Go West, young man (okay, oldish lady)! No, wait – east! No, North!


North! to Alaska!

No, wait.

North to the Caribbean. It sounds very odd, but that’s what we did!

One quick note before we begin our transit: the photos you see aren’t necessarily in the order in which they were taken or the order in which we went through the Canal. I’ll try to note where each one was taken, but don’t worry about it if I don’t – the point of them is to show you things, not photo document our trip through the canal in the order we snapped the pictures.

We were up and out the door by six am, to see our official entry into the Panama Canal. That happens at “The Bridge of the Americas” which is the bridge that spans the Canal, supposedly linking North and South America.

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P1010790And apparently, billboards are an international eyesore. (Bridge of the Americas)

The captain had authorized the opening of the bow on Deck 4, so we were served Panama Rolls and coffee, which was lovely – they’re a sweet bun and were really nice. Note the ship just ahead of us in that first photo: we were just behind that all day.

To give you a better idea of where we were going:

1024px-Panama_Canal_Map_ENWe entered near Panama City and sailed north westish through the locks and the cut to Lake Gatun, then out another cut to the Caribbean Sea.

Here’s a side view:

Panama CanalThe locks lift us up 86 feet to the level of the lake and then take us down again to sea level.

The Miraflores locks are in two parts: two steps just at the beginning of the canal, then through Miraflores Lake and into the third step to get us up the final few feet to the Gaillard/Culebra Cut that leads to Gatun Lake.

It took a while to get to the first lock – we passed a container port directly after we came under the bridge and moved slowly (even more slowly than we had been at sea, which was about 4 knots) toward the Miraflores locks. The container port is for ships too big to enter the locks.

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P1010792These are taken on the Pacific side – that’s Panama city in the background.

They offload on one side of the Canal, the containers are then taken by railroad to the other side, where they’re loaded onto other ships.

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P1010809Taken between Bridge of the Americas and Culebra Cut

Panama City stayed with us for a long time:

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P1010800Miraflores Lake, after the first two locks

We got a look at the expansion site for both sets of locks, as well. Al had seen a close up of the Gatun expansion on his expedition the day before, but here it was from the ship:

P1010893That’s the Bridge of the Americas in the background. The expansion is to allow larger ships and more ships through the Canal, as well as to aid in reducing the amount of water that is used in moving ships through the Canal. I think they said that 86 million gallons was used in every lock for each step either up or down. It’s all gravity fed, but that’s a heck of a lot of water, and while Gatun Lake is huge and they very carefully regulate it, and it’s in an area with a massive amount of rainfall, that’s still a lot of fresh water they don’t need to be pouring into the ocean several times a day. These new locks will reuse 62% of the water expended in each use of the lock.

A pair of tugs picked us up just after we entered the Canal and stuck closely to us until we were into the first of the Miraflores locks. Then another pair did the same between the Miraflora locks, on the lake, and a third pair escorted us through the Gaillard Cut to the edge of Gatun Lake, when they turned and headed back toward the locks.

They weren’t pulling us, they weren’t even attached to us. They were there just in case something happened and we needed to be towed out of danger – either of grounding or hitting another ship. This happened with the ships directly in front of us and behind us as well, and I assume it happens with every single ship that comes into the Canal.

The locks are doubled – two locks side by side, but ships don’t enter them together. They’re always staggered so that the lock directly beside a ship is empty. Collisions would be disastrous, and the Canal authority does everything it can to ensure that the ships are never close enough to each other to be in danger. What happens is that in the morning, both sides of the Canal begin transiting ships, using both sides of the lock system, so you have traffic heading in both directions at the same time. But they never meet at the locks. Or in the cuts. It’s exquisetly timed so that there’s only one place ships pass each other going in opposite directions.P1020004

The above was taken at the Gatun Locks, on the Caribbean side of Gatun Lake. We’ve just entered the third lock and the gates are closing to lower us the last step to sea level. The blue ship, on the right in the background, is just moving into the second lock, and the red ship, in the far background is beginning its entry into the lock system.

P1020003Here’s a close up of the same situation – blue ship entering second of three locks, red ship just beginning its entry into the first lock, and we’re just exiting the last lock.

So that means that ships never pass each other going in different directions except in one place. We pass each other in Gatun Lake and at no other time. In the narrow Canal cuts and at the locks, it’s one way only.

If you’ve ever wondered why the cruise ships have that ugly, awkward boxy look to them, then wonder no more. The shape is called a Panaflex, and it’s made so that the ship just fits into a Panama canal lock.

P1010808This is looking straight down. The little silver thinggee is a railroad car that will guide (not pull) the ship through the locks. That gap where you see the head of the guy in the blue shirt? That’s all the space there is between the ship and the lock wall.

P1010807You see that silver thinggee down on the right with the little yellow stick-outs? (Don’t you love my total grasp of technical terms? (And yes, I’m rolling my eyes at me too.) That’s oldish age for you.) That’s a railroad car, I think they called it a mule. Look back behind that mule car. There’s a bit of a gap. That gap is the space between the hull of the ship and the cement wall of the lock. It’s INCHES wide.  There was about three feet between us and the lock gates. This baby is made to just perfectly fit into the lock, without any room to spare. (The left hand side of the photo is a reflection from the glass wall of our deck.) This was taken at the first Miraflora lock, on the Panama City side of the Canal.

Tomorrow, we’ll finish the journey and the day after that we’ll talk about the amazingly wonderful dinner we had that I was supposed to take copious notes on because it was an epic wine/food pairing, but I kinda sorta got sidetracked. Tune in to hear about dredging cuts, Gatun Lake, crocodiles and the Cellar Master’s dinner.

And apologies for posting this so late in the day – events around home intervened. See you tomorrow!

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