Transiting the Panama Canal

Transiting the Panama Canal featured image

Transiting the Panama Canal is one of the most interesting and exciting voyages any seafarer would experience in all his/her sea career. The Canal is one of the most amazing engineering constructions in the world – included in the top of ‘seven wonders of the modern world’ – and after 100 years since its opening it still enjoys a great success.

I first transited the Panama Canal in 2007 on board HS Livingstone, a vessel which took me from Europe to the West Coast of the USA, via the Canal. I remember I was very impressed by the beautiful scenery on both sides of the canal and by the hot temperatures and high level of humidity in the air. I spent all day scrutinizing the surroundings – using binoculars – watching every move on the surface of the water, admiring the dense and vivid green forest and all the different kinds of vessels passing from the opposite direction. I didn’t own a professional photo camera then, but I managed to take a few good photos using a small digital one. I was even lucky enough to spot a few crocodiles lying in the sun on the beach, on small stripes of sand or just swimming around in one of the lakes.

Transiting Panama Canal

As the vessel came from Europe and had to return back to Europe after calling some ports on both coasts of the USA, we transited the Canal twice and I had the privilege of enjoying both transits during day time, with great differences in weather conditions – first time on a hot, clear and dry day, second time on a hot and rainy one.

Transiting Panama Canal

Transiting Panama Canal

Transiting Panama Canal

7 years passed since my first Panama Canal transit and I was looking forward to a new experience of this kind. I was anxious to rediscover the ‘familiar’ territories of the Isthmus of Panama and I started to make the necessary preparations well before joining HS Bach. I wanted to make sure that the entire transit is properly recorded – in photos and movies – in order to share it with the people I love and with anybody who would show interest in it.

As we were coming from the Atlantic Ocean, we started the South Bound transit at around 7 o’clock in the morning – with the first pilot boarding our vessel at Cristobal Pilot Station – and we went out into the Pacific Ocean after ~ 12 hours. During the transit, the weather was beautiful (from the point of view of a photographer and nature lover) – in spite of the rainy season – with hot temperatures – as high as 38° at midday – although very humid and almost un-breathable.

I spent most of the day moving continuously from the bridge to one wing or another, paying attention to everything and anything around me, using the binoculars to spot any interesting movement on the water or in the jungle, using three different types of cameras – one located outside, on the monkey island, for recording the transit, one telephoto zoom camera ready to use in case of a crocodile spotting and another all-in-one-handy camera for normal shooting. I witnessed the slow approach of the first lock and the entrance into the first chamber from upper deck where I visited both the aft and forward stations in order to get a closer look and a different perspective towards to whole engineering construction of the canal. I enjoyed the feeling of belonging ‘to the heart of this amazing man-made-mega construction’, but I quickly returned to the panoramic view offered by the highest level of the accommodation area – the bridge and the outside wings.

Transiting Panama Canal

The hot and humid outside atmosphere combined with the cold (20°) and dry temperature from the bridge proved to be quite a big challenge for all my photo and recording gadgets which ‘struggled’ very hard to function at full capacity. My body was forced to face the same challenge as well and, after 12 hours of continuous rising and dropping of temperature, it had to accept and deal with some minor side effects – a running nose and a slight pain in the throat and teeth (due to the heavy air conditioned bridge room). In the end, my sacrifice was so small in comparison with the great joy the transiting of the canal offered me and I would repeat this experiment over and over again as long as the weather conditions remain the same and the surrounding nature keeps its green and vivid colours. I wouldn’t mind experiencing the transit during a heavy tropical rain either, especially if the sun does not lose completely the battle with the black and thick clouds and it finds its way through them in order to bright up the scenery and to bring along its most precious gift – the rainbow.

I was a little disappointed during the first transit because, although we were in full crocodile season, I couldn’t spot any of them lying on the beaches or small strips of sand in the vicinity of the Canal. I couldn’t discover any tropical and colourful bird lurking in the nearby forest, no monkeys jumping from one tree to another on top of the canopy, but I did see some birds resting on the antennas or other pillars on both sides of the locks and some of them looked quite scary.

Transiting Panama Canal

Transiting Panama Canal

Transiting Panama Canal

We even saw a few unexpected deer and a wild boar on the shores of Miraflores Lake. The pilot told us that nothing was out of the ordinary – caused by the habitat loss due to the mass deforestation – although deer and wild boars were the last animals I expected to see in the vicinity of a rain forest. I would have liked to see at least wild and dangerous eyes staring back at me from the high trees or rainbow like coloured birds swinging on the branches in search of suitable mates. Instead, I watched a short video in which a black panther (puma) jumped on a vessel while waiting in one of the locks, creating a big fuss and quite a panic among the crew which struggled a lot to catch the wild (and frightened) creature using some nets (you can watch the video on youtube). The video was shown to us by one of the pilots and it represents one of the funniest cases of ‘clandestine passengers’ on board the vessels transiting the canal.

