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The Panama Canal Cruise

by Alan Walker

Panama Canal Locks

The Panama Canal, often described as one of the man-made wonders of the world, can be . . . a disappointment . . . for those cruising the Canal for the first time, unless you've read up on its history and geography before you get there.

Almost everybody has the same mental picture of the Canal before their first visit -- a long narrow body of water, twisting and turning through the jungles of Panama. But in fact, almost half of the Canal is just a lake -- but a very big lake -- the man-made Gatun Lake which tamed the waters of the unpredictable Chagres River. I'll return to the geography, but let's look first at the Canal's history. Author David McCullough describes the Canal's history in 700 pages in his book The Path Between the Seas, but I'll try to summarize the history in a few paragraphs.

The History

It was apparent to the earliest of the European explorers that a canal across the narrow isthmus of Panama (only 40 miles in a straight line) would save the 8,000 mile journey that was necessary to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific by sailing all the way around South America. Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French visionary and entrepreneur who lead the successful building of the Suez Canal between 1854 and 1869, lead the "French" attempt to build the Canal between 1870 and 1889, but failed because of disease, disorganization and dishonesty.

The jungles and waterways of Panama and their mosquito inhabitants were a source of malaria and yellow fever, and local sanitary conditions contributed to deaths from typhoid fever, smallpox, pneumonia, dysentery, beriberi, food poisoning, snakebite, sunstroke, TB and bubonic plague. During the French effort to build the Canal, 20,000 workers died -- mostly from disease rather than accident -- and another 5,000 died during the subsequent American successful attempt to build the Canal. Imagine, one death for every 10 feet of the Canal's 50 mile course!

The "disorganization" in the building of the Canal is attributed to de Lesseps himself, and his substantial underestimation of the necessary equipment, manpower, engineering and sanitary requirements necessary to build a canal through a jungle and a mountain. To the end, de Lesseps insisted that a sealevel canal could be built, notwithstanding that the canal would need to cross the heights of the mountainous continental divide on the west side of Panama.

As to "dishonesty," Ferdinand de Lesseps escaped jail because of his advanced age, but his number one man, his son, didn't. Monies for the Canal building did not come from the government of France but from a public French company, and the company and its principals were charged with making deceptive statements and giving bribes in an effort to keep raising funds for the increasingly-expensive project. (Defenders of de Lesseps argue that the so-called "bribes" given to French newspapers were in fact the result of blackmail by the newspapers who would otherwise write derogatory articles about the Canal's prospects.)

The Americans Arrive

Panama Canal
Only a distant view of the dam of the Chagres River creating Gatun Lake can be seen,
but the dam gives rise to half of the waterway comprising the Panama Canal.

Following the abandonment of the French company's efforts to build the Canal in 1889, the United States took over in 1904. The Americans had a number of advantages over their French predecessors: funding was from Uncle Sam, and the budget for the Canal building was never an issue; advances in medical science had made it possible to determine the cause and the prevention of malaria, yellow fever and other diseases that has decimated the Canal workers under the French regime; and finally, two brilliant American engineers lead the American construction team at different times in the Canal's building, resulting in the successful completion of the Canal in 1914. The fact that the American effort took ten years to construct the Canal is one measure of the difficulty of the project.

The Geography

At times in Gatun Lake you feel almost like you're out to seaThe three engineering triumphs of the Canal are the dam, the locks and the "cut." The earthen dam built by the Americans across the Chagres river towards its Atlantic end solved both the problem of taming the river itself (which often flooded), and creating a man-made lake which saved having to excavate for almost half of the Canal's fifty mile length. At the time of its construction, the lake (Gatun Lake) was the largest man-made lake in the world at 163 square miles.

