Transiting the Panama Canal (November 6, 2021)

This very day is the main reason we all came on the cruise. We were ready and excited for the six-to-eight-hour transit of the famous Panama Canal, considered one of the seven modern wonders of the world. The season is shifting from rainy to dry, so we had our fingers crossed for a beautiful day. And we got it!!!

Uncharacteristically enthused for daybreak, Dan and I popped out of bed around 5:30 to insure we did not miss a thing. We saw the lights of Panama City in the distance, the lights of two container ships waiting their turn, and a pilot boat just pulling away from our side of the ship. At that early hour it was 77 degrees with 90% humidity.

Sidebar: Murphy and I have bragging rights for going through part of the canal on a navy vessel
when our family lived in Panama in the early1990s, and Matt and Murphy can boast racing a
dugout canoe the length of the canal as part of an Explorer Scout activity.

Panama lies in the center of the Americas and looks a bit like an S lying on its side. The Panama Canal splits the country into a western, or North American part, and an eastern, or South American part. The Isthmus of Panama at the site of the canal is 50 miles wide and separates the Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic Ocean.

Additional sidebar: Cyd visited us when we lived here, so she has
some familiarity with Panama and the former Canal Zone.

When transiting from the Pacific to the Atlantic, like we did, the first two locks are at Miraflores. Once through these we traveled just under a mile in Lake Miraflores to a single lock at Pedro Miguel which finished lifting us up to Gatun Lake which is 85 feet above sea level. The narrowest portion of the canal, the Gaillard Cut (or Culebra Cut), begins where we exited the lock. This cut is an artificial channel, or excavated gorge, sliced through the continental divide. Hettie and I had read The Path Between the Seas which goes into great detail about how treacherous, daring, tedious, and dangerous creating this section of the canal was, so this eight miles possibly fascinated us more than the others in our group. It was easy to picture the engineers and work crews struggling to get the terracing and angle of repost calculations just right to stop the rainy season’s inevitable mud slides from destroying the previous days work and endangering the crews and equipment.

Once we were out of the second set of locks, around 10:00 AM, and through the cut we entered Gatun Lake, an artificial fresh water lake created by damming the water from the mighty Chagres River. Countless small mountain tops rise above the water and create islands smothered in green vegetation. Not a structure in sight, our transit was quiet, peaceful, and almost serene as we glided slowly through the lake. We did not spot any West Indian manatees, introduced to eat lake vegetation, poisonous frogs or alligators, but there were lots of birds. We passed Barro Colorado, a 100-year old Smithsonian Research center visited by more than 400 scientists each year. This rainforest-covered living laboratory is dedicated to the study of biology, ecology, evolution and animal behavior.

Almost last sidebar: I visited Barro Colorado twice; Matt was able to join me the second time.
Because no insect repellent was allowed, we wore long pants, long sleeves, and a hat.
We pulled our socks over our pants and duck taped them together in case little
creep crawlies got any big ideas. Yes, it was hot, but we saw a lot of cool things!

When it was time to be lowered back down to sea level through the triple flight of locks on the Atlantic side, we decided to get an up-close-and-personal view by going to the helipad at the very front of the ship. By then it was 90 degrees and sunny, so the cold towels and cool drinks were a welcome treat.

The canal consists of seventeen artificial lakes as well as several improved and artificial channels. Operating around-the-clock, the canal sees some 40 vessels pass through each day (14,000+ annually) including tankers, cargo ships, yachts, and cruise ships. Our transit alone used a total of 52 million gallons of fresh Chagres River water! With climate change and deforestation, it is easy to see why ideas for judicious use of the water supply are now being seriously looked at.

Last sidebar: Matt graduated from Balboa High School a couple weeks before we moved.

A quick bit of history (to skip over if you are so inclined): This narrow isthmus was no secret to ambitious Europeans having a field day colonizing, trading with, and overpowering Central and South American countries. The earliest recorded mention of how great it would be to have a canal through Panama was made by Charles V, King of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor in the 1530s; he wanted a shorter, safer route for his ships traveling between Peru (think gold and silver) and Spain. Two hundred and fifty years later Thomas Jefferson even went on record encouraging the Spanish to give it try. The California gold rush in the late 1840s stimulated US interest in building a canal between the oceans, but it was actually the French who made the first noble 10-year effort that began in January 1881. They abandoned the project for several reasons not the least of which was the expenditure of hundreds of millions of francs and at least 22,000 deaths, mostly from yellow fever and malaria. The United States bought the French out for $40 million and the US Army Corps of Engineers began its valiant 10-year effort to connect the two oceans. The United States built the canal for $500 million with the help of 56,000 workers, 10 percent of whom died in the process, mostly from accidents, since the US did not start building until they wiped out yellow fever and malaria. The cargo ship Ancon was the first vessel to transit the Canal on August 15, 1914.

Let’s talk money: Buying the French out was not the only hurdle to canal building, of course; the United States also needed an agreement with Panama. The US paid Panama $10 million for the Canal Zone and canal rights in perpetuity with an additional per annum of $250,000. With paperwork under control and engineering plans in hand, construction began in 1904. By 1955, the per annum had risen to $1,930,000.

Where do things stand now: In 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed treaties returning to Panama gradual control of the Canal Zone until it was completely theirs by the end of the century. The treaties also guaranteed Panama’s neutrality in operating the canal and called for US military bases to be phased out. Control of the Panama Canal passed into Panama’s hands at midnight on the last day of the 20th century, December 31, 1999 (4.5 years after we left). On June 26, 2016, a new and expanded third lane of the canal opened after a long construction period lasting from 2007 until 2016.

We were all a buzz at dinner tonight and agreed it had been a perfect day! To the person we felt like we could turn around and transit again just for the sereneness of it all.

For what it’s worth…..

Panama is roughly the size of South Carolina.

The currency is the Panamanian Balboa (PAB).
$1.00 = 1 PAB
The US dollar is legal tender in Panama too.

Panama hats are actually made in Ecuador.

The canal generates fully one-third of Panama’s entire economy.
Fun fact: The lowest toll ever, $0.36, was paid by Richard Halliburton who swim it in 1928.

Senator John McCain was born in the Canal Zone that was, at the time, considered U.S. Territory.

Panama is the only place in the world where you can sit in the same spot and watch the sun rise
on the Pacific Ocean and set on the Atlantic Ocean.

Panama and efforts to build a canal there had held the world’s fascination for decades, so the successful
opening of the canal—at long last—should have been The Event of the decade,
but it was completely overshadowed by the beginning of World War I.


4 thoughts on “Transiting the Panama Canal (November 6, 2021)

  1. Yes!! We got a shout out!!

    Matt Mongeon, PMP, Technical Project Manager II
    Engineering Management Office
    PMP,ITIL Foundation, RCV, OSA, SOA, PPO
    5159 Federal Blvd., San Diego, CA 92105
    • 619.266.5675 (ex. 55675) |( 619.822.4661 | •


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