"" Writer's Wanderings: Third Time, Still Charming - Panama Canal

Monday, January 10, 2011

Third Time, Still Charming - Panama Canal

On our holiday cruise, we passed through the Panama Canal on our way to the west coast from Florida. This was the third time through the "big ditch" for us but the first time going from the Caribbean to the Pacific. I would say East to West but when you go through the canal it is actually North-South, or South-North because of its location on the Isthmus of Panama.

Around 6 a.m. we awoke to the bustle of our ship readying for its trip through the Gatun Locks. There are three levels of locks that raise the ship to the level of Gatun Lake, a man made waterway created by the damming of the Charges River as part of the canal construction in 1913. The activity in the locks is fascinating to watch as lines are pulled taut on either side of the ship attached to "mules," mechanical devices that follow tracks on both sides of the ship and center it in each chamber while water fills the chamber and lifts the ship up.

The lifting of the ship doesn't take long when you consider the size and weight of the ship and the amount of water needed to fill the chamber to lift it. The whole system is based on gravity. I couldn't help but imagine Newton chewing on his apple and saying, "See, I told you gravity was useful."

Once through the Gatun Locks, we could see the dam that created Gatun Lake. We sailed across the lake which looked very muddy from recent flooding that had actually closed the canal for a day, and into the area where most of the digging took place called, "The Cut." It was here that life was made so very difficult for those who took on the challenge of building the canal. It started with the French who eventually abandoned the project that was then taken on by America in Teddy Roosevelt's day and made a little easier by some of the discoveries that helped wipe out the malaria problem and some of the other difficulties that had plagued the French.

After passing under the Centennial Bridge, opened in 2004, we moved into the last area of locks that would lower us to the level of the Pacific Ocean. There is one level at the Pedro Miguel locks and two levels at the last set, the Miraflores Locks.

Once free of the locks, our next point of interest was the Bridge of the Americas, opened in 1962. The bridge is described as a "cantilever design where the suspended span is a tied arch." For us non-engineers we might just describe it as a spectacular structure connecting the two Americas. It is always awesome to pass under a bridge of this sort when on a ship. It gives the illusion that there is little space between the top of the ship and the bottom of the bridge.

The passage through the 48 mile long canal was complete well before the projected 4 p.m. schedule. According to our captain, it was due to light traffic in the canal itself. While it is always exciting to hear the history, see the canal, and observe the operation of the locks, I think it is a little more fun to start out from the Pacific side. I remember our first time through waking in the early dawn and seeing all the ships around us queuing for their passage. In the distance, we could see the lights of Panama City. This time, we saw the city lit by the afternoon sun that found its way through a break in the clouds.

We made a right turn (certainly not a nautical term) and headed up the coast toward Costa Rica and Guatamala, eventually to stop in Huatulco, Mexico but only after a Christmas Day at sea.

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