The Locks

The principle of getting a boat past an obstruction such as a hill, waterfall or rapids is an old one, but nevertheless particularly fascinating for someone like me, who had never before seen a lock in operation. And even those who have cruised through locks on smaller canals, the giant locks of the Panama are sure to impress. The engineering required to build these locks -- some measuring 1000 long, 110 wide and 81 deep, in the early years of this century, is still to be admired, 90 years later. There are five locks in all, three at the Atlantic end at Gatun, one at Pedro Miguel towards the Pacific side, and two at Miraflores where the Canal flows into the Pacific. Each lock has a twin alongside it, so that ships can pass in opposite directions but can also be used for two ships travelling in the same direction.

A set of lock gates at Gatun. The gates swing out from the inside of the Canal, and the water pressure, as the lock fills, keeps the gates firmly in placePrior to entering a set of locks, the Canal workers attach lines to the cruise ship on both sides and at both the front and back of the ship, to a number of electric locomotives (called "mules") -- up to eight depending on the ship's size -- and these mules control the speed and alignment of the ship within the Canal locks. While in each lock, your ship is either raised or lowered an average of 28 feet, and your cabin view may start above the locks and end up with a view of the lock walls themselves.

The "Cut"

Although only 15% of the total length of the Canal, the cut through the mountain of the continental divide was the most difficult part of the Canal's construction. The Gaillard Cut as it is now called (previously the "Culebra Cut") caused almost half of the Canal's 262 (some say 200) million cubic yards of excavation, and caused endless frustration for the Canal's engineers with the unstable geology of the banks causing countless land slides (both before and after the Canal was opened). The top of the V-shaped cut, originally planned to be 670 feet, ended up being 1800 feet. In an effort to demonstrate the prodigious excavation necessary for the Canal, authors have used various analogies such as a ten foot deep trench from New York to Los Angeles. That doesn't help me much. Try this one instead: most of us have stopped at a railroad crossing waiting for a freight train to trundle by at 20 mph -- perhaps taking 5-10 minutes at most. If the Panama excavation material was passing you by at a railroad crossing, you'd be waiting six months, all day and all night, for the freight train to pass by you.

Panama Canal
The terraced hillsides overgrown by vegetation don't look like much, but imagine taking a straight
line from the top of the hillside to the other side of the Canal, then going down to the water
surface and then another 40 feet down: all that volume of rock and soil was excavated.
Note the cut through another hillside in the background.

Which Direction to Cruise the Canal?

I don't believe it matters in which direction you cruise the Canal. It's true that by cruising from the Caribbean side to the Pacific side you have the advantage of the time change working in your favour, with the clocks being set back an hour on three (possibly, four) different nights, (during your whole cruise, not just in the Canal, of course). But time changes when at sea, which are usually done the night before a sea day, are hardly noticeable. If you're an East or West Coaster, your decision on which direction to cruise may simply depend on whether you want the longer travel time to be at the beginning or end of your cruise. Because the highlight of your cruise is likely to be the Canal itself, you might look for a cruise itinerary where the Canal is towards the end of the cruise (on my last Panama cruise, we transited the Canal early in the cruise, and the week of cruising that followed was almost anticlimactic).

Canal Viewing -- Which Side?

Unless you have the luxury of a balcony cabin, you'll likely want to view the Canal transit on deck where you'll have the ability to move from side to side to catch points of interest on both the starboard and port sides of the ship. Tip: fully explore the ship the day before entering the Canal. You may well find a viewing area that has been overlooked by other passengers -- especially at the aft end where you will still see the Canal highlights, even while facing backwards to the ship's movement.

If you have a balcony and you intend to spend all or part of your time viewing the transit in your own privacy, these are the pros and cons of booking a cabin on the port and starboard sides:

Starboard Side (heading towards the Pacific)
Port Side (heading towards the Caribbean)

  • You can see the only remaining remnant of the French efforts to build the canal -- it's a small waterway heading off in a diagonal direction between the Gatun locks and the entrance (or exit) of the Canal on the Caribbean side (see photo). It's frankly not much to look at.
  • You will have a view of one of the Canal's three triumphs, the Gatun dam which holds back and tames the Chagres river and created Gatun Lake, but details of the dam are hard to see, even with binoculars.

