March 27, 2017
Today we traversed the Panama Canal! We entered the canal from the Caribbean side at about 6:00 a.m. A narrator came on board to broadcast what we were watching. When I woke up enough to go outside on our veranda, I took some pictures of the rising sun silhouetting some of the large equipment as we entered the canal.
Entering on the Caribbean side, ships enter a large bay next to which the city of Colón is situated; then they wait their turn to enter the channel into the Gatún Locks. The Veendam entered the narrower of the older locks. From the ship’s deck, I could see cars and trucks going across on an underpass – hard to believe there’s a road down there. Next to the Veendam was the Norwegian Pearl, a larger cruise ship that needs more width. The New Locks were built to accommodate even large cargo and cruise vessels. These were built a little distance away. We pulled up alongside the Norwegian Pearl and watched as it was raised, gradually revealing each of its lower decks. Passengers lined the decks of both ships.
Railroad tracks on either side of the locks were used for locomotives tethered to the ships at various points. The Veendam employed about six of these locomotives, which did not actually pull the vessel. The ship operated on its own power but the locomotives with taut ropes attached to the ship kept the ship centered, even though it was nearly as wide as the channel. These motorized engines drove up and down the tracks on incline and decline ramps as we passed through each lock stage. The doors of each lock were almost completely submerged, but rose as the water emptied from one section of the locks to the next. We started out being raised at a series of three stages, each set of doors submerge as the water level filled to match the next stage.
The canal is an amazing feat of engineering, especially since it was conceived and built a century ago against all odds. The locks technology, of course, was already well-known, there being a number of examples early in the 19th century. But originally the French engineer put in charge wanted to simply carve a passage straight through the isthmus, as had been his experience building the Suez Canal. However, the isthmus of Panama had mountains and its terrain covered with jungle. It rains – hard – half the year, making construction projects even more difficult. It was an American engineer, John Frank Stevens, who conceived of a series of locks through the mountains, ending in the largest manmade lake at that time, Gatún Lake, the result of damming the river. This dam was necessary in order to maintain the water level of the lake at 88.5 feet.
For more on the history of the Panama Canal, the web site is: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panama_Canal
An excerpt from another web site explains how a ship goes through the canal:
To transit the Panama Canal, a ship entering from the Atlantic side at Colon would first navigate through roughly seven miles of dredged canal at sea level through marshy lowlands. At Gatun, the vessel would approach the enormous, sloping earthen dam that holds back the water in Gatun Lake. The vessel would then ascend a three-step lock and enter the man-made lake. From there, the next 32 miles of the journey to the Pacific Ocean would be upon the placid waters of Lake Gatun. After passing through the Culebra Cut, the lake would terminate at Pedro Miguel, where the ship would descend down a one-step lock into a small intermediary lake before descending the final two steps back to sea level at Miraflores. From there, the vessel would again navigate through another seven miles of dredged lowlands before entering the Pacific Ocean near Panama City.
Although the Panamanian jungle was a challenge to the engineers of the canal, the high amount of rain ended up being an advantage: each vessel that passes through the canal uses 52,000,000 gallons of water per transit. An average of 25 ships pass through the canal daily. Multiply these two numbers and the importance of the rainy season becomes obvious – a lot of rain is required to replenish the amount of water displaced each day!
In 2016, construction on widening the locks to accommodate larger ships was completed.
Gatún Lake is situated between the Gatún Locks on the Caribbean side and the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks on the Pacific side. It snakes around in various directions and has created many islands and peninsulas. The scenic views of this lake were quite pretty.
In the lake, where we spent about two hours, I saw lots of cargo ships, mostly container ships, with some names I recognized – NYK, MSC – and some with names I was not familiar with. Large container ships have the capacity to carry up to about 14,000 20 ft. containers (or about 7,000 40 ft. containers).
At the far end of the lake, we passed under the Centennial Bridge, a fairly new construction.
We then entered the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks which lowered the level of the water and we could watch as water poured out into the next section.
Our ship was released on the Pacific side at 4:00 p.m. before passing under an even larger bridge, the Bridge of the Americas, which cost $104 million to build. This bridge marked the end of the canal and the entrance to the Pacific Ocean.
Both of these bridges sustain a lot of traffic and are high enough for tall ships to pass under them.
The most difficult part of observing all this was the oppressive heat. I minimized my exposure to the direct sun by staying in the shade as much as possible. Even though the water was warm, it was refreshing to take a dip in the swimming pool once we were through the canal!