Panama canal - Threading the needle!!

Trip Start Sep 23, 2012
Trip End Oct 15, 2012

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Flag of Panama  , Panamá,
Monday, October 8, 2012

Having thought we'd originally have to get up at 5 am, we were told that the on board lecturer wouldn’t be starting his commentary until 6am and we wouldn’t be entering the first set of locks at Miraflores until 07:35. I had set my alarm for 06:30. We were already in the channel heading toward the Bridge that connects the Pan American highway to the continental divide. We are 17th in line to transit the canal today. It was going to be another very hot and humid day.

The Panama Canal is a result of human ingenuity that goes back to the 16th century with the arrival of the Spanish. As they had only come equipped with a few shovels and a garden hoe after digging 5 feet they gave it up as bad job. On the plus side, the borders were looking very pretty!! From that fateful day, the die was cast and the idea of building a route that would connect the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans was conceived.

The French made the first firm effort to build an all water route in 1880 but it wasn’t long before financial troubles and disease ensured complete and dismal failure of this project.

After its independence in 1903, Panama negotiated an agreement with the US for the construction of the canal and in 1914 the first ship, the SS Ancon passed through. The US managed the waterway until 1999 when Panama took over full operation and maintenance of the Canal.

The canal is about 51 miles (80km) long and would likely take us about 8 hours to navigate.

The first set of locks is only just inside the mouth of the canal. Miroflores locks is in 3 stages. We had lined up by about 7:20 waiting for the first set of lock gates to open and we could move in to the first chamber.

This is, without doubt a magnificent feat of modern engineering. My only previous encounter with a canal and lock was on Llangollen canal in Wales about 30 years ago.  Then the lock gates were all cranked open manually. I somehow can’t imagine the lock keeper making an appearance with a crank handle in one hand with a Woodbine hanging out of his mouth!!

The width of the lock is 110 metres. The width of the Island Princess is 106 metres. This doesn’t give much leeway. We have two pilots on board; one for the port side and one for the starboard. I just hope they are good at needlework and have no problems threading a needle!!

As an added safety measure, there is what’s referred to as toy locomotives. These electric engines run along side the canal and a cable is secured (both sides) to ensure the ship doesn’t smash in to the side of the lock. The cost of each wire that is attached is $300 dollars. This is small change compared to the cost to transit. Yesterday, Ricardo, our guide explained that Princess would pay in the region of 340,000 per transit. The cost is based on weight, size, type of cargo etc…

The least paid to traverse the Panama Canal was in 1912 when a young man swam the entire length at about 5 miles per day. The Panama Canal Company charged him 36 cents!! As I said, size, weight etc…

When a chamber is emptied or flooded, 26 million gallons of water is displaced.(52 million galleons for the whole operation.

 We were closely followed by the Norwegian Jewel who entered the eastern locks as we were entering the 2nd chamber of the western locks. The Norwegian Pearl was also on its approach. The Island Princess passed through Miraflores locks unscathed. There was a lot of fishing activity going on as the water was being displaced from the chamber. Not by any human but by a flock of Pelicans and Frigate birds. As the water gushes back in to the Pacific the upsurge pushes fish up to the surface. Easy picking for our feathered friends!

We passed through the Pedro Miguel locks within 20 minutes of leaving Miraflores. We were now of the level that would take us through to the Gatun lake before we navigated our final set of locks that would take us down to the Atlantic Ocean

We sailed past the prison where Noriega is being held. I’m sure I heard someone shouting from inside the prison walls; 'How’s my house doing, amigo??’

From there it was pretty samey terrain. The rain forest lined either side of the canal banks. There is only so much of the canal that can be taken in. It was time to have a nap. It was only 10:30. If felt like it was late afternoon.

William Fall, our port lecturer was still churning out facts and observations. At one point he mentioned about spotting a salt-water crocodile near one of the banks off the starboard bow. He said it looks like a log with a split down the centre. I don’t know if Mr. Fall was commentating from the bridge because in the background, while he still had his microphone on you heard a faint whisper: ‘That’s because it is a log with a spit down the centre’. As the old saying goes ‘Should have gone to Specsavers!!’

