Monday April 4th, 2011 -- Panama Canal
Hola y buenas dias! As I write this I am sitting on the balcony hoping the humidity isn’t bad for the lap top. Guess I’ll go inside for a few minutes.
We were up early this morning to have breakfast and watch our passage through the canal. We were a little behind everyone else so we watched from the forward windows of the buffet dining room instead of outside, which turned out to have a good view, just not from outside the windows. I managed to video most of our passage through the first and largest of the 8 locks, the Gatun Locks. Then all batteries went dead and I retreated to the room to recharge everything. From there we watched from the balcony as we exited the final of the 3 Gatun Locks. This is when the drizzle started and we, even though we are outside, were sheltered from the rain. While traveling through Lake Gutan to the next set of locks, we float close to shore after exiting the canal and can see the rain forests that actually allow the locks to function.
In short a river was dammed to allow formation of Gatun Lake. The lake is continuously filled by the heavy rains from the surrounding forests. The water from the lake is then used to fill the various locks allowing ships to be raised over a total of 75 feet above sea level. The ships are actually “raised up over” Panama, by water.
When the French attempted to build the canal in the late 1800‘s they tried to dig down to sea level to create a one level passage. Because of the heavy tropical rains they weren’t able to keep the land from sliding into the canal from the sides and finally gave up their attempt to build the canal. The Frenchman who was in charge of the project had also developed the Suez canal and was trying to use the same type of design in an area with completely different geography. From my understanding he had no special training, he was not an engineer, he was just a man with a vision and enthusiasm.
When Teddy Roosevelt became President he was greatly excited about the project and arranged for a small revolution in Panama so the country could declare it’s independence and allow the Americans to come down and build the canal. Pres. Roosevelt was thinking military strategy in developing a way for our navy to have access and control of the PC forever (Jimmy Carter gave away our ownership of the PC during his Presidency). The best railroad and lock engineers of the time were hired to design the locks and passage. It’s a complete marvel that today still exists the way it did in the early 1900’s, because it works beautifully. Water is gravity fed and the gates are perfectly balanced in place. The operation of the gates uses hydroelectric power and only needs 40 HP to move the necessary parts. “Mules” or train engines are positioned around the ship and actually move it from lock to lock. In order to connect their ropes from the mules to the ship, two men in a row boat row out to the ship and toss a rope with a “monkey knot” in it to our ship crew, who then secure it. The men who toss the knot practice this toss and have competitions to keep sharp. They want success on the first toss. There are at least 4 mules, 2 forward and 2 aft, with ropes attached to the ships. The mules keep the right amount of tension to keep the ship center in the lock chambers. Once the lock doors are opened the mules run on tracks and pull the ship into the next lock.
Each lock chamber is 110 feet long by 40 feet (I think) wide. Our ship is a “Panamax” ship and is the maximum dimensions allowed for transit. On either side, there’s 2 feet between the ship and the wall.
One of the reasons the U.S. succeeded in the building of the canal was that one of the persons in charge of the construction decided to take care of the place that the workers would be living first. The men loved him for this and followed him eagerly. He cleaned up the area with brooms, sewers, water systems and insecticide. He constructed a camp that the workers could be comfortable in and wouldn’t mind staying. Unlike the French, the Americans knew that Yellow Fever was transmitted by mosquitos and a large effort was made to eradicate them and their habitat. It was after this that Pres. Roosevelt visited. When Pres. Roosevelt visited Panama to see how the construction project was going, it was the first time a U.S. Pres. had left the country while in office.
After sailing over most of Lake Gatun we came to the narrow part of the passage known as the Gamboa area. This is where much of the maintenance facilities are located and is an 8 mile stretch of the canal where most of the effort was concentrated because of the taller geography. Travel through this part of the canal is currently limited to one way traffic. This area also is where the futuristic Centennial bridge is located, and short ways down stream the only other permanent bridge, the Pan-American bridge. The bridge is 6 lanes wide, but you wouldn’t guess it by looking at it.
Dad and I managed to have lunch as we approached the second set of locks, the Pedro Miguel Locks. This was actually only one lock. I ate quickly and hurried to starboard side, deck 7 to watch us drop down about 30 feet. I took pictures of the mules as they approached and tossed lines our ship. Also got a picture just after dynamite was detonated on the expansion project happening just north of the current canal. It was cool to see us drop from being above ground level to being almost even with the ground after the water had dropped. The water leaves the lock through 100 man-sized holes and takes approximately 9 minutes. The terrain in the area is decidedly different, much more rock and less dirt. The material from this region in taken by rail car to the Atlantic end to be used to stabilize the ground.
The day was sunny and humid so I headed to the Lotus pool for a quick dip and found a chaise lounge facing the glass window to watch our approach to the mira flores locks. This set of locks is composed of 2 locks, bringing us back down the final distance to sea level in the Pacific ocean. I fell asleep in the chair and missed most of this transit, but woke up in time to run to the back of the ship and take a picture of the locks as we left them behind.
The area on the Pacific side is full of ships staging to enter the canal. It looks like a truck stop for ships.
Headed up for dinner after lounging and napping some more. If I didn’t have a scheduled dinner time, I wouldn’t have gotten up out of the chair until waaaay later.
Appetizer: Fresh mozzarella, basil and tomato with basalmic dressing.
Thai chicken something something noodle and lemongrass soup.
Main course: Chateubriand beef with sauce and berny potatoes, vegetables.
Dessert: Chocolate flan with banana compote, Jamaican coffee ice cream
Returned to the room after dinner and will stay in tonight. We dock in Puerto Amador, Panama tomorrow and have an excursion to an eco-park. More on that tomorrow.