powered.) But the filling of the lock is quite subtle. In fact, I barely realize we're rising. While we wait for the lock to fill, there's time to notice a series of numbers painted on the lock walls. These show the distance from the last lock and to the next. Our guide also informs us that the Canal walls are thick concrete -- nothing like this massive had been constructed of concrete at that time -- and they're some 55 feet thick at the locks.
Curiosities abound in and along the Canal. A red antennae on the right provides the feed for the live video cam. Yes, it's possible to see the Canal goings on any time of the night or day. (Ships do transit the Canal at night and lights are provided for their safety. Interestingly, the lights are directed not down the middle of the Canal but along the Canal walls so that ships don't stray too close.)
Only when the water is equalized do we move out of the lock, down the Canal and on to the second lock, Pedro Miguel, and then Lake Gatun. The narrowest part of the Canal that's about nine miles deep -- referred to as the Gaillard Cut -- penetrates the Continental Divide. This was also the most difficult to excavate, having to be sliced through solid rock. Above our heads is the Centennial Bridge, a main thoroughfare during rush hour to get to Panama City. I notice that the huge container ships are accompanied by diminuitive tug boats. It turns out that they are part of the Panama Canal Authority.
Our trip ends in the port at Gamboa where a giant crane stands. I'm told that this German crane dates from World War II -- part of the spoils of war -- and is used to remove the heavy lock gates for repairs.