Sunday, November 13, 2011

Friday, Nov 11, 2011 – Transiting the Panama Canal

[Note - sorry this took so long to post.  The ship has been having satellite troubles in certain locations where we have been sailing.  I've been trying to get this out since Friday evening.  Oh well, now it is up.]

Our ship met the pilot at 6am and headed toward the first of three Gatun locks.  We got up at 7am and unfortunately didn’t have time to exercise.  Oh well, that will probably cost us each 5 pounds.

We entered the first lock chamber around 7:30 am.  Unfortunately it was raining the entire time, so we got pretty wet.  The good news was that everyone who has done the transit before says that the rain is good because it keeps the temperature and bugs down.  The view of the first set of locks straight on is quite cool, with container ships in various lock stages.

As we approached, two guys in a rowboat rowed out to meet the ship and pass along lines that were used to grab the cables that hook onto the locomotives.  Remember that the locomotives don’t actually pull the ships through the locks, what they do is have some on each side, to keep tension on the ships so they don’t stray into the sides of the locks and get “Panama Stripes” on their nice white sides.  We had 6 electric locomotives, three on each side, guiding us through the locks.  The process is amazingly simple.  You enter the chamber, they close the locks behind you, and then they release the water from the lock above (it takes about 56 million gallons of water per ship to float each ship up and down all of the locks – and they do about 40 ships per day).  Also, the water fills a particular lock chamber in 8 minutes.  It really is an amazingly quick process. The ship floats up 27 ft and then the water equalizes between the current lock and the next one, the gate opens, and the process is repeated.  They stage things so the draining of the lock above coincides with the filling of the one below it.

This one shows the one way road that goes below the first gate - which also retracts with the gates.

The locomotive navigating up the hill.

Another nice view of the locomotives.

The gates are positioned upstream at an angle so the water from above which really wants to go down hill pushes tight against the gates.  The gates do not have any rubber seal, it is just steel on steel.  We did see some small leakage of water, but it was minimal compared with the millions of gallons rushing into the chamber.

A container ship is working its way through the locks behind us.  You can see the other lane to the left, where a ship is in that lane as well.

As you can see, with the chamber being 110 ft wide, our ship only has a few feet on each side of clearance.
 Approaching Gatun lake.

It took us until about 9am to make it out into Lake Gatun, the manmade lake sitting between the Atlantic and Pacific locks.  The lake is fresh water.  The Lake is not terribly wide open, there are lots of little islands scattered all along.  It is quite scenic.  In some places, it is very narrow, barely wide enough for two ships to pass each other in opposite directions.  Note – they stage things so most ships enter either the Atlantic or Pacific locks in the morning and then sail through the Lake and exit in the afternoon.  Although we did see lights all along the shorelines, so they clearly do the passage all hours of the day.

As we sail through the lake, Bob relaxes in the Crystal Cove bar.

The only times that the canal has been closed was when there was a landslide into the canal that blocked it (the hills are quite steep that they had to dig out and they haven’t yet found how much soil to remove to make them so they aren’t susceptible to landslides).  Only one time has it closed due to weather, which was last December.  There was so much rain (measured in feet rather than inches) for many, many days that Lake Gatun was filling up.  All of the spillways were open completely and it was still filling up.  So, they made the decision to shut the canal down and open the locks and let the water flow out that way.
Speaking of water flowing out.  In several places there were two lock gates in a row.  This was for safety.  They were worried when they designed the system that if a gate got stuck open it could drain out the whole lake (of course that would take an estimated three years). 

Notice the terracing.

 The Centennial Bridge connecting over the canal (actually over Lake Gatun).

After all of the fun with the first set of locks, the ship had a moment of silence at 11/11/11 11:11am for fallen veterans and the trumpet player blew taps.  It was very moving as both Julie and Bob thought of their veteran fathers who have since passed away.  We decided to go to lunch in the dining room at noon and try to be done by 1pm when we were passing the town where the dredgers are stationed.  Julie had fish and chips and Bob had a wrap.  We splurged and had the turtle sundae dessert, which was to die for…
The rained stopped while we were sailing through the lake, and the temperatures stayed quite pleasant.  On the Pacific side (we reached them at about 2pm), there are two separate sets of locks.  The first one has one lock and the second one has two.  They are separated by about a mile.  They were going to build three together on the Pacific side like they did on the Atlantic side, but discovered a geological fault where they were going to build the second lock and decided to move them further down stream.

The second set of locks were pretty much the same except spread out (all 6 lock chambers are the exact same size).  The first one is called Pedro Miguel:

We are still in the first lock, but you can see the two Mira Flores locks in the distance, about one mile away.
 Notice the two sets of gates.

We are in the first of the Mira Flores locks, in the Crystal Cove bar looking out the window.  All we see is the wall of the chamber, just a couple of feet away (this view is normally looking out at the sea - sea level is about on deck 3 or 4).
 Looking back at the last lock gate:

As we left the locks, we went under the American bridge that is part of the Pan American highway that goes from Alaska until Argentina except for a 130 mile stretch just south of us in Panama, which is a super dense jungle. 

Finally, this is the skyline of Panama City.  There were a number of interestingly shaped skyscrapers, including the Trump tower's sail-like shape on the right.

BTW, they are building a new lane that will accommodate even larger ships, which will certainly change the face of ship building for years to come.  By the way, they said that our passage through the canal cost a bit over $200,000, which does not include the cost for the tugs that were there for safety purposes.

There were almost no activities on the ship during the day, which was a good thing.  There was so much going on, that you didn’t want to miss anything by “having” to go and listen to a lecture.  After a day of enjoying the transit, we went to the dining room again, using the open seating option.  Bob had a nice pasta dish with short rib sauce and Julie had lemon sole.  Bob enjoyed the pasta, but Julie thought that the lemon sole was just ok.  After dinner, we enjoyed the guitarist Vincenzo Martinelli who blends classical, Latin, and Spanish guitar music together.

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