Mules, dredges, crocs and French cuts. Not to mention scale.

When we’re in the locks, I mentioned the railroad cars that guide us. The ships use their own power to move into and through the locks, but because nobody’s perfect, and because even ships that big respond to waves and wind, the cars are there to ensure that the ship and the locks walls don’t meet. Same kind of thing that the tugboats do on a tighter scale – keep everything and everybody safe and at a distance, so there’s no problems. They tie to the ship and use massive winches to keep the ship sides from touching the walls of the lock – there are four to eight cars for each ship, depending I guess on the mass of the vessel. We had eight – four at the bow, port and starboard,  and four at the stern, also port and starboard. They roll along as the ship moves into and through the locks, then zip back to the other end when we exit into the next stage – Miraflora Lake, Culebra (Gaillard) Cut or in the last cut approaching Limon Bay (which doesn’t seem to have a name).


The ten mile swath of land that forms the Canal Zone serves multiple purposes – it’s main function is to ensure that it remains a neutral area and is kept safe from anyone interested in holding most of the shipping world (ie. the entire world) to ransom, but water supply is a critical factor in the operation of the Canal, and it’s vital that the area be kept from development in order to ensure that there’s enough of a water supply to enable the locks to function. A secondary benefit is that the area is, ecologically, almost pristine. It’s long ago adapted to the changes building the canal introduced and much of it functions as an ecological preserve. The Smithsonian has a research facility on Gatun Lake, and I’m sure there are other researchers who use the Zone for studies.

But all is not wine and roses – or water and friendly jungle creatures singing with Mowgli. Because this is a man made thing, it isn’t stable, and one of the problems they have, especially in the Gaillard Cut is silt. We passed a number of dredging barges and wondered why they’d use normal sized buckets – it seems like trying to bail the ocean.

P1010923Then we noticed the actual size of the buckets:

P1010953That sucker is BIG. It’s bigger than the wheelhouse behind it. It’s moving an enormous amount of silt and mud with every pass.

The above photos were taken in Gaillard (Culebra) Cut. The trip through Gatun Lake was amazing and contradictory – it felt, if we didn’t look too closely, as if we were sailing through never touched waters – there was very little sign that people were around, until you looked closer to the ship and could see the channel markers that guide the ships through the Lake. And the occasional deserted looking island that had a single portapotty on it (wish I’d gotten a photo of that, but Al had the camera at that point).

P1010962P1010963We came out of the Gatun Locks and started down the last cut toward the Caribbean, and saw the one and only alligator? crocodile? of the entire trip. For the record, this is about as close as I ever want to get to one of these. This guy was apparently very large.


We also saw part of the French excavation:

P1020038The Gatun Locks are in the extreme left background – you can just see the ships we talked about yesterday. On the right, the channel heading off at a diagonal is the original French excavation.

P1020037Close up of the French cut.

We also got to see some of the expansion, which is much further advanced than the Miraflores work at the other end. The scale of the thing is almost impossible to absorb. The gates they’ll be using for the new locks are a good example of what I mean:


P1020023For scale, notice the size of the cars and buses and building in the foreground. These gates are edge on – the big slabs behind them are more gates, turned 90 degrees.

A close up:

P1020024I have no idea how they’re going to get those into place, here, or floated down the Canal to the Miraflora locks. It’s a mind-boggling concept.

And the container port at Colon, which is much larger than the Panama City container port:


We got out of the canal proper at about 4 in the afternoon, into Limon Bay and we sailed out of the bay and the official end of the Canal an hour or two later – so about a 12 hour transit.

We aren’t the only ones interested in the Canal – people from all over Panama come to see the Canal and the locks. It’s quite the tourist attraction. At the Miraflores Locks we were waved at and smiled at and we took each other’s photos:P1010843P1010845





P1010855This last one makes more sense when you realize the Panama flag are these exact shades of red, white and blue.






So, as we sailed past the container port and the ships waiting their turn to transit the Canal,


it was time to get ready for the Cellar Master’s dinner – a collaboration between Cecilia, the cellar master, and the chef of the Pinnacle Grill, which promised to be an amazing experience. We didn’t know what it would entail, but I wasn’t expecting everything we got! More on that tomorrow.


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