After visiting a few ports on the West Coast of the USA, we arrived at Balboa Station for our North Transit in a beautiful November morning, only 2 days after the state of Panama had celebrated its National Day. All three locks had been decorated with national flags and all tugs and locomotives were displaying the same flags as well.

Transiting Panama Canal

Transiting Panama Canal

We had the same tiresome, but very interesting transit – which lasted ~ 10 hours – and I even had the great luck of spotting a few crocodiles swimming around in the waters close to one of the locks.Transiting Panama Canal

During both our transits we had very professional and talkative pilots – who told me a lot of interesting facts and stories about the Canal – and a very good cooperation with the tug boats and mooring men involved in the maneuverings of the ropes inside the locks.

Transiting Panama Canal

The passage through the Panama Canal can offer a wide display of interesting, curious, funny, educational and exciting moments for all the people who are curious enough to keep their eyes wide open, their senses alert and their photo cameras ready to shoot. It offered me one of the greatest experiences of my entire life and I am happy to share it with all of you.

Panama Canal – short introduction

Panama Canal connects the Atlantic Ocean – more specifically, the Caribbean Sea – with the Pacific Ocean, serving as a shortcut for the vessels travelling around South America by reducing their voyages (with ~ 8000 miles) and allowing them to avoid the dangerous Cape Horn route, via Drake Passage or Magellan Strait.

The Canal has a total length of 77 km – cutting across the Isthmus of Panama through its narrowest point – and it was built between 1904 and 1914 by the USA with the approval of the newly independent state of Panama. It was under the American authority until 31 December 1999 when Panama took over its full administration, operation and maintenance.

In 100 years since its opening, more than one million vessels from all over the world have transited the canal from one direction to another, with an average of 14.000 transits per year since 2008.

How does it work?

The Panama Canal consists of artificial lakes and channels and three sets of locks that raise and lower vessels through the mountainous area of Panama. While entering, moving inside and going out of the locks vessels need the help of some very powerful engines called ‘the mules’. The Mules are electric locomotives which run on tracks on both sides of the locks, hauling vessels with steel towing wires.

Transiting Panama Canal

Coming from the Atlantic Ocean, a vessel enters Limon Bay (Bahia Lemon) – an extended natural harbour which shelters the Port of Cristobal.

Transiting Panama Canal

From that point, the vessel has to travel through artificial channels, lakes and locks in order to arrive on the other side of the Isthmus – in another large harbour which hosts the Port of Balboa – and exit towards the Pacific Ocean, via the Gulf of Panama.

Transiting Panama Canal

The steps are as follows:

  1. Gatun Locks

Coming from the Atlantic Ocean, the sea level extends ~ 12 km to the Gatun Locks which are ~ 2 km long. Gatun Locks include three chambers which raise the vessel 26 meters above sea level, to the level of the Gatun Lake. The vessel enters the first set locks and it is raised from one chamber to the other with the help of the mules and then exits into Gatun Lake.

Transiting Panama Canal

Transiting Panama Canal

Transiting Panama Canal

Transiting Panama Canal

Transiting Panama Canal

Transiting Panama Canal

Transiting Panama Canal

Transiting Panama Canal

Transiting Panama Canal

Transiting Panama Canal

Transiting Panama Canal

  1. Gatun Lake

The principal lake – Gatun Lake – was artificially created 26 meters above sea level by the damming of the Chagres River. It has a length of ~ 24 km, covering about 500 square kilometers and it was – at the time of its completion – the largest man-made lake in the world.

Transiting Panama Canal

Transiting Panama Canal

Transiting Panama Canal

Transiting Panama Canal

Transiting Panama Canal

Transiting Panama Canal

During the flooding of the area some artificial islands were created and some of them host a great number of animals and birds which can be visited in boat trips.

Transiting Panama Canal

Transiting Panama Canal

Transiting Panama Canal

Transiting Panama Canal

Close to Gamboa Pilot Station, the river turns East and the lake narrows. Gatun Lake provide the water necessary to operate the Canal locks.

  1. Culebra Cut

This was the most difficult and challenging part of the whole engineering project because the canal had to be dug through the Continental Divide. Culebra Cut is ~ 13 km long and it is the narrowest part of the canal, measuring only 150 meters.

Panama Canal

Transiting Panama Canal

The vessel passes under the Centenario Bridge and continues its transit.

Transiting Panama Canal

Transiting Panama Canal

  1. Pedro Miguel Lock

At the southern end of Culebra Cut, the vessel enters the single-chambered Pedro Miguel Lock. This lock is 1.4 km long and it lowers the vessel 9.5 meters until it reaches the level of Miraflores Lake.

