Panama Canal Cruise

Written By: catherinewells | Categorized In: Travel

About a month ago, I promised a few words about our cruise through the Panama Canal.  The words that come to mind are fabulous, amazing, incredible, etc., but that’s not very helpful is it?

First, let’s bust a few myth-conceptions about the Canal.  From San Diego to Ft. Lauderdale, you’d think we’d be traveling west to east, right?  Wrong.  Because of the way the isthmus loops back on itself, we actually entered southeast of our exit.  There are three locks on the Pacific side (southeast) and three on the Atlantic or Caribbean side (northwest), with a long channel and an artificial lake between.  This is because the route crosses the Continental Divide, so ships are raised going in and lowered going out.  The current Canal–and yes, it is being enlarged, and yes, there is serious talk of a second canal through Nicaragua–has two lanes of traffic so ships can pass in the night, as it were, although frequently both lanes run the same direction:  in at dawn and out at dusk.  To traverse the Canal is an 8-hour proposition.

We woke the morning of our transit to find the ship already passing under the Bridge of the Americas into the harbor.  Cruise ships pay an extra fee to make their transit at a set time; others must wait in queue.  Our ship, the Celebrity Century, is one of the largest that can traverse the current Canal; when we had eased into the first lock, there was about 12 inches of clearance on each side.  To prevent the ship from drifting up against the walls, small locomotives called mules (yeah, yeah, “I’ve got a mule and her name is Sal, 15 miles on the Erie Canal) fasten cables to the ship from each side and draw them tight.  These locomotive don’t pull the ship–the ship’s engine does that–put they keep it in place as it waits for the lock to fill/empty, and then guide it through to the next lock.

The whole process was fascinating to watch.  I sat up on Deck 10 in the gym, looking through the bow windows and watching water gush through pipes into the lock to raise us.  Not far away, a loud-mouthed individual kept harping on how “inefficient” the process was.  “Why isn’t the lock filling?” he asked.  “They should be filling it the minute the gates are closed.”  His wife tried to tell him that they were, and I could see the water level rising at an astounding rate by the lines on the lock gates.  Despite this evidence, the man insisted the locks were not filling.  “Inefficient!” he kept saying.  “Wasteful!”  It took about 15 or 20 minutes to raise a ship with 1800 passengers and 1200 crew, and still he howled, “Inefficient!”

All I could think was, And this is the kind of person who thinks he should run the government…


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