For those of us who love history, engineering marvels, and cruises, you can't beat a transit through the Panama Canal. Over a 6 year period in the last decade, I was lucky enough to travel numerous times to Panama on business. Since my team was working at the agency that operated the Canal, we were invited to make a transit through the Canal in order to help us understand how the canal worked and how the Canal personnel did their various jobs. This meant that not only did we get a trip through the Canal, but we got to sit on the ship's bridge and get the ultimate travelogue!
We had spent a few weeks in Panama before we could arrange a trip. We had seen the various cruise ships making their way slowly through the Culebra (Gaillard) Cut and the locks. My team watched the ships from the causeway every day, and chatted over dinner about what kind of ship we would get. We all thought it might be one of those luxurious ships. I had been on several cruises, but was I in for a surprise! A Turkish coal freighter, sailing from New Orleans to the west coast of the United States was to be our "luxurious" cruise ship.
As it turned out, we couldn't have had a better day, and we all got great stories to tell about our freighter experience. Four pilots, one on the navigation bridge and the others on the bow and stern, guided the ship on its 8 hour transit. We first met the freighter in Gatun Lake, near the Caribbean side of the Canal. This 23 mile long lake was built to supply water for the canal and to operate the locks. We boarded a small pilot's boat that pulled alongside the moving ship. We then had to "jump" from the boat to a rope ladder that had been hung down the side of the ship. One slip, and you could be crushed between the ship and the small boat. We all proved to be more nimble than expected, and made it up to the deck of the ship.
The Panama Canal is the one place in the world where a ship's captain hands over control of his ship to another captain--the Canal pilot. This is necessary because of the technical skills and quick decisions needed to make it through without a scrape. From the bridge, the chief pilot can give orders to navigate the ship and control its speed through the Canal. For many of the crew on the freighter not on the bridge, there was little to do but become tourists for the day. For myself and the 2 other women on the team, we weren't sure whether to be embarrassed or flattered (or both) by the Turkish crew peering at us the entire day. Guess those guys had been at sea too long! They proudly gave us a tour of the entire ship, including the engine room. We certainly didn't envy the crew who had to work in that HOT, noisy environment!
Our 8-hour trip from Gatun Lake to the Bridge of the Americas covered about 50 miles. Ships transiting the canal must be raised 85 feet to cross the Continental Divide, and then be lowered again to sea level. Unlike the Suez Canal (a sea level canal), 3 sets of locks are used to raise and lower the ships. The lock gates range from 47 to 82 feet high, are 65 feet wide, and seven feet thick. Not surprisingly, they weigh from 400 to 700 tons each. These behemoth gates are filled and emptied by gravity, water flowing through a series of 18-foot diameter tunnels allowing the filling and emptying of a lock chamber in about 10 minutes. Each ship passing through the waterway requires 52 million gallons of fresh water from the Chagres River to operate the locks. This water then flows into the sea.
When we weren't touring the ship, we intently watched the pilots do their job. They used radios to communicate amongst themselves. The precision required in the locks is tremendous. There was only about 1 foot on each side of the ship! We could have easily stepped off the ship onto the concrete lock. The ship was displacing tons of water, but the pilot was able to keep it on course, not even tapping the walls of the locks. We all came away from the trip with a great appreciation for the job that the pilots do.
Not everyone can have the pleasure of cruising this wonder on a "luxurious" freighter like I did. However, many cruise ships will give you a trip of a lifetime. If you love history, engineering, and cruises, you can't go wrong with this trip.