After a day at sea with gale force winds and 17 foot swells, we arrived in the early morning of 6:00 A.M. for our Panama Canal reservation. Holland America paid a $35,000 reservation fee to secure a daytime passage as well as a fee of $331,735 to transit the Canal, for a grand total of $366,735. We felt fortunate to make this passage since Panama has cut back on the number of daily passages due to a severe drought. Our sailing on the Amazon River had been impacted by shallow water due to a drought as well. This was the second time we have transited the Panama Canal. The first time was in April, 2022.
From the Atlantic to the Pacific, The Panama Canal stretches 50 miles. Initially began in 1882 by French builders of the Suez Canal, they gave up in Panama. The U.S. acquired the construction of 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 shorten, 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. It is truly one of the world’s greatest engineering achievements.
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. As in 2022, we transited using the old locks. We were told much larger vessels use the new locks.
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. As like last time, we saw a large crocodile in the water. Different location, different crocodile!
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. Even early in the morning it was very hot outside. We spent much of the day watching from our balcony where we could easily go inside to cool off. We could hear the commentary on our cabin TV. It takes all day to complete the transit, from 6:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M.
On the bow of the ship at 7:00 A.M. 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.
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.
Next up: A sea day and then the port of Puerto Quepos, Costa Rica. I wonder how kind the Pacific Ocean will be?