PANAMA CANAL

By the time we’d awoken, bounded out of bed and headed for the open decks, at around 7am, we were well on our way to leaving Gatun Locks, as per the schedule.

The first two locks raise the ship up to the level of Gatun Lake, a large lake that basically feeds the whole canal lock system, and for the next couple of hours, that was our view; rainforest stretching away from both sides of the lake, and the occasional passing container ship going in the opposite direction.

Travelling through The Panama Canal from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific actually means travelling in a South-Easterly direction – not simply East to West, as you’d expect, due to the lands curves between the two continents of North and South America.

Much of Gatun Lake is also surprisingly shallow, so it is important for the ship to follow the navigational bouys that lead the way. Another surprising fact is that the pilot who comes on board has final say over navigational matters; a condition expressly stipulated in the agreement to let any ship pass through the canal. At the half-way point (Gamboa), a new pilot takes over, so neither one has to go the whole distance – just his own half.

By 12 noon, we’d switched pilots, taken a good look at the magnificent crane named Titan (more fondly referred to as ‘Herman The German’), and was passing through Calibra Cut, a narrow section that can only take the width of one ship at a time. It is also notable for its stepped sides, cut away in such a manner as to prevent erosion.

At around 2pm, we arrived at Pedro Miguel Locks, the first of two locks, along with Miraflores, that slowly brings us back down to sea level. Alongside us, off to the right, the new canal was visible, built to accommodate larger ships, and using a reservoir system designed to reduce the consumption of water during the lock-passing procedure.

I sketched throughout the day, particularly the ‘mules’, little trains to which the ship is attached by cables, that run alongside the canal and help to keep us central in the channel and prevent any damage either to the ship or to the canal sides. We took a couple of breaks, to get out of the sun and for lunch, but were up at the front as we passed through our final lock of the day, Miraflores, at around 3pm. Here, transiting ships become the entertainment for the huge numbers of people packing out the visitors centre there who have come to witness the engineering spectacle, and cheer and wave every now and then, when prompted to do so by their master of ceremonies.

Hot on our tail, in the lock right next to ours, was the Costa Deliziosa. You can see from this photo just how tight things can be…

By 4:30pm, we passed under the Bridge of the Americas (one of only three road bridges that cross the canal – this one being the original and first), and exited into the Pacific Ocean, with fantastic views across Flamenco Island, towards the impressive skyline of Panama City.

A passsenger from my class told me later that another passenger had come up to him asking if the city we were seeing was Manhattan. Incredible but true… and a litle bit scary.

And so begins a mammoth 9-day crossing of the Pacific Ocean, en-route to our next port destination, Nuku Hiva, in French Polynesia. During that time, I will have 6 classes… and a lot of time on my hands…