Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Transiting the Canal

Leaving Gamboa & Gatun Lake

Under the Pan American Bridge over the canal

The mules which pull the ships in the locks

Crammed into the lock

Through the Gallaird Cut & under Centennial Bridge

Passing ship with mandatory attached tug

Miraflores Visitor Center viewed from the canal

Well, technically we did a partial transit of the canal. We had been waiting for Mall and Leena to arrive before we actually did what has to be one of the highlights of any visit to Panama. In our case, we signed up for a tour boat that started at the Flamenco Marina on the Amador Causeway. We took a bus from the marina along the canal to Gamboa, which is located at the southern end of Gatun Lake. Gamboa is where the Chagres River flows into the lake. The Chagres is the source of all the water for the canal and provides for the gravity flow locks at both canal entrances.

In Gamboa we boarded the tour boat, the Pacific Queen, which handled about 300 passengers. We then proceeded south into the Culebra Cut, which was the major excavating part of the canal construction. This was where the canal crosses the continental divide before arriving in Panama City. Our transit was timed for arrival at the Pedro Miguel locks for the direction change which occurs at noon. In the morning the ships in the canal are going north through the canal and locks towards Colón, and then at noon the direction switches to permit a south transit.

As we reached the Pedro Miguel locks, just past the Gaillard cut (which caused the French downfall and end for their canal construction efforts) we were served lunch as we were one of the first ships into the canal, along with a freighter who had bad timing, and was waiting for 12 hours. As we were cruising through the cuts, the new construction and widening was pointed out for the new 3rd lock which will handle the super ships. The new lock is scheduled to come on-line in 2014, the 100th anniversary of the opening of the canal, and after an investment of $5.6 billion dollars.

After completing the Pedro Miguel lock it is a very short trip to the Miraflores lock, where you have a double lock, requiring two separate drops, to get to the level of the Pacific Ocean. Leaving the lock we entered Panama Bay and the Pacific for our return to Flamenco Island and the Marina. As you exit the canal area the boat passes by all the ships waiting for their north transit to begin at midnight. The system of priority is that when they reach the waiting areas, they contact the Panama Canal Authority and you are put into the queue. Depending on how many ships are waiting (they take 36 ships each day) it could take several days until the transit. To avoid destroying fragile cargoes the ships can make reservations up to 18 months ahead, but you must arrive on the day of your reservation, or you go back to the end of the queue, and you lose your original fee (everything is paid in advance). I have to assume that this is what the cruise ships do, to keep on their sailing schedules. When the ship is told to proceed they are given a set time to be at the Miraflores lock, and the ship takes on the canal pilot who is the Captain of the ship until it exits at the other end of the canal.

Our 4½ hour experience was well worth the $115 per person. You can access more information and photos at the tour company website:

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