Partial Transit of Panama Canal

The islands of Gatun Lake, the large artificial lake of Panama Canal, are not islands at all, but mountain tops.

We had never heard of this surreal reality before, Panama Canal was built over mountains. They say that below surface the spirits of the villages that were drowned during the process, still keep calling for their residents to return.

As one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World, Panama Canal in more than an engineering masterpiece. The history of the project, the people behind it, the ones who lost their lives during the building of the canal and because of the canal. All those stories make this canal alive, it is more than just one of the most important passages for the international maritime trade.

Panamax is a term describing the maximum size of a vessel that can sail through the canal and the original locks. Our cruise ship Norwegian Jade, a Panamax vessel, arrived the Caribbean side of Panama before dawn. The heavy, thick fumes floated in the humid air, in the darkness we could see several ships of different sizes and massive harbor cranes. We couldn’t keep the balcony door open, the smoke and engine exhaust that usually are kept above the chimney by the funnels kept pouring in. At that point we decided to sleep for a couple of more hours as our day would be a long one. We calculated we’d hear more noise at arrival to the Gatun Locks.

Our timing seemed to be exellent. We had not passed any of the locks, standby is not rare here. A couple of days earlier a member of the excursions team explained a theatre full of passengers how this particular port can be tricky in terms of being somewhere at the desired time.

The ship may be guided through the Gatun Locks, the ones to and from our partial Panama Canal transit, at dawn or hours later. It all depends on the other ships that standby and can be let through togeter or with this ship by using the same water for the locks. The Canal Authority play this constant game of conserving water. (If we described this wrong, sorry, but this is the priority if we got it right).

Panama Canal surely helps the maritime life. If you compare crossing from Atlantic to the Pacific within a day to sailing around the South America (including the notorious Drake Passage between Cap Horn and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica), waiting some hours in line for the transit is not a bad deal. Sail from New York to San Fransisco around the continent and count 22,500 km instead of only 9,500 km? Maybe not. Transit is not cheap for large vessels, though. The tolls are capacity based and the Panama Canal daily revenue is 5-6 Million dollars. How much of our ship paid for a partial transit? Dunno.

The ones who started the project of making this canal a reality in 1880 were French. They failed miserably, 21,900 workers died during this attempt. They had poor understanding for the geology, hydrology, weather and especially the disease. The saying of good planning being half the battle should have been introduced to these disastrous project managers.

The United States actually managed to make the project a reality with somewhat more developed plans. However, by the time Americans finished the Panama Canal in 1914 an estimated total of 27,500 workers lost their lives. Panamians who these days enjoy the benefits may or may not know that.

After brekfast we headed to the theatre/auditorium to meet with our tour just to find we could re-check in 30 minutes. At the end our tour left about 3 hours later, but seeing the ship move through the canal and it’s locks was worth all the the wait. What a magnificent system this is, we are happy we saw the ship rise slowly from the Caribbean to the Gatun Lake through the locks.

The locomotives, or mules, are there to help the local maritime professionals sail the ships safely through the canal. The Canal Authority wants to make sure vessels of all sizes remain safe by having their staff on the bridge during the transit.

Norwegian Jade had someone telling fantastic details to us passengers all morning. Should have taken notes.

From Gatun Lake we had an excursion to the jungle. If you’re into the technical details (much of which we were shared with while getting through the locks) and deeper history of the Panama Canal while in Panama or on a cruise, make sure to have a day trip to the Miraflores Locks, we were told that is the best place to really get an understanding of this wonder.

18 thoughts on “Partial Transit of Panama Canal

  1. My husband has had this trip when he was younger but I haven’t! I really want to visit this wonder. As you said, make sure to do Miraflores Locks!

  2. Oh wow what a wonderful feat of engineering and history. I love learning the history behind different structures. Thanks for an interesting article. Has made me want to put Panama Canal on my bucket list!

  3. I learned a lot about the Panama Canal that I didn’t know from this, so thank you for sharing!

  4. What a cool experience to see the Panama Canal! I can’t believe it costs so much to go through! But I’m sure it’s worth it to not have to go all the way around South America!

  5. I was embarrassingly ignorant about the Panama Canal before reading this, but must admit it sounds like an incredible feat of engineering as well as a wonderful travel experience – will do a bit more research on it now as you’ve really piqued my interest!

    1. Always happy to get someone curious about new destinations. We learned so much during the partial transit, it was definitely a thing to remember for years!

  6. It is sad to hear that several lives were lost in the construction of this marvel! Have heard about the Panama canal and its importance in maritime history! It certainly looks like an engineering marvel and its so good to pass through it on ships and actually document this journey! Have heard stories of this canal from my dad who is a sailor!

    1. It is difficult to even try to imagine how the conditions for the builders must have been. What a sacrifice of people the process has been. But it is good that we are told about that these days.

    1. The whole project must have sounded surreal, actually finishing it -many may have doubted that! Seeing the canal in action was great!

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