Saturday – November 10, 2018 – Panama Canal
Today is the day that is the purpose for this whole trip – traversing the Panama Canal. We have received enough paperwork regarding the canal – a FAQ sheet, a color brochure, and an encouragement to watch the hour movie: A Man, A Plan, A Canal. There have also been several informational sessions about the Canal during the past few days. If you don’t know what to do today or anything about the canal, it is your own fault.
What I learned – The first firm effort to build an all-water route through the Panama began with the French in 1880 but financial problems and tropical diseases ruined the initiative. When Panama consolidated its independence in 1903 it agreed with the United States on the construction of the Canal and that the US would help build, operate, and maintain it until December 31, 1999.
The Canal was opened in 1914 and in 2010, the bulk carrier Fortune Plum became ship number one million to pass through the Canal. In 1994, the Canal was named one of the seven wonders of the modern world by the American Society of Civil Engineers. In 1999, as agreed, Panama took on the administration and operation of the Canal. In 2007, construction on the new, larger locks began with the inauguration of the new locks held in 2016.
There are 2 lanes for the ships to pass from either Atlantic to Pacific or Pacific to Atlantic. The system of locks raises the vessels to the level of Gatun Lake, approximately 80 feet above the sea, to allow the crossing by the Central Mountain Range, and then lower the vessels to sea level on the other side of the Isthmus of Panama. The water that is used to raise and lower the ships in each set of locks comes from Gatun Lake by gravity and is poured into the locks through a system of main culverts which extend below the chambers of the locks from the sidewalls and center wall.
We set our clocks back an hour before we went to bed so even though I set the alarm for 5:30, I got that extra hour. I was up and dressed with camera and binoculars by 6:00. It was a cloudy day and I could see that it had rained heavily some time during the night. They did call for rain today so I put on my swimsuit with coverup so if it started raining, I was ready. Chuck was looking forward to seeing the Canal but did not feel he needed to be out on the bow as early as me.
All services were starting at 6:00 today instead of the usual 6:30 so I stopped to get my Latte. The Crow’s Nest was already filled with people. I did not want to see the canal from the inside so I got my Latte, went first to the sea view pool area to watch the sunrise over Panama, and then I went back to the front and joined the people in line to go out on the bow. There were several ships around us waiting for their turn to line up to head for the Canal.
I did not get a spot at the very front of the bow but I did get a good spot near it. I thought of it as a Black Friday shopping experience, get there early and stake a claim or snooze and lose. The ship also opened up the crew doors to the 5th, 6th, and 7th floors for people to stand. The crew was serving coffee and their Panama rolls – soft puff pastry with cream inside.
The narrator came on the speaker at about 6:45 as we were entering passing the breakwater and heading for the new expansion bridge (newly constructed and not yet named) and the Gatun Locks. Since this trip was a partial transit, we would only be going through the Gatun Locks, anchor a while in Gatun Lake, and then back out the same locks.
We watched as the ship in front of us entered the locks and it raised up to get it ready to go to the middle set of locks. Once it entered the middle set and the gates closed behind it, it was time for us to enter the locks. While we waited, I watched a couple of gators swimming around paying no heed to the large ship.
Each ship is charged to use the locks. Our narrator said that our ship was charged $300,000 for this trip. Every cruise has port fees added on to the cruise price. Makes sense why these port fees were some of the more expensive that we have paid ($380 pp). The passengers get to pick up part of the costs of this crossing.
When our turn came, the guiding lines were brought out to the ship from the locks by two men in a rowboat. A rowboat, seriously? The narrator explained that they had tried several other ways to get the ropes over but they proved either dangerous or too costly so rowboat it is. The lines were attached to vehicles on either side of the locks that looked like train engines that ran on a track. The narrator called them “mules.” They pulled the ship along through the canal. We watched as we slowly rose with the water level.
It was also interesting to watch other ships coming from the other direction. As we took pictures of them, the crew from those ships (mostly cargo ships) were taking pictures of us.
Once we made it through both sets of locks (Chuck did make it outside before we finished), we anchored in the Lake and they started calling for people who were on tours to start making their way to the tender area. They would be using most of the ship tenders to get people to shore. Guess they figured the rest of us could swim to shore if the ship started to go down in the Lake. (If you could get past the gators).
It was now 10:00 and the Lido would be open for another 30 minutes and the Panama roll was gone. I got some juice and cereal.
We could see the entrance to the new locks from where we anchored. I watched some larger tankers get towed into the new locks. Several other ships were anchored near us. One by one they made their way to either the old locks or the new locks.
At 1:00 it was our turn to go back through the locks. It had started raining hard so I went to the Crow’s Nest to see if I could find a chair. With so many people having left on excursions, I found a nice lounger in the front. It was interesting to see the process from higher up (10th floor vs the 4th floor of the morning). I watched until 3:00.
The shops on the ship were having a sale on Panama Canal souvenirs. I was able to find a keychain that I can repurpose into an ornament. The tag said “it has been handcrafted especially for you by friendly hands inside the Panama Canal Rain Forest.” I was also told there was no free WIFI at the port so there is no reason to get off the ship when we port at Colon which is good because it is still raining.
We didn’t dock at Colon until 5:00. There were several tours that were already back so there were a lot of people getting back on the ship. There were some people getting off to explore. The all aboard time is still 7:30.
With so many people off the ship, the main dining room seemed almost empty. We had our first table for 2 of this cruise. Service is always fast when there are just 2 people. I had the apple/cucumber salad and the vegetarian pasta. Chuck had the gumbo soup and beef brisket.
We finished so early that we went to the 8:00 show of Planet Earth II in Concert instead of the 10:00 show. This show is a movie produced by the BBC and the score is performed by a live band on the ship. I have seen these performances on other ships and have enjoyed them. From the preview show, I thought this one was going to be one set in frozen areas (Antarctica, Artic, etc.); however, it was one that we had seen before on the Alaska cruise. It was still good.
We went to BB King but we didn’t stay long since we have an early excursion in Costa Rica tomorrow. They had a note in our mailbox that said due to the number of early excursions tomorrow, please be aware that room service would be very busy and that the Lido and main dining room would open early for breakfast for everyone’s convenience. We put out the room service menu anyway (yes, we are those people). We asked for delivery between 6:00 – 6:30. We’ll still be OK if it is later.
I also got the disembarkation paperwork turned in. I chose the early time since we will start driving on the day we disembark although I know we will not get all the way home.
The towel animal tonight is an elephant. Wait, wasn’t that the same animal as last night? Guess they didn’t think we would remember.
We are to set the clock back another hour tonight. Weird.