Panama Canal

Trip Start Dec 06, 2012
Trip End Dec 22, 2012

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Flag of Panama  , Colón,
Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Yesterday I traveled from the Atlantic to the Pacific on a train. Today I took one of the world's greatest maritime journeys – crossing from one ocean to another through the Panama Canal. Put a check mark next to another one of my world travel goals!

Transiting the canal proved to be every bit the amazing experience I had anticipated. But it was also intense and exhausting, lasting 10 hours 21 minutes from entry to exit. There was so much to see along the 50-mile-long canal and I was often dashing around the ship trying to soak it all in from various vantage points. I took 505 photos and videos today, perhaps setting a record for the most images I’ve ever captured in one day!

Got up at 6:17 a.m. aboard Celebrity Infinity near Colon, Panama. We had docked in the Port of Colon yesterday and I rode the Panama Canal Railway to Panama City and back. After leaving Colon about 7:00 yesterday evening, we did a little "cruise to nowhere," heading north out to sea for the night, then making a U-turn sometime early this morning to head back to Colon to enter the canal. Not sure why we didn’t just stay in port for the night!

Quickly got dressed and headed outside. The sun was rising on the ship’s port (left) side as we slowly sailed south at 5 mph toward the canal entrance in a bay outside Colon. We’re used to thinking of the Atlantic on the right and the Pacific on the left, but the Panama Canal has more of a north/south orientation – in fact you actually end up farther east when you reach the Pacific than where you started in the Atlantic thanks to the quirk of Panama’s inverted “S” shape.

We entered the canal at 6:56 – there’s a distinctive point where you can tell the natural bay ended at the manmade channel started being carved. It’s a short approach channel to reach the first of three sets of locks that raise and lower ships 85 feet – the elevation difference between the oceans and the interior waterway. We came up to the Gatun Locks at 7:32 and it would take just shy of two hours to traverse the lock complex.

There are three sets of gates at Gatun Locks to lift the ship in two increments. Infinity entered the first lock chamber and was raised up. The second set of gates opened and we proceeded into the second lock for another lift, then the third set of gates opened at 9:22 and we entered Gatun Lake at 9:30. I watched the first lock from Deck 12 forward, which was crowded with people. Then the helipad down below in the very front of the ship was opened up, so I watched the second lock from that much better vantage point, taking a break between to eat my first breakfast.

It’s a slow process to get through the locks. Eight “mules” are attached to the ship with ropes. These trams travel along tracks alongside the locks to help pull the vessel and keep it properly aligned. The locks are quite narrow – there appeared to be only about a yard of space between each side of Infinity and the concrete walls. Once the ship is properly positioned inside the chamber, the rear doors close. Water then pours into the lock to elevate the ship a little more than 40 feet. The front doors open, the ship creeps forward into the next chamber, and the whole process is repeated.

As we sailed into Gatun Lake – an artificial lake created to cover more than half the distance from Atlantic to Pacific – there were at least a dozen ships waiting to cross Gatun Locks in the opposite direction. I imagine Pacific-bound vessels are allowed through for a certain period of time, then the direction changes to accommodate Atlantic-bound ships.

The helipad closed after we made our way into Gatun Lake. Crew said it would reopen on our approach to the next lock in a few hours. I headed back to the buffet at 9:59 for my second breakfast. My GPS indicated we were sailing at a top speed of 10 mph through the lake.

Walked around outside some more, then went to the Constellation Lounge at the front of Deck 11 a bit after 11 a.m., where a Panama Canal Authority representative was answering questions from passengers. A few facts: Since its opening in 1914, more than 1 million ships have transited the canal. The millionth vessel passed through in September 2010. An expansion project began in 2007 to add a third lane of locks that will allow longer and wider ships to use the Panama Canal. It is scheduled to be completed in 2014 for the canal’s centennial. The United States operated the canal until 1999, when it was turned over to Panama. More than 14,000 vessels use the canal each year – an average of about 38 per day.

