A highlight of our cruise was transiting the Panama Canal. From the Atlantic to the Pacific it stretches 50 miles. Initially began in 1882 by French builders of the Suez Canal, they gave up in Panama. The U.S. acquired the canal in 1904 and began work. American crews persevered with tens of thousands of workers drilling dynamite holes, driving steam shovels and laboring with pickaxes to build the canal, all the while fighting the heat, yellow fever and malaria. There were 25,600 fatalities. It took ten years to complete and shortened a ship’s voyage from the Atlantic to the Pacific by 7,800 miles. In 1999, control of the canal was handed over to Panama from the U.S.
In 2016 an expansion more than doubled the canal’s capacity, allowing ships with a capacity of more than 14,000 containers to pass through. Today more than 12,000 to 15,000 ships transit the canal each year. More than 52 million gallons of water is used during each ship’s transit through the three locks. Recently they have added new locks that recycle some of the water so as not to deplete the lakes and rivers.
It is without a doubt one of the world’s greatest engineering achievements. More than 100 species of mammals and reptiles as well as 500 different birds live in nature reserves on islands and lakes along the canal. An interesting fact is that ships pay $35,000 additional fee for a reserved spot to transit. Otherwise, without the reserved spot, we would have had to wait for a long time to get in line for an unknown transit time. They also have to pay for each person onboard the ship. So Holland America probably paid $444,000 in fees to transit the canal!!
Since the average transit time is 8 to 10 hours, we had to get up before sunrise to see the transit begin. They opened up the bow of the ship, so that is where many people first gathered. The cruise director was up on the bridge of the ship with the captain and other officers and provided commentary throughout the day.
A few thoughts. It took all day, from before 6:00 AM to 5:00 PM. We were fortunate it was an overcast day which helped greatly with heat and possible sunburns. We were able to sit on our balcony for much of the time which made it much more enjoyable. Our cabin was located where the ship widened, our balcony allowed us to look toward the front of the ship as well as out to the side.
On the bow of the ship at 7:00 AM some crew members brought around warm “Panama Rolls” which is a tradition when transiting the canal. They are yeast rolls with an apricot filling. They were very good and available in the dining room and buffet areas throughout the day. They were only available as a special treat that one day.
When we were standing on the bow a large orange and blue cargo ship passed us in the other lock. A man standing next to us said out loud to himself, “Orange and blue, UVA colors.” I couldn’t believe it. Turns out he went to UVA and currently lives in the Winchester area. Of course Bill pointed out that was also the school colors of the University of Florida.
We passed the Miraflores Locks and Visitors Center. A very large group of people had gathered on the top deck of the Visitors Center. As we passed by, a man with a microphone would say something in Spanish and then everyone on the deck would yell, cheer and wave to us. It was fun to wave back at them.
We had a great day and an amazing experience. We were amazed at how narrow the locks were and how little room there was between the ship and the sides. The captain and crew really had to be on their toes all day!! On each side of the ship were four “mules”. As a safety feature, ships were guided though the lock chambers by electric locomotives known as mules. Mules are used for side-to-side and braking control in the locks. Forward motion into and through the locks is provided by the ship’s engines.
That evening we had a very interesting shared table. One couple was from British Columbia and he was a retired forensic psychologist at a mental hospital. His wife had worked there as well. He said he loved it when people asked how they met and he could say “at a mental hospital”. Believe it or not the other couple was from Dallas, Texas and he was a clinical psychologist. Made for a very interesting dinner conversation. As I said before, these shared tables can lead to interesting evenings.
Next up: Touring Panama City