Port Side (heading towards the Pacific)
Starboard Side (heading towards the Caribbean)

  • The town of Colón may be seen prior to entering (or exiting the Canal) on the Caribbean side.
  • You will have brief glimpses of the Panama Railway which partially follows the Canal in its path across the isthmus.
  • Gamboa, the small town which is the operational headquarters of the Canal, may be seen.
  • The entrance of the Chagres into the Canal may also be seen.
  • The area of the largest slide (the "East Culebra Slide") into the Canal is vaguely visible on this side.
  • Balboa and Panama City may be seen on this side at the exit (or entrance) at the Pacific end of the Canal.
  • In those areas of the Canal where ships are able to pass each other, the passing ships will be on this side because traffic (other than in the locks themselves), passes on the right.
  • You will be protected from the afternoon sun.

Clearly, the port side heading towards the Pacific, or the starboard side heading towards the Caribbean, would seem to be the best from a balcony point of view, but of course you don't have to spend all day on your balcony (grin).

When to Cruise the Canal?

The Control Tower at Gatun where six locks (three sets of twin locks) are looked after by a single operator.Most of us have budgets to worry about when we select a cruise, so the timing of your Canal cruise may well be based on the best price rather than the best weather. Apart from the mini-Canal Cruise which I have described elsewhere in this article, Panama Canal cruises are expensive if for no other reason than the fact they are usually at least 10 days long, and we all know that the longer the cruise, the more the cost. When looking at cruise costs, consider whether it's cheaper (after taking into account air fare costs) to end a cruise earlier (in say, Costa Rica), than it is to cruise all the way to Los Angeles.

While there are a number of cruise ships which do the Canal transit for a substantial part of the year, the busiest time for Canal transits (and hence the best time for a deal) is during April and May, or during September and October, when cruise lines reposition their ships from the Caribbean to Alaska, or vice versa, and are pretty much forced to do a Canal transit whether profitable or not. These repositioning ships will likely include (at the present time) six Princess ships, six Holland America ships, two each for Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Norwegian Cruise Lines and one each for Carnival and Crystal.

Weather-wise, mid-December to mid-April is the "dry" season in Panama, and much of the rest of the year it rains like crazy (160 inches a year!) -- but weather is always uncertain. I did one Canal transit in late September, and a big storm hit while we were transiting the Gaillard Cut. Somewhat protected by a balcony, I enjoyed watching the storm, especially the streams of water that poured down the Cut, dragging great volumes of mud with them -- it gave me some idea of what it must have been like during the excavation of the Cut. On my most recent transit in late October last year, we didn't have a drop of rain.

When thinking about the weather, also consider what the weather might be like in your ports of call, both before and after the Canal, when you won't have the ship's air-conditioning to protect you when on shore.

Books and Publications on the Canal

There is no doubt in my mind that reading about the history and geography of the Canal prior to your cruise will add considerably to your enjoyment of the transit. The publications below may all be obtained through our SeaLetter Book Store.

  • Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870 - 1914, by David McCullough, as noted above, is the most commonly recommended book on the Canal's history, but it's a "big" read at 704 pages, and does not cover the most recent 25 years of the Canal's history.
  • Portrait of the Panama Canal: From Construction to the Twenty-First Century, by William Friar, is much shorter at 80 pages, but has great color and black and white photos, both current and historic. Additionally, there is a description of the author's youth while living in the Canal Zone in the 1970's.
  • Panama Canal
    A typical Canal view, with low jungle on either side.
    Curves in the Canal allow you to see, from your balcony,
    ships in front and following. The buoy markers throughout
    the Canal help you locate the ship's position.