Transiting Panama Canal

Transiting Panama Canal

Transiting Panama Canal

  1. Miraflores Lake

This artificial lake is only 1.7 km long and it lies 16.5 meters above sea level.

Transiting Panama Canal

  1. Miraflores Locks

The last set of locks includes two chambers which lower the vessel to the level of the Pacific Ocean.

Transiting Panama Canal

Transiting Panama Canal

Transiting Panama Canal

Transiting Panama Canal

Transiting Panama Canal

The transit ends after the vessel passes under the Bridge of Americas and exits into the Bay of Panama, an arm of the Pacific Ocean.

Transiting Panama Canal

Useful info about the Canal

– The Panama Canal crosses the Isthmus of Panama in a general SE direction from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean for a distance of 77 km.

– The locks and their approach walls are in duplicate so that vessels may pass in opposite or in the same direction simultaneously. Vessels can pass in opposite direction in some other segments of the Canal, but not everywhere;

– The chambers of the locks are all 304.8 m long and 33.5 m wide, with a normal maximum depth of 12.3 m. The 33.5 meter wide vessels are the widest vessels which can transit the Canal and this width is known by the name of ‘panamax’;

Transiting Panama Canal

– A new and wider canal is under construction and it will be opened next year in order to accommodate larger vessels – up 49 meters wide and 366 meter long. It will be served by two sets of locks – instead of three – and it will follow the same direction, curves and components of the existing canal, including the widening of Culebra Cut, the deepening of the navigational channels in Gatun Lake and the deepening of the Atlantic and Pacific;

Transiting Panama Canal

–  While inside the locks, the ropes which tie the vessels to the tugs and locomotives are usually handled by Panamanian crews. These teams – made up of 19-20 people – board the vessel at the entrance of the lock, divide themselves in two groups, one for the aft station, another for forward and they remain on board as long as the vessel transits the lock;

Transiting Panama Canal

Transiting Panama Canal

– Close to Miraflores Locks there is an Observation Area – Visitor Centre – from where tourists can watch vessels transiting the Canal in exchange of a small fee;

Panamanian crew handling the ropes inside the locks

– Live web cameras with live images from the locks are available on youtube – Miraflores Locks web cam, Gatun Locks web cam;

– Many cruisers transit the Canal and carry passengers from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific (or other way around), but there are cruisers which come from the Atlantic or the Pacific and enter only one lock ( Gatun Locks or Miraflores Locks) and then come back on the same way – only to show their passengers how this engineering construction works;

– Each vessel transiting the Canal must pay a fee to the Canal Authority. The fee is calculated taking into account the type of vessel, size, amount of cargo, number of containers or number of passengers on board.

– The fee for a full container (TEU) is 74$ and for an occupied bed on a cruiser is 134$;

– A fee is required for empty cabins and empty containers as well as for the occupied/full ones;

– Yachts transiting the Canal pay a fee in accordance with their length – the lowest fee is 800$ for yachts up to 15 meters long and the highest toll is 3200$ for yachts longer than 30 meters;

Transiting Panama Canal

– Higher fees are paid by those vessels which skip the line of waiting and pass in front of other vessels and the highest fee of this kind was paid in the amount of 220.000$ by  a vessel which normally would pay less than 15.000$;

– The lowest fee ever – 36 cents – was paid by an American who swam across the Panama Canal in 1928;

– The highest fee was paid by the cruise ship Norwegian Pearl – 375.000$ – in April 2010;

– For the North Bound HS Bach paid ~ 280.000$;

– An average of 40 vessels transit the Canal each day in both directions. Each vessel must announce its arrival a couple of days in advance and according to the traffic it will receive a schedule for transiting;

– For transiting the three chambers of Gatun Locks, a vessel needs ~ 200 million liters of water which are coming by gravity from Gatun Lake. To reduce the consumption of water small ships can enter together in the locks. The new locks which are under construction will use a more economical system of recirculating the same water between the chambers;

– Since its opening, the Canal was closed only once for 17 hours due to severe rainfall which caused the Centenario Bridge to collapse;

– More than 80.000 people have worked during the construction of the Canal and ~ 30.000 of them died – mostly due to malaria.

You can watch a time lapse video of our South Bound Crossing of the Panama Canal here

 

2 Responses to Transiting the Panama Canal

  1. mary hughes says:

    Very, very interesting and so well written – this is a wonderful introduction, along with the time hastened youtube… I could even feel the level of the water rising around me… and most useful to have all those facts which you have put together… even the fact that some nut has actually swum across the Panama Canal!

  2. travelc1 says:

    Dear, Mary,
    I hope you will enjoy your crossing on a beautiful shinny day as well.

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