Day 75 – Panama Canal Transit – August 4th, 2015

Panama Canal – 05:00 to 16:30

Yet another eagerly awaited day, as the Panama Canal transit is most definitely another of the highlights of this 2015 World Cruise. Since this is transit 20+ for me, you would think it would be passé, but no, I was probably first one up and definitely the first on deck at Deck # 11 Fwd. Still dark and still approaching the breakwater, but there I was, claiming my piece of the railing, camera at the ready to capture another few hundred digital memories, to add to the already vast collection. Due to the number of photographs I will do a few blog posts to cover the transit.

Temperature: High 29C/84F, Low 27C/81F

Wind/Weather: Everything except snow

Sunrise/Sunset: 06:10/18:40

Clox: Z-5 (no change)

 

Navigation

Throughout the early morning Sea Princess maintained a W’ly heading towards the Cristobal Pilot Station, at the entrance to the Panama Canal. While the pilot was due about 05:30, canal delays resulted in a delayed boarding time of about 06:45, with Sea Princess entering the breakwater shortly thereafter.

Approaching Cristobal wide angle

Approaching Cristobal breakwater

On clearing the buoyed channel on the Pacific Ocean side, a S’ly course was set at a speed of about 18knots, towards our next port of call in Manta, Ecuador.

Panama Canal

Best described as a 41 mile engineering marvel, that connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans across the narrow isthmus of Panama. When seeing the canal in operation it is hard to believe that it was designed and built over 100 years ago, long before the advent of computers and modern materials. In addition, it was constructed on schedule and under budget, unlike the current expansion which is well over budget and should have been completed last year.

The initial plans for a canal were initiated by the Spanish Government in the early 1800’s, with 3 potential sites being considered – Panama, Nicaragua and Mexico (Tehuantepec). On completing the Suez Canal in 1869 the French figured they could easily construct a sea level canal across Panama. Ferdinand de Lesseps, who led the Suez project, took charge of the Panama project, but he was no engineer and Panama represented many more challenges than simply digging a ditch through a flat sandy desert. Three of the obstacles that proved insurmountable were dealing with the Chagres River, cutting through the continental divide, which although much lower than further north, was still about 360 feet in height and diseases.

Work commenced in early January 1881 and at the peak consisted of a work-force of 40,000. However, by 1885 it became apparent to many, except the project leader, that a sea level canal was impractical, so they continued until bankruptcy ceased operations in 1889. During the 8 years of construction they completed about 40% of the canal, at a cost of 22,000 lives and $235 million.

In 1899 the United States formed the Isthmus Canal Company and surveys recommended going through Nicaragua, unless the French sold the remaining assets in Panama for pennies on the dollar, with the U.S. purchasing the assets in 1904. In the same year, the U.S. purchased the rights to the Panama Canal Zone from Panama for about $10 million. The assets purchased were dilapidated and the workforce minimal, so the project was in no position to commence. John Frank Stevens was appointed Chief Engineer in 1905 and quickly determined substantial infrastructure projects must be completed prior to any meaningful construction commencing. He improved the railways, improved sanitation and constructed living quarters for the large workforce he recruited. Although the Army Corp of Engineers recommended a sea level canal, he convinced the President a lock system was best and ultimately the Senate and House of Representatives approved a lock based canal.

Stevens resigned in 1907, with Major George Geothais appointed to lead the project. He improved the living conditions by providing infrastructure for workforce entertainment and recreation. The construction commenced in earnest once plans were finalised and 3 divisions were created:

  • Atlantic – construct the Cristobal breakwater, 3.5 mile approach channel, the 85’ high 3-stage Gatun Locks and the massive Gatun Dam.
  • Pacific  – the Pacific entrance including the 3 mile breakwater, entrance channel to the locks and the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks, lake and associated dams.
  • Central – everything in between including the Culebra Cut, which is an 8 mile long channel cut to 40’ above sea level through the 360’ high Continental Divide. 

Culebra Cut tiered rock face of the Continental Divide to port

Continental Divide in Culebra Cut

 

Activities

My day started shortly before 05:00 when I arrived at the forward observation area on Deck 11, with a couple of others arriving a few minutes later. Still sailing towards the pilot station in the dark, there really was nothing to see, but as usual my internal clock had me wide awake in anticipation of the big day. Initially expecting the pilot about 05:30, we saw nothing and we were still a good distance from the breakwater. Shortly after 06:00 we received the first announcement advising the transit was delayed, although not as much as Suez, and the updated pilot boarding time was 06:45 with arrival Gatun Locks at 07:30.

Therefore, I just hung around my perch by the railing chatting to the chap next to me and watching the plethora of various ships at anchor, waiting for their opportunity to transit the canal. I spent about 4 hours up fwd, heading back to the cabin when we reached the top of Gatun Locks. Picked up Judi and we headed up to Horizon Court for a quick breaky. After breakfast, I returned to Deck 11 fwd finding an empty deck to watch the transit through the lake. However, it was really hot, with no shade, so after about an hour I returned to the cabin to sit on the balcony, enjoying the scenery slowly sliding past. At Balboa, I returned to Deck 11 fwd and watched the transit through the Cut and locks.

Between Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks I returned to the cabin to watch the remainder from the balcony. Descending the stairs I passed a group that when asked if they were heading out to enjoy the scenery responded negative, don’t want to miss happy hour. Wow, how sad, getting 1/2 price drinks (which are still expensive) was more important than watching and enjoying this magnificent engineering marvel. Me, I sat on the balcony and enjoyed my last can of McEwans Export, while passing through Miraflores Locks and the exit channel passed Panama City.

Dinner tonight was at best average, at least the food was, but the company and conversation was excellent, with our table yet again being the last to vacate the dining room. We, like all the others felt like an early night, so we all skipped the entertainment in favour of early to bed. Cruising and enjoying the scenery can be just so tiring!

 

As another day closes, we bid you farewell, till tomorrow and hope for fair skies and following seas.

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