We reached the canal’s halfway point at 12:17 p.m. I’m outside again as we pass the village of Gamboa. A Panama Canal Railway freight train passed over Gamboa Bridge – great timing! Yesterday I was aboard the railway looking out at the ships transiting the canal; today I’m getting the opposite perspective. It is hot as hell out here and partly cloudy.

Sensing a good time to take a break, I went to Trellis dining room for lunch at 12:49 p.m. and got a table near the port side windows so I could still watch as we continued into the Culebra Cut, the narrow manmade channel that connects Gatun Lake with the Pedro Miguel Lock. Culebra Cut is 12.7 km (7.9 miles) long. Ships passing us in the other direction were so close! That was a unique view – you never get to see big oceangoing vessels crossing paths almost within spitting distance of each other. We also passed by a steep rock cliff that appeared to be about seven stories tall.

I had a tasty lunch of chicken and crayfish gumbo, then Nagasaki Sara Udon Noodles with shrimp and pork. I dashed outside about 1:20 between courses to take pictures as we crossed under the Centennial Bridge – one of only two spans to cross the Panama Canal. I skipped dessert so I could get back outside.

We approached the Pedro Miguel Lock at 1:53. I went back to the helipad to watch us enter the lock chamber. Then I went up to Deck 12 rear to get a fabulous view looking back at the lock as we passed through the gates after being lowered once. We cleared Pedro Miguel at 2:47. There are two ships in the complex behind us, one in each lock. There are two lanes at each lock complex. We passed through the left (east) lane at Pedro Miguel; the west side was empty when we came through but now both are occupied.

As we cruised on the short Miraflores Lake, I stopped by my cabin to pick up a charged camera battery, then went up to Deck 11 outside. Wow, we’re already entering the Miraflores Locks, the last set to lower us in two steps back to sea level. That was a really short distance between the two lock complexes. There’s a five-story visitors center at Miraflores, where several hundred spectators were outside on the balconies watching Infinity enter the first lock chamber. I came to Miraflores Locks during my Central America journey back in January 2001 to watch ships pass through this section of the canal. I didn’t know then that I’d be returning almost a dozen years later to transit the locks aboard a cruiseship!

We are on the right (west) side of this lock complex. I heard the Panama Canal Authority woman on the intercom saying we are being lowered 27 feet in the first of two locks at Miraflores. Then we repeated the process at the second lock, exiting the complex at 4:26. I’m back at Deck 12 rear after going down to Deck 4 earlier to see the lowering from a close-up perspective – you could almost reach out and touch the top of the concrete wall from that low level!

Infinity passed the Port of Balboa at 4:45. The Panama City skyline is now visible in the background off the port side as we sail through the last few miles of the canal. I moved to the front of the ship as we passed under the Bridge of the Americas at 4:52 p.m. – the first bridge constructed over the canal. It carries the Inter-American Highway into Panama City. Passing the bridge is the sign you’ve reached the home stretch. From there, it was 25 minutes to sail by Flamenco Island at the end of the artificially constructed breakwater – the Pacific end of the canal. We crossed Flamenco island at 5:17, completing our canal transit after 10 hours 21 minutes.

Infinity was still sailing at 10 mph as we reached the Pacific Ocean. I stayed at the front of Deck 12 to watch us pick up speed back into the open ocean. Another amazing experience completed!

As the Panama City skyline faded into the distance behind us at 6:00, I headed down to the Oceanview Café for some ice cream. I’m exhausted – been on my feet most of the day. Time for a treat!

Down to my cabin at 6:20 and laid down to rest. What a day. Awesome experience. But very long. I’m drained.

Napped until 8:11. Then showered and went to dinner at the Oceanview Café. Not that hungry, so just ate a salad. Returned to my stateroom at 9:40 to get ready for bed. Sorted through today’s photos, read the cruise newsletter, and watched TiVo on Zune before bed at 12:20 a.m.

I’m looking forward to a day at sea tomorrow to relax after three consecutive days of intensive sightseeing. We are now en route to Manta, Ecuador.

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