  • Panama Canal Map by Cruise Map Publishing
    Even though you'll likely receive a free map of the Canal while on board your cruise ship from the ACP (the Panama Canal Authority) this map is bigger and better, and has more detail. The map even shows the buoy numbers throughout the transit, so you can always tell where you are in the Canal, and even predict when the ship is about to take a turn.

I'd recommend buying all three publications, but if you're tight on your budget, or not a big reader, I'd recommend buying the map in any event.

Future of the Canal

After being involved in the administration and operation of the Canal from its opening in 1914, the U.S. relinquished full control to Panama in 1999. The transition had been planned for many years, and there were no obvious signs (in November 2000), that the Canal was not running smoothly under the new Panamanian administration. The brochures put out by the new Canal authority stated that the Canal tolls had been increased in recent years to pay for the widening of the Canal which would allow ships to transit in both directions simultaneously (at the moment passing can only occur in a few places other than Gatun Lake). On our cruise, we couldn't see much evidence of this work being carried out, and the Panamanian commentator on board announced that "profits" from the Canal's operations in the amount of $200 million dollars were paid to the government of Panama for the last year's operations. I would certainly hope that the Panamanian government is not looking at the Canal as a cash cow, and failing to re-invest monies for its improvement.

The Canal Authority, and the government of Panama, do seem to be taking steps to make the Canal area more than just a water highway. The city of Colón, at the Caribbean entrance, has developed a large cruise terminal, shopping mall and resort facilities, although few cruise lines are yet stopping there. One exception is Holland America, whose Volendam will stop there on April 22, 2001. An optional tour of the Gatun locks may be taken from Colón, and I expect you will see a lot more of the workings of the locks than you ever do from a cruise ship. At the other end, some cruise ships are anchoring outside of Panama City, and arranging land tours of the Canal up to Gamboa, and back. Unfortunately, both Panama City and Colón have reputations as being dangerous for tourists, and even the complex at Colón noted above will be isolated by security arrangements from the city of Colón itself. Many "land tours" of the Canal are now offered by tour operators based in Panama, and the small boats of these operators may now be seen on the Canal -- as well as their buses on shore. On my recent Canal cruise, I noticed jet skis and other pleasure craft on the Canal, which I don't recall seeing in my earlier visits.

Mini-Canal Cruise

There are a few Caribbean cruises where the cruise ship passes through the three sets of locks at Gatun, then turns around in Gatun Lake and returns through the same three locks. While this substitute for a full Panama Canal cruise is better than never seeing it at all, the mini-cruise does not give you the opportunity to see Gaillard Cut, which is really the highlight of the Canal transit.

A Brief Description of the Actual Transit
(from the Caribbean Side to the Pacific Side)

Your cruise ship will arrive early in the morning, and pass through the breakwaters which guard Limón Bay. On the port side, you can see the towns of Colón and Cristobal. You will likely see many freighters anchored in the bay, as they wait their turn to go through the Canal (the cruise ships pay to have priority). The entrance to the Canal merges into the bay itself, and is hard to really pick out where the Canal starts. In any event, the first part of the Canal is really short before you hit the three locks of Gatun. Just prior to entering the locks, you will see, on the starboard side, the one remaining segment of the French built canal that was not incorporated into the final American project.

The small waterway to the right is the only remaining part of the French excavation which was not incorporated into the Canal when successfully built by the Americans.  Not much to show for 20,000 lost lives and 287 million dollars.As you approach the Gatun locks, you will see a directional sign that tells the ship's pilot which side of the locks to enter, as two ships can use the locks simultaneously because there are twin locks. A ship might spend upwards of 20 minutes negotiating each of the three locks, and your best view of the locks' operation is probably by watching what is happening to the ship in the neighboring lock. Prior to entering the locks, you will see a Panamanian worker in a rowboat come out to the ship and take the ropes which are eventually tied to the locomotives on either side of the locks. Between the two locks, you will see a very narrow white building which is the actual control headquarters for the locks (and the locomotives actually pass through the building). If you are lucky, you might get a brief glimpse as you pass the control building of the controls that actually operate the locks.

