From the moment we booked our South America cruise, one of the things I was most excited about was sailing through the Panama Canal. My introduction to the canal, however, wasn’t aboard our ship. Instead it took place at visitor centre of the Miraflores Locks, on the outskirts of Panama City, with Nghiem of Panama Your Way.
The museum at the visitor centre is fascinating, although seeing a ship passing through the locks is what people really come to see. And we were no exception.
Nghiem timed our arrival to perfection. We had just enough time to wander around the museum before heading up to the top observation platform to grab a good place from which to watch the first southbound ships of the day pass through the locks beneath us.
Unsurprisingly, the locks themselves are massive. Yet when the gates close, enveloping each ship in a protective basin for its voyage upwards or (as it was in this case) downwards, there’s very little room to spare on either side.
Next morning we were up early for an even closer view of the Miraflores Locks, from the deck of our cruise ship, the Holland America Zaandam. But first we had to pass under the Bridge of the Americas, which until 2004 was the only fixed bridge across the canal.
There are currently six pairs of locks on the Panama Canal, three pairs to lift ships up to the level of Gatun Lake, 85 feet above sea level, and three to lower them back down again. Heading northwards from the Pacific Ocean like we did, the first two steps are combined into the Miraflores Locks.
Entering the first lock was very exciting. It hardly seemed believable that our ship would even fit. Indeed, it took six powerful locomotives, known as mules, to keep her steady as she slipped into the lock, like a letter into an envelope.
A mile and a half after, the Pedro Miguel Locks completed our the journey up to the level of Gatun Lake.
Between the Pedro Miguel Locks and Gatun Lake is a nine mile stretch called the Culebra Cut. This excavation through the hills of the Continental Divide proved the biggest challenge during the construction of the canal.
After that it was plain sailing (or at least it seemed to us passengers) across Gatun Lake, to the opposite side of the Continent!
Thirty one miles after leaving Pedro Miguel locks we approached Gatun Locks for our three-step return trip to sea level.
This end of the canal, beside the city of Colon, is generally referred to as being in the Atlantic Ocean, although I can’t help feeling it’s more correctly in the Caribbean Sea.
Whatever the case, it was quite the adventure squeezing through the various locks of the Panama Canal. And by 2016, even bigger ships will be able to take this shortcut between oceans, when the new, larger-capacity locks are opened. I hope I get to sail through them one day!
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