Day 006 10th Feb 2010 Enter Panama Canal

Woke to the early morning call at 5am, up and ready to go by 5.30. This is the day I have been waiting for. Number three on the bucket list .      I hardly slept a wink last night. The anticipation was getting to me. After all this is a man-made wonder. Opening in 1915 and today using the same locks, the same gates and hinges as were installed nearly a hundred years ago.
It is pitch dark outside but I am there, right at the very front of the ship on deck 14. Cant get any higher and in the perfect position to capture the first view of the Panama Canal.
The ship sailing very slowly like a cat waiting to pounce on its prey,aims for the dark gap between the row of green and red navigation lights that mark the Canal. At 6am the pilot boat arrived alongside, pilot comes aboard and we gather a little more steam or diesel. To our left, port side the sun is trying to wipe its eyes as it is time to wake and rise above the mist on the land. We are nearly there and the light has reached the bow of the ship and almost immediately more guests arrive, cameras at the ready to photograph what is still a black strip between the two rows of coloured lights. Some twenty ships, cargo, passenger and sail are waiting patiently. A fairyland of lights twinkling in the pre dawn. Long before it opened for business in 1915, the Canal was being hailed as a wonder of the world and it still stands as one of the awe inspiring of all human endeavours.
Built across the isthmus of Panama at one of its lowest and narrowest points the canal is 80 kilometres long, extending from the city of Colon on the Caribbean Sea to Panama city on the Pacific Ocean. A Panama Canal transit is an all-day event.
Fascinated by the marvel I stand transfixed. We get nearer, a large cargo ship ahead of us and to the right another cruiser, slightly smaller than the Maasdam rise up before my eyes. The cruiser in the right hand lock rises at a different speed. The Gatun Locks raise huge ships up some 25.9 metres from Caribbean waters to the level of Lago Gatun. The Gatun Locks the largest of the three sets; their size is mind boggling. When built, a single lock would have been the tallest structure on earth and each chamber could have accommodated the Titanic with room to spare.The amount of concrete poured to construct the Gatun Locks was record setting; 1,820,000 cubic meters. The locks are among the most massive structures ever built.
From Lago Gatun ships travel 37km to Pedro Miguel Locks which lower southbound ships 9.3m to Lago Miraflores, a small body of water that separates the two sets of Pacific locks. The ships are lowered to sea level at the Miraflores Locks. Ships pay according to their weight. Large passenger cruisers are assessed in excess of US$150.000 per transit. Each year more than 120,000 ocean going vessels transit the Panama. Control of the Canal rests with the Panamanian government.
We are now in the first chamber of Gatun Lock. A small row boat carries a man from the centre platform towards Maasdam, he attaches a rope which is then attached to a type of locomotive, called a mule, that runs on tracks alongside the canal and tows the ships through the locks.
Higher and higher we go. We move quickly. Into Gatun Dam: constructed in 1908 to shore up the Rio Chagres and to create Lago Gatun was the world’s largest earthen dam until 1940. Power generated by the dam drives all the electrical equipment involved in the operation of the Panama Canal including the locomotives that tow ships through the locks.
Pedro Miguel Locks raise and lower ships in one 9.5 metre step linking Gaillard Cut and Miraflores Lake. Gaillard Cut also called the Culebra Cut was cut through the Continental Divide. It is a dramatic sight. We are escorted by tug through this area. One ship at a time, no passing.
Miraflores Locks completed in 1913 stand at the Pacific entrance to the Panama canal. They link the ocean with the man made Miraflores Lake, raising and lowering ships 16.5 metres in two impressive steps.
On the Pacific side,the Amador Causeway, a beautiful breakwater extends more than three kilometres into the Pacific Ocean, calming the waters at the entrance from silting up. It was built from spoil dug from the canal and connects three islands: Naos,Perico and Flamenco.
The causeway has gorgeous views. On one side the majestic Bridge of the Americas spans the Pacific entrance to the Canal, so there’s always a parade of ships gliding underneath it or waiting their turn in the anchorage. The half moon of Panama Bay is ringed by the ever-expanding Panama City skyline much higher than I expected.
The transit of the Panama Canal is unforgettable! And to think we do it again in another two weeks.