After exiting the third of the Gatun locks, look on your starboard side for a view of the Gatun dam (it is difficult to see very much, however). On your port side at this time you will also likely see lots of freighters anchored, as they wait their turn to go down the Gatun locks. On the port side, you will also be able to see the Panama railway which crosses the isthmus.

After you enter Gatun Lake, you will then have time to have breakfast, or otherwise get organized, as it takes several hours to pass through the lake itself. Without a map, it is difficult to tell where the ship is going, as there are dozens of islands within the lake itself, and the ship weaves between them. One major island on the starboard side is the Barro Colorado Nature Monument, which is used by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

The lake eventually narrows as you enter into Gamboa Reach, where once again you can see the Panama railway on the port side. Even at this point, your ship is still travelling on the dammed waters of the Chagres River until you get to Gamboa. Gamboa is on the port side, and is the headquarters for the operations of the Canal. Just past Gamboa on the port side, you can see the point of entry of the Chagres River into the Canal waters.

From this point onwards, your ship is travelling through the portion of the Canal that required extensive excavation. A good map will show you various places, especially on the port side, where huge landslides have occurred over the years.

This container freighter is pretty much taking up the whole width of the adjacent lock. One of the four locomotives (mules) which align and pull the ships through each lock may be seen in the foreground, with another partially seen in the background. At least two more mules will be pulling and pushing at the bow end of the ship.Ultimately, you will pass through the Gaillard Cut, where there is the best chance of appreciating the incredible magnitude of the excavation that was necessary. Most of the excavated banks are now covered by low jungle, and it is difficult to get a full comprehension of how it might have looked in the early days. To get a better idea of the excavation required, you need to look at the Cut from a distance, and note the height of the banks on either sides, and mentally imagine how much soil and rock need to be removed to cut it down, not just to water level, but 40 feet below that.

The Canal then enters the single lock at Pedro Miguel, and then exits into Miraflores Lake. After a short crossing of the lake, this Canal then enters the two locks at Miraflores, and your ship is back to sea level again. There is still a little distance to go before you actually reach the Pacific, and you will know when you are there when you pass under the huge Bridge of the Americas, a 5,425 foot long bridge which was built in 1962, as part of the Pan American highway.

Bridge of the Americas

On your port side, you will now be able to see the huge breakwater which was built between the mainland and three offshore islands, using excavated materials from the Canal itself. You will also be able to see Panama City itself, and its dramatic high-rises. Your trip through the Canal will have taken 8 to 10 hours.

