Sunday, January 07, 2007

Logbook: Panama Canal

Panamacanal1I was up at about dawn on Friday for our early morning approach to the Gatun Locks at the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal. One cannot properly call it the “eastern” entrance because -- as most of you have probably learned in a trivia quiz at some point in your life -- the Panama canal actually runs northwest to southeast when transiting from the Atlantic to the Pacific. If you don’t believe me, check a map. What may surprise you even more is that Panama itself runs almost perfectly east-west and not north-south as one might imagine it would as the connecting isthmus between North America and South America. Okay, enough with geography. On approach to the Gatun Locks, the first remarkable sight is to see a huge container ship elevated “above” you. It is hard to describe -- and the pictures don’t really do it justice -- but there is something unnatural about seeing an immense ship as if it was somehow up on a shelf. Trust me, it’s strange. Anyway, the Gatun Locks consist of three lifts which total 85 feet up to the level of Gatun Lake. As you enter the lane into the first lift, you watch a well choreographed process whereby ropes are cast from ship to shore and wire cables are hauled back to the ship. The other ends of the cables are connected to little locomotive-like vehicles called “mules” in honor of the beasts of burden that these machines replaced. With four “mules” attached to the ship -- both sides, fore and aft -- to keep the vessel straight and centered in the lane, the ship uses its own power to move forward at about walking pace.

Panamacanal2Because MV Discovery is a relatively small ship, we had plenty of gap -- 10 meters or so -- on each side. I noted with some amazement that the immense cargo ships fit the lifts with as little as 1 meter to spare since they are built to “Panamax” dimensions, the largest that can fit the lifts and thereby use the Panama Canal. There is strong desire for even larger ships these days, and the Panamanian people have voted to spend $5.5 billion to build additional, larger locks and lifts. An alternative is to build a new “sea level” canal in Nicaragua, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this eventually happens -- perhaps what all the Chinese money there is up to? -- so it will be interesting to watch the development of “trans-isthmus” shipping in the years to come. Anyway, although the locks of the Panama Canal are the largest I’ve seen, they work by the same principles as any other canal locks: Water flows down hill and boats float. The “mules” are very interesting to watch as they work together to keep pace with -- and climb hills of their own to match the elevation of -- the ships.

After clearing the three lifts of Gatun -- which took about 90 minutes -- we entered man-made Gatun Lake and sailed for about two hours to the entrance of Gaillard Cut. Although the locks are the most prominent and well known feature of the Canal, the Cut is probably the most remarkable feat of construction. Only wide enough in most places for one ship to pass at a time -- which requires alternating “convoys” in each direction -- opening the 13 km Cut required the bulk of the 273,000 tons of dynamite that were used in the Canal project. After about two hours of sailing through the Cut, the single-lift Pedro Miguel Locks lower you 31 feet to Milaflores Lake then a short run takes you to the two lifts of the Miraflores Locks which lower you the remaining 50 feet or so -- depending on Pacific tides -- to sea level. First getting a brief glimpse of Panama City a dozen miles away then crossing under the Americas Bridge, we were on our way out to sea. We spent the night cruising around then dropped anchor off Fort Amador on the outskirts of Panama City.

Yesterday after breakfast, we tendered ashore where I split off from the bulk of the group -- trying to sort out their various shore excursion arrangements -- with a nice couple of more “independent” travelers for a cab ride into town. The driver dropped me off on a street that offered a number of internet centers and I went to work uploading, etc. After a couple of hours, I packed up my gear and hit the streets. I had walked about two blocks when a guy standing next to a cab asked me what I was looking for. I told him I was just wandering around and he suggested a route through a nice, safe area down to the water front. I liked him and his helpful manner immediately, so I asked if he’d like to take me on an impromptu tour for a while. He said yes, quoted me a very reasonable price and off we went.

Over the next couple of hours, Hector took me to a few essential tourist sites but we mostly drove through various parts of the city and its suburbs. We had a lively conversation -- in English! -- about Panama, its people and various aspects of local life. By the time we were heading back to Fort Amador, I was convinced that Panama is by far the nicest -- and probably most interesting -- city in Central America. It is clean, organized, varied and vibrant. I would like to go back and spend more time there! Back aboard ship I had dinner then enjoyed the evening show -- a delightful musical dance number by the ship’s theater company. Today was a “day at sea” as we head to Manta, Equador for a port call. I hope to go ashore in the morning and find internet connection to upload the content I’ve created today as well as check in with my “peeps.” All is going well, and I am enjoying being at sea. I am especially looking forward to later tonight when I will make my first crossing of the equator on The Voyage of Macgellan!

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