Having been through the Panama Canal more than 20 times, you would think I would be bored, but no. I’m usually the first one out on deck and at the other end the last one to leave. This is an engineering marvel and is a spectacular sight, when provided the opportunity to see the Canal in action. This post will cover the arrival and transit up the 3-stage Gatun Locks, which raises the ship 85’ from sea level to the man-made Gatun Lake.
The previous day we were advised the pilot was due aboard between 05:15 and 05:30 and knowing they board just outside the breakwater, I planned to be on deck by 05:00. Still pitch black, I arrived on the forward observation section of Deck #11 shortly before 05:00, but we were still a considerable distance from the breakwater. We navigated through the hoards of ships at anchor towards the breakwater and lined up for our approach into the Canal entrance. Then we stopped, holding the position in the photograph below.
Our holding position off the breakwater awaiting arrival of the pilot.
Shortly after 06:00 we received the first announcement, the Canal Authorities delayed the transit, with pilot now due at 06:45 and arrival at Gatun Locks about 07:30. With almost an hour to kill, I just chatted to the chap next to me about cameras and a variety of other subjects. The time passed quickly and then we were off, not exactly racing, but at a sedate pace towards the Canal approaches.
Approaching the breakwater, taken about an hour after the previous photograph, with much better light. Entering the breakwater we passed Cristobal on the port side then continued down the channel towards the Gatun Locks. A point of interest, as on my very first transit, aboard my first ship, I was standing on a small platform hanging over the ship’s side operating the hand lead line getting the depth of water. Needless to say, the only equipment I operated today was the camera.
Gatun Locks are located at the end of the channel to the right. Ahead is the original canal started by the French, which has been expanded and is the entrance to the new set of locks being constructed to permit larger vessels to transit the canal.
New basin and locks being constructed up the hill in the background.
We took the right hand fork in the channel, which leads to the base of the 3-stage Gatun Locks.
Approaching Gatun Locks, which is a 3-stage system of locks, with 2 separate channels. We were assigned to the port side channel, as indicated by the arrow at the beginning of the concrete jetty.
One of the greatest jokes played on Canal newbies is advising them to bring a bag of carrots for the mules. While animals have never been used to assist ships through the locks, the term has always stuck to describe the diesel powered locomotives. On approaching the locks, wires are passed from the shore to the ship, with the locomotives assisting the pilot to keep the ships off the lock walls. During our transit we used 6 locomotives in each lock – 2 on each bow and 1 on each side back aft.
Line handlers bringing the locomotive wires out to the ship. Yes, that is a row boat. Surely with today’s technology and fee structure the Canal Authority could afford a power launch. Actually, they did provide power, but the line handlers requested a return to the tried and tested row boat. These chaps are amazing with their oar skills and accuracy at throwing the lines.
As we approach the Gatun Locks, the gate just closed astern of the ship ahead in the 2nd stage and the road bridge is open. This bridge is one of only 3 crossings for vehicles, the others being the Centenary Bridge and Bridge of the Americas.
With the gate closed behind the ship ahead of us, they must now drain the first stage lock down to sea level. This is accomplished by only gravity, with the water draining through a complex set of huge pipes. The above photograph caught the first of the water draining out the lock. No pumping of water is used throughout the Panama Canal, only gravity.
First stage lock draining with Sea Princess in position awaiting the gate and bridge to open.
The lock has drained, but we had to wait for the backlog of traffic to pass over the one-way bridge. Here is one of the numerous colourful buses found on the local roads crossing the bridge. Must have been an awesome sight from the bus with the huge ship’s bow just waiting to enter the lock.
Wide angle shot of Sea Princess entering the first lock.
Holding position in the first lock while the stern gates are secured then the water drained from the 2nd lock to commence lifting us the 85’ up to Gatun Lake.
We have completed the first stage and the gates to lock # 2 are opening. Notice the ship in the adjacent locks has already been raised and is heading to lock # 3.
The gates are open and we are moving ahead into lock # 2
Holding position in lock # 2 while the stern gates are closed and secured. The ship ahead is departing into Gatun Lake, so we must wait for it to clear and the forward gates to close before we can start to rise.
Ship ahead is clear and the forward gates are closing.
Entering the 3d and final lock of Gatun Locks, which raised Sea Princess 85’ from sea level to Gatun Lake.