More Statistics about the Canal Than You'll Ever Want to Know

  • All statistics from the Canal seem to vary according to the different sources. The excavation itself is variously described as anywhere between 200 and 260 million cubic yards.
  • The Suez Canal required excavation of 75 million cubic meters, although it is twice as long as the Panama. The Suez saves 5800 miles of sea travel around the Cape of Good Hope.
  • Ten of thousands watched the opening of the Suez Canal; less than a thousand watched the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 because of preoccupation with the outbreak of World War I just three months before.
  • Sea level is sea level, and contrary to the beliefs of the early Canal builders, the Pacific and Caribbean oceans are of the same height. However, the Pacific side has 20 foot tides and the Caribbean only one foot -- thus the Canal excavation on the Pacific side had to take into account the maximum low tide.
  • About one-third of the unsuccessful attempt of the French to build the Canal was undertaken by American contractors.
  • Of the 50 million cubic meters of excavation by the French, only 30 million proved useful for the final Canal.
  • The French left behind 1500 useful buildings.
  • The steam shovels used by the Americans had three times the capacity of the American-built shovels used by the French.
  • Much of Gatun lake is shallow, and ships must follow the original path of the Chagres River in order to have sufficient clearance.
  • The excavation debris from the Canal was mostly used to fill swamps and reclaim tidewater lands. No mounds of fill are visible during the Canal transit. Visible signs of the use of excavated materials are in the Gatun Lake dam itself and in the long breakwater extending out from Panama City to offshore islands -- although the two together represent a very small percentage of the excavation spoils.
  • The total amount of water required to move a single cruise ship through the locks is variously described as somewhere between 52 and 80 million gallons. The water flows by gravity into the locks from Gatun and Madden lakes, and then out to sea, and hence the Canal is essentially a freshwater one. Panama's 160 inches of rain per year usually means no water supply problems. In 1998, however, a drought caused many new islands to pop up in Gatun Lake, and water in the locks was used twice (by diverting it to the lower level of the adjacent lock). This procedure caused the transit times to be doubled, and also limited the drafts of vessels.
  • At the height of the Canal's construction by the U.S., 50,000 people (of whom about 10% were Americans) were employed. Workers from Barbados and from Spain were the largest contingents of workers. Panama itself provided only a few hundred workers.
  • Despite the building of the Canal by the Americans, U.S. ships pay tolls. Only the ships of Panama itself and Columbia don't pay tolls.
  • Your cruise fare is increased somewhere between $50 and $80 to help pay the transit fee for the Canal. Currently, the largest toll, more than $201,000, was paid by Celebrity's Infinity in March, 2001. Travel writer Richard Halliburton swam through the Canal in 1928, taking 10 days.
  • Richard Halliburton
    It took 9,000,000 cubic feet of water from Gatun Lake to send the SS Richard Halliburton through the Panama locks. Halliburton paid toll, like all other ships, according to his tonnage.
    He weighed one-thirteenth of a ton, and paid a charge of 36 cents.

    [Photo: Richard Halliburton's Complete Book of Marvels © 1941 Bobbs-Merrill Company, publishers]

  • Most of the "mules" used to pull and align the ships in the Canal are second generation ones, but a few are third generation. The newest ones are said to cost almost $3 million dollars each.
  • In 1963, the Canal opened to 24-hour operation after the installation of high intensity lighting.
  • The Canal is the only place where a ship's captain must surrender his entire navigation authority to the pilot (usually, the captain and the pilot share this responsibility).
  • There are an average of nine "accidents" or "incidents" in the Canal each year -- a very small percentage of the current 13,000 transits per year. About 150,000 passengers are taken through the Canal each year.
  • The Americans spent $352 million dollars to build the Canal including $10 million paid to Panama for the Canal concession, and $40 million paid to the French for their rights and equipment. The French company spent $287 million dollars in their unsuccessful attempt.
  • Cruise ships pay an advance booking fee to ensure that they can transit the Canal on the date that they want, and in daylight hours.
  • A number of cruise ships are either too wide or too long to pass through the Canal including the new larger ships of Carnival, Princess and Royal Caribbean. NCL's Norway also won't fit.
  • When traveling through the Canal from the Caribbean to the Pacific, i.e., from east to west, you actually end up further east when you exit the Canal. You need to look at a good map to understand why this is so.
  • Check www.pancanal.com/eng/index.html for a live camera view at Miraflores lock.

On my first Canal cruise (a "mini" one in 1986), my baseball cap flew off, and landed in the Canal. A crew member fished it out with a long pole, but he kept the cap! I guess I'll have to visit the Hard Rock Café in Des Moines again.

I hope you enjoy your Canal cruise(s) as much as I have.

Photos by Alan Walker


Alan WalkerOriginally from Australia, Alan has for some time been permanently settled in Vancouver where he is a practicing Attorney. He has been a SeaLetter columnist, reviewer and our resident humorist for some time now.

To find all of Alan's SeaLetter columns, featured and humorous articles, and cruise and port reviews, visit our SeaLetter COLUMNISTS Index.

Alan loves email, and can be reached at: Alan@sealetter.com.

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