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Friday, September 19, 2008


Cruising the Panama Canal is an absolute must! Here’s a perfect example of an engineering marvel and the extraordinary result of man’s persistence in overcoming monumental challenges. Charles I of Spain first proposed a canal through the Isthmus of Panama in 1534. Three centuries passed before it was attempted, and it was not until 1914 that the Panama Canal was completed at a cost of $387 million dollars. With this information in mind as we traveled through the locks we kept its wonders in perspective and felt it imperative to observe every phase of the operation.

In the evening prior to entering The Panama Canal, PBS documentaries and other information were available in our stateroom so we might truly appreciate experiencing this engineering marvel. The information was extremely helpful as the canal’s history and building is fraught with disease, disaster, international ramifications, and more than 27,000 deaths before ultimate triumph. Movie clips and photographs amply illustrate the dynamic scope of this undertaking, and the visuals are stunning. To truly appreciate the Panama Canal, it is necessary to forget that it is the 21st century and to imagine it is 100 years ago. With the photographs, that is easy to do.

The toll for our ship, the Coral Princess, to navigate the locks is a whopping $245,600. In addition to factoring in her net tonnage, Princess Cruise Lines pays the premium toll so her passengers get to experience the entire crossing. We begin early in the morning for the seven hour experience, and we can observe everything that happens. The lowest toll ever paid, by the way, was 36¢ paid in 1928 for a swim-through. Most ships average $35,000 based on net tonnage.
Sometime in the night, the crew prepared seating on the bow of the ship, and during the voyage cruisers who really got up early so as not to miss anything were generous in sharing their view. They made sure that those in the rear were able to go up to the front and take photos. Those taking pictures did so quickly and then cleared the improvised aisle for the next person. It was a wonderful and, sadly, unusual experience to have such consideration. It’s a shame I find it so unusual I am commenting on it. Anyway, the canal pilots board the Coral Princess around 5:15 AM as we approach the first set of locks, the Gatun locks. We are connected to eight “mules,” diesel-electric locomotives that guide us through and keep the ship centered.

As you can see in the photos, there is virtually no wiggle room here, and as ships get bigger, there’s talk of adding new, wider locks. Once through the lock, the mules release and we move on.

One view that really added to our amazement and perspective was watching a cargo ship move in the other direction. Many of the crew lounged on deck waving to us, but we could clearly see the water levels change and the ship smoothly readjust to the next level.

It was also intriguing to move to the stern and view the ships coming into the locks behind us, and, in fact, the line of ships waiting to enter. In 2005, more than 14,000 ships made this crossing, most of them commercial vessels. Many of the ships wait in line just as we might at a crowded Thruway tollbooth.

We crossed Gatun Lake, which at the time it was built between 1907 and 1913 was the largest man-made lake in the world. Rain filters down from Panama’s rain forests to fill the lake. The water is used in the locks and then flows out to the oceans.

After navigating Gatun Lake, we re-attach to mules at the single lock at Pedro Miguel, and later to the Miraflores Locks where we are lowered, in two stages, to sea level on the Pacific Ocean side. We are guided by tugboat toward the Bridge of Americas and then out to the Gulf of Panama.

A trip through the Canal is 6,000 miles from New York to San Francisco, less than half the 14,000 miles traveling the old way all the way to the tip of South America and rounding the treacherous Cape Horn. As expensive as the tolls seen, think of today’s oil crisis. Had the Canal not been built, think how much more expensive many of the goods carried by the cargo container ships might be.

There are many good books about the Canal, one by David McCullough which is now on my “to read” list, and some good documentaries, including the PBS presentation. Traveling through the Panama Canal is a bit like traveling through history. I highly recommend this excursion.

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