A Passage through the Panama Canal

Posted on Apr 23, 2013 | Comments Off on A Passage through the Panama Canal

entering the Gatun Locks Panama Canal DSC1660


By David McGonigal

It takes all day to sail the 80km of the Panama Canal. Still, that’s not a bad day’s travelling when it saves a 13,000 km voyage around Cape Horn if you’re merely sailing from one coast of the USA to the other. I was on Royal Caribbean’s 90,000 tonne Radiance of the Seas when our chatty local canal pilot blabbed that the total bill for our canal transit was a resounding $US300,120, paid well in advance.

The six great milestones in cruising are said to be sailing around the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn, through their manmade shortcuts the Suez and Panama canals, an Atlantic crossing between Europe and America or a voyage around the world. Of all these only the Panama Canal gives you the sundrenched delights of the Caribbean and the natural delights of Costa Rica and the Baha. And it’s pretty special being on a ship of almost 100,000 tons as it’s lifted 28 metres to cross a mountain range.

When France first started to cut the Panama Canal through the thinnest part of the isthmus that joins North and South America in 1880 the plan was to dig down to sea level so ships could simply sail through. After all, that had worked well for the Suez Canal that opened a decade earlier. It’s hard to imagine looking at kilometres of mountains and disease-ridden jungle filled with sloths and howler monkeys then pick up pick and shovel and think “we can dig a trench through this and link two oceans”. It’s even more surprising that it was first proposed in 1534 by the king of Spain.

However, they underestimated the environment. Excavations collapsed in the rain and thousands of workers died of disease in the swamps. It’s estimated that 30,000 of the 80,000 people that worked on the canal perished – and most (perhaps 22,000) died during the French attempt. In 1903 the US took a lease over the site with the enthusiastic support of President Theodore Roosevelt and a more-conservative lock-based crossing was designed. The first ship sailed through the canal’s three sets of locks on August 15, 1914.

Almost 100 years later I view our approach of Gatun Locks on the Caribbean side of the canal in the early hours of the morning with some trepidation. Our captain has confided that Radiance of the Seas shouldn’t fit through the Panama Canal. Many ships have been built to fit the canal – the so-called Panamax dimensions – and this is one of them. But a German construction error (now there’s a term you don’t hear very often) resulted in the ship being 106.5 feet wide – the maximum permissible beam is 106 feet. So when Radiance first passed through the canal in 2001, the President of Panama came down to watch the show. The ship squeezed through.

As I watch, Radiance appears to spill over both sides of the lock so its passage resembles trying to put a champagne cork back in the bottle but we make it through and into the manmade Gatun Lakes area. There’s a procession of ships heading in both directions and there are only a few passing lanes. I hear later that in Pedro Miguel lock the ship scrapes both sides and we leave some paint behind.

Even when I go inside to escape the tropical heat, the canal is ever-present. As many have found during Radiance of the Seas’ summer sojourns in Australia, the most impressive feature of the ship is the Centrum area amidships: soaring seven storeys high, the exterior walls are clear glass so from the lounges and bars you are constantly looking at the sea and sky – and canal workers. The walls of the elevators are glass, too, so as you ascend you are either looking down to the central bar, over an ocean panorama, or onto the tractors escorting us through the canal. Radiance OTS (as fans write it) is a big ship, but you can never forget you are at sea. In fact Radiance has been a viral YouTube sensation for its self-levelling pool tables, using technology created for North Sea oil platforms. Even in rough seas they provide no excuse for bad shots.

After lunch we pass through the Gaillard Cut where the canal slices through 12.6 km of the mountains of the Continental Divide – the link between the Andes and the Rockies. There’s extensive excavation work being done to widen the canal here and new, larger locks are due to open in 2014. At the southern end of the cut is the Centennial Bridge that looms overhead – it was built in 2004 and looks very much like Sydney’s Anzac Bridge.

Finally we reach the Miraflores Locks and emerge into the Pacific Ocean. Before heading out into open ocean we sail under the Bridge of the Americas of the Pan Americana highway that links North and South America. We’ve just sailed over a continent.


Trip Notes

Cruise Line: Royal Caribbean International

Vessel: Radiance of the Seas

While Radiance has no more Panama Canal transits scheduled at present, the Legend of the Seas has15-night voyages from Fort Lauderdale to San Diego and vice versa scheduled for November this year and March next year.

For more information contact Royal Caribbean Cruises (www.royalcaribbean.com.au) on 1800 754 500 or (02) 4331 5400.


Fast facts – Panama Canal

•           Panama Hats are from Ecuador – they became known to the world when worn by Ecuadorians working on the Panama Canal.

•           The Panama Canal runs north-south though it joins the Caribbean Ocean in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west.

•           The Panama Canal was owned and operated by the US until it was handed over to the Panama at midnight on December 31, 1999.

•           The centenary of the Panama Canal will be marked by the opening of new locks and passages 25 per cent larger than the current ones.

•           The cost of enlarging the canal is budgeted at $US5.5 billion.

•           Ships are already being designed for the New Panamax standards.

•           No transit through the Pamana Canal is free, ever. The cheapest toll was paid by an American adventurer named Richard Halliburton who swam the canal in 1928. His body displacement was calculated, just as it is for a cruise ship and he was invoiced 36 US cents.

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