Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Panama Canal Transit

The creation of a water passage across Panama was one of the supreme human achievements of all time, the culmination of more than 20 years of phenomenal effort and sacrifice.  No statistics of tonnage or tolls can begin to convey the grandeur of what was accomplished, bridging the divide and bringing people together.

We arrived at Colon on the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal at about 5:30 a.m., awakened by bright red and green lights flashing in our porthole.  Any further sleep became impossible as we were so excited for this day’s experience, transiting the Panama Canal.  Our ship was boarded by the official pilot who guided us through the locks, as well as six line handlers, and our very own interpretive commentator who explained history, engineering, and geology, with a little local humor thrown in. 

The 50 mile passage between Colon and Panama City, or actually Balboa, took us approximately 9 hours, getting underway at 7 a.m. and arriving at our anchorage around 4:30 p.m.  We rose 82 feet in a series of 3 locks, being pulled along by “mules” or small, powerful rail cars, going up to Gatun Lake.  Crossing the huge lake took 2 hours, seeing the large dam which controls the water level, jungle-covered islands, and marine traffic both incredibly large to small sail boats.  Coming up on the continental divide we pass under the Centennial Bridge, as our entrance into the Pacific side of the divide brings on a deluge of rain.

Lunch buffet is served on deck in the Tropical Bar so we can view the scenery, damp and drizzly though it is.  Our early rising makes us very sleepy after lunch and with the rain soaking the sun deck, we retire to our cabin and watch the down-hill ride through the Miraflores locks through our porthole window.  

The approach of the Bridge of the Americas, which we have anticipated all day, brings us all back on deck with various degrees of rain gear.  The excitement is generated by the fact that our ship’s highest mast is 67 meters tall, and the bridge measures 63 meters at mean tide.  Low tide is at 3:34 p.m., EST, and we slow to a crawl as it looms ahead, waiting for the magic time.  This is Captain Peter’s first crossing as well, and he teases us with grimaces and hand signs, indicating a crash is imminent.  We pass under with maybe a meter to spare!

Surprisingly, we anchor upon arrival outside of the Balboa harbor, with a beautiful view of the Panama City skyline across the bay.  We had thought we would be docking alongside a pier since all but 20 of us will be disembarking in the morning and in the late afternoon we will take on another 120 passengers for the trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua.  This has to be accomplished by tender.  We decided not to venture ashore as conditions were very rocky and boarding the tender looked treacherous, at best!
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