Cruising the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal

The day after boarding the beautiful Windstar Star Breeze in Colon, we were cruising the Panama Canal. Completed in 1914, this marvel of engineering continues to amaze over a hundred years later. The Panama Canal is about fifty miles long, and transiting the canal is an all day affair. 

It’s a highway, and there is plenty of traffic. Both passenger and cargo ships use the canal shortcut, and they each pay a hefty fee for the privilege. Our small cruise ship, with only 204 passengers and about 150 crew members, paid approximately $44,000 to transit the canal.

These guys rowed out the ropes to attach the ship to the mules. It was very retro.

During our voyage, and for every voyage. a specially trained pilot takes navigational control for the duration of the transit. The pilot guides the ship through a series of three locks that raise the ship eighty-five feet above sea level. The first set, Gatun Locks, were probably the most interesting, as there are three different chambers that the ship must pass through. It gave us a good overview of the rest of the day.

Perhaps the thing that struck me most was just how quickly twenty-six million (no, not a typo) gallons of water can fill a chamber to raise or lower the ship. In a matter of minutes, the chamber fills and the ship is twenty-something feet higher than where we started. It was rather impressive. Of course, it also begs the question: if a chamber can fill and raise or lower a ship in a few minutes, how can it possibly take all day to traverse the canal?

Entering the chamber.

As I mentioned, there is quite a bit of traffic. Oh, and the filling/emptying thing is only the beginning of the production. Ships are hooked up to “mules” (which look like mini-trains) that pull the ship into the chamber. Then, the chamber can be filled with water to raise the ship about twenty-seven feet. At that point, the ship can enter the next chamber (the Gatun Locks have three chambers, whereas Miraflores only has two), and the whole process can begin again.

The chamber. Notice the water line on the side.

After passing through the Gatun Locks, the ship hung out in Gatun Lake for several hours as passengers enjoyed the picture perfect weather. Later in the day, we traversed more of the canal and went through both the Pedro Miguel Locks (only one chamber) and the Miraflores Locks (two chambers, and a giant visitor center where tourists can check out the canal without being on a ship).

The mules.

Several people asked the same question: Isn’t is boring? Honestly? No. It is an amazing thing that was built over a hundred years ago and is still, essentially, the same. The canal was expanded in 2015, but other than that not much has changed. Plus, being that this is an all-day affair, there is plenty of down time for reading or napping. It is a very interesting, although not exactly an action-packed day.