In the middle of the Panama Canal the canal widens and shipping traffic is able to move in both directions. This soon widens in to the Gatun Lake where most of the Atlantic traffic will pass the Pacific bound traffic.

Leaving Gatun Lake through a narrow channel only a few hundred metres and we were being led in to Gatun locks. This, like Miraflores, is a 3-chamber system. This however, would lower us to the Atlantic Ocean level.

Our balcony was directly over a series of pipes and inspection plates. Looking over the side I could hear the huge rumble and power of 26 million gallons of water gushing out of the first chamber. The balcony below ours sticks out (it’s one of the posh staterooms!) so I couldn’t see down to the lock wall. However, one of the rails that runs alongside the lock wall and guides the toy locomotives appeared. Several minutes later the other rail came in to view. I suddenly got that ‘sinking feeling’. Thank God it wasn’t the kind of sinking feeling that ends in 7 short blasts and 1 long blast on the ship’s horn!!

Through the Gatun lock system it was only 7 miles and past the port of Christobal before we entered the Atlantic Ocean.

We started our approach in the channel to the Panama Canal at 6am and entered in to the Atlantic at around 3:30pm. It has taken us 9 hours to travel 51 miles. If anyone read this paragraph in isolation they would think I was writing about the M25!!

The Panama Canal experience has been a bit like looking forward to Christmas. So long in the build up and although Christmas day is as long as any other day of the year, the whole festivities seem to be over in a flash!!

So now the excitement of the Panama Canal is over back to life on board. The show last night was an entertainer who goes by the name of Duncan Tuck. He is advertised as ‘County to Classical via comedy’. His appearance reminded me of a cross between Eddie Izzard and Ricky Gervais. However, he wasn’t half as funny as Ricky and only slightly funnier than Eddie!!! He was actually a very accomplished guitarist with fantastic renditions of California Dreamin’ and Duelling Banjos although his ad-lib solos were about 3 minutes too long!!  The comedy aspect of his act came in to play when he just started telling jokes in between his musical numbers. Not sure if they actually qualified as jokes because I was under the impression that a joke usually has a punch line!! He reminded me of Robin Williams, trying to do silly voices. The occasional effort to get a cheap laugh was marred by the fact his material was not original. For example: ‘When I was younger and I told everyone I wanted to be a professional comedian, they all laughed…well they’re not laughing now!!  I seem to recall this was Bob Monkhouse’s joke and he delivered it in about 1978. Some of the audience found him funny. Must have had his mum and dad along for support!! Beck’s from the entertainment team was sitting in front of us and kept looking around at us giving the shrug of the shoulders and a bemused and apologetic look as if to say: ‘I didn’t book him’ Duncan, if you read this, great guitar work but you’re not funny. Don’t, for heaven sake, enter America’s got talent. Simon Cowell would rip you to pieces!!!

On the other hand, Simon Heath, the deputy Cruise Director is turning out to be a star in the making. Not only did he turn a trivia session in to a routine. He had us all in stitches. Duncan Tuck please note!!! A few nights ago he did a spot in the Universe Theatre. He doesn’t normally entertain as such. He sang songs from musicals such as Oklahoma, Phantom of the Opera and South Pacific. He had a fantastic voice that would not be out of place in the West End or Broadway. In between he just talked to the audience. No jokes just witty observations and banter. He made it known that his family don’t travel with him that often but as his grandma and aunty have made the special trip he decided to perform this one-off show. He even made it known that he didn’t have a CD or DVD to peddle (unlike bloody Duncan Tuck!!) but as his grandma was here there will be some lovely jams and chutneys available at the back of the theatre!

So now it’s plain sailing until 8am tomorrow when we arrive in Cartegena, Columbia. Plain sailing apart from the rainstorm that is now moving in!!
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