The Panama Canal has had a monumental impact on everything from politics to medicine to palindromes. If you want to learn about all that, go elsewhere. Today we will just describe our own recent passage through the canal, from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
At each end of the canal, dozens of ships are milling about waiting their turn to pass through. Some (like ours) pay extra for a reservation at a particular time. Others patiently bob until there is an opening. With a large ship paying hundreds of thousand dollars to pass through, a little discount might be worth the wait.
When you enter the canal from either end, three locks lift you up 85 feet to the level of a fresh water lake and canal system that crosses the continent. When we approached the canal from the Atlantic side, we were immediately faced with the three back-to-back locks. For most ships, including ours, the locks are a tight fit. Our ship had about 6 feet to spare on either side but the other ships we saw were only a couple feet from the edges. (Panama has recently added larger locks to handle even bigger ships but we were in the original locks which are 110 feet wide and 115 years old). Ships are carefully and safely guided through the locks by four little railway cars called “mules” attached by cables to the ships, one on each corner of the ship.
Click here for a short time-lapse movie of our passage through the last two of the Atlantic side locks. If you want to see a longer and less exciting time-lapse of our approach and passage through the Pacific locks, click here.
Each lock raised us up one more step until we reached Gatun Lake after about 90 minutes. The lake is gorgeous. It is surrounded by dense tropical rainforest and dotted with little green islands. It is also dotted with giant ships, some moving directly across like we were and some parked for a few days, using the fresh water like a car wash to kill marine organisms that have encrusted their hulls. But despite being man-made and busy highway, it feels very natural and calm.
After a couple hours in the lake, the waterway narrows as you approach the locks on the Pacific side. The Pacific locks are more spread-out than on the Atlantic side and you spend a couple hours in a straight narrow canal stepping down and passing strangely close to roads, maintenance buildings, even a hotel and visitors center.
As we exited the canal into the open ocean, we spotted the most surprising sight of the day: the endless hyper-modern skyline of Panama City in the distance.
Here are a few last videos to give you a sense of the slow pace moving through the canals: the doors opening, sailing into a lock, and the mules wrangling us into position. And as always, another pile of photos below.