Panama City, Panama
An exciting journey today. Having travelled across the Pacific, we say goodbye to it, pass through the Panama Canal, across the Continental Divide and out into the Caribbean Sea with the Atlantic beyond. We set an alarm for 6am because we knew we would begin our scheduled passage across at 7am and we wanted to be in position against the railing on the rear deck by then. The balcony cabins obviously have their own unique viewing platform but as we’re in an inside cabin we needed to be somewhere on the public decks. There’s plenty of space to choose from but we had picked a spot in a corner of the rear deck where we’d not only get a good view but also have instant access to the pool, the bar and the buffet!!! The passage takes about 9 and a half hours, so it’s a long day.
Anyway, we were on deck by 0620 and luckily secured our chosen spot plus manoevred one of the plush outdoor couches with a footstool over to the rail and plonked down there in some luxury. Had breakfast out there too. A very hot day and sultry with it. About 34C, sunny and very humid. True to the plan, at 7am the ship began to move purposefully forward out of the bay of Panama and towards the Bridge of the Americas, the road bridge that marks the beginning of the canal zone Panama City stood off to our right, a modern skyscraper landscape, hazy through the ever present smog. We were accompanied on this first part by a number of tug boats whose job it was to help Arcadia line up on the incredibly narrow entrance to the locks ahead. As the entrance narrowed, we passed old US Naval buildings plus encountered some other canal users of the Alligatory variety!!!!
The canal itself has been widened over the years but the lock system is still the original width and many modern ships are simply too big to pass through. Arcadia had about 12 inches – inches – on either side. The concrete looked dangerously close at times. Some years ago a new system of locks started to be developed, wide enough to take the super tankers and extra large cruise ships that currently cannot use Panama. That system opens next month and we could see the canal alongside our channel. It certainly looked ready. The new channel does not have a multiple series of locks like the old one, only 3 steps. Additionally, it will use less water than the old canal as a series of pools have been built along it to collect and re-circulate the water en route rather than push millions of gallons from sea to sea.
Large ships like ours move through under their own steam, but the are attached by line to 8 engines which run along tracks on either side of the canalway to keep the ship as straight as possible. Their job is just to keep the lines taut, no pulling involved. There are two seperate channelways. In the mornings one ship per channel passes from either north to south or south to north, one way. Later in the day, smaller ships can go two way per channel i.e. passing each other.
There are 9 locks in three series seperated by 2 enormous man made lakes which supply water to the canal. At either end you can clearly see where fresh water is flowing out to the salt water.
We were very fortunate to have a commentator on board to provide a commentary as we passed through the Canal. An American ex canal pilot who had spent his whole career down there guiding ships through. He was superb. Very factual but delivered in a humorous and enjoyable fashion. We had 2 pilots on board actively working. On a large cruise ship such as ours, they do not actually take physical control of the ship but they are on the bridge giving active and constant advice and instruction. It costs a fortune to use the canal, based on the tonnage of the ship. Our crossing cost around £300,000 🙂 Apparently the cheapest ever crossing was 35p. Charged to a chap who swam the entire 49 miles. He obviously hadn’t seen all the alligators :).
I’m sure the crew were glad when it was all over. The modern ships are apparently less concerned than older ones because they have redundancy and computer controls. But the canal is very unforgiving both in terms of depth (it’s not that deep) and width. There have been serious accidents. Some years ago the QE2 was going through and she was part of the old school of cruise ship that only had one rudder. Apparently our commentator was aboard as pilot and they began to traverse one of the manmade lakes which was still low in water when the main engine cut out and the rudder failed and she started to drift. They could hear huge bangs as the hull hit submerged trees and it was an anxious couple of minutes before they managed to get things started again. As it was divers had to go down to check for damage.
We emerged into the Caribbean at about 430 in the afternoon and began to head north east towards Aruba. The Panama Canal is an amazing feat of engineering and an unforgettable experience to sail through.
On another note, today was the Queen’s 90th birthday and of course we marked that occasion several times during the day with rousing choruses of Happy Birthday Your Majesty and much waving of Union Jacks. Also very nice to see that all nationalities on board including our Commonwealth cousins and UK siblings joined in heartily.