A World United
Breakfast in the Pacific, dinner in the Caribbean. In our jet set world anyone can do it. Time was, however, when the journey we made in a day took many months, until about 25,000 people died hacking and digging their way through the isthmus of Panama to make the Panama Canal the waterway that united the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, making both commerce and tourism ever so much more feasible and miles less dangerous.
We awoke just after dawn to this view of Panama City. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this New York-esque skyline sure wasn’t it.
Just offshore was a marine parking lot full of ships waiting their turn to go through the canal. Evidently cruise ships pay huge sums for a priority passage and for the privilege of going through in the daylight. The passage takes most of the day, and we were glued to the decks. It’s an amazing experience. About 15,000 ships a year make this crossing, but we felt really special to be doing it ourselves.
This is what we looked like pulling up to the entrance of the canal. Actually, this is our sister ship Millenium, who was following us through, but the ships are identically enormous, both being Panamax, as large as a ship can be and still fit into the locks of the Panama Canal.
And it’s a tight fit, at that. At 150 feet into the first of the Miraflores locks, with another 900 feet to go, Shel easily reaches out from the deck of the ship to touch the side of the canal.
We locked through next to the container ship Endurance. Here you can see the four locomotives that will pull her through, and keep her centered in the lock passage. There are another four on her port side, and we were similarly harnessed to our own set of eight locomotives.
Even though we were so far from home, she was loaded with containers bearing names that we can see every day on the Seattle waterfront, making the world seem smaller than ever.
The crew doesn’t have a lot to do during the canal transit. A pilot comes on board every ship and stays for the duration of the transit. The Panama Canal is the only waterway in the world where someone other than the ship’s captain is in control of the ship. Local pilots come aboard in most major ports, but in an advisory capacity. Here, the Panama pilot is the master of the ship, although we were told that normally he doesn’t actually put his hands on the wheel.
While the pilot is providing the brains, the locomotives provide the brawn, chugging sturdily along, guiding the giant ships through the tight passage.
It’s a slow process, and there’s time for a sailor to eat his breakfast while waiting to release the cables attaching the ship to the locomotives.
Even the locomotive crew has time to take it easy.
For all the high tech aspects of the transit, if the canal crew needs to get down to the water, they do it the old-fashioned way.
The Canal provides employment to about 10,000 Panamanians, who can take their breaks sheltered from the almost constant rains during half the year. Of course, it’s thanks to Panama’s torrential rainfall that there’s enough water to flush the ships through day after day,
and it does make for an incredibly lush green beauty in the region.
But it’s because of those rains that the Canal is a perpetual work in progress. Dredging is a constant operation, and sodden hillsides slide into the ship channel.
The land on either side of the canal is terraced to dizzying heights,
giving you a good idea of what back-breaking labor was involved to dig it all out in the early 20th century.
And now there’s a new earth-moving project, as a third set of locks is added to the canal to accommodate even bigger ships. About a third of the world’s commercial shipping fleet is larger than Panamax, and so a new channel must be dug for them.
We never learned why, but the new locks will abandon the tough and clean locomotives,
and the biggest ships will be helped through entirely by tug boats.
At the end of the day the last of the Gatun locks opened before us. On the right you can see a grandstand holding a lot of people who had gotten off the ship to watch it pass the final set of locks, but we had no intention of abandoning ship.
Once through, the busy port city of Colon came into view
followed by the gateway to the Caribbean, which would soon open into the Atlantic. Pretty unimposing, isn’t it? You’d think there would be a sign, like Hurray, You Made It, or Is this a Miracle of Engineering, or What? But no, we just slipped quietly through, raised a glass to the guys whose lives were lost so that we might pass easily from ocean to ocean, and another to the vision and perseverance that divided a country to unite a world.
And then we headed to Cartagena.