Monday, January 05, 2015

2014 25th Anniversary Trip Part 9: The Panama Canal

The Panama Canal
Ah, the post I've been waiting for, the whole reason why we took this cruise, other then the fact it was our 25th wedding anniversary, the Panama Canal. It turned out to be a VERY long day!!!

We woke up at 5:30am, as we were scheduled to transit the canal starting at 6am! Right at 6 we crossed over the bar from the Caribbean to enter the canal area. Soon the tugs boast came out to meet us, and it was barely light out.

The new Canal Lock doors for Gatun
Nearly the entire ship was on the outside and forward deck to watch us slowly inch towards the first set of locks at Gatun. It was pretty crowded. The crew had cornered off an area to allow the ship photographer to take photos of passengers as we went thru the canal, which we took advantage of.

On the ship's PA they gave a history of the canal as well as pointing out what was going on  step-by-step, including when the Ship's captain was no longer in charge as a canal Pilot was on the bridge. This becomes an important fact later in our journey.
The old French Canal

We saw the remains of the original French attempt to build the canal to the ships right. Even current PanamaMax ships have nor hope trying to go thru the original French size canal. On the ships left was the making of the new set of locks which are 50% bigger then the current locks. The new lock doors were sitting at the entrance waiting for their placement. They were HUGE! After listening to our guide in Panama yesterday, as seeing the status of construction, I think 2018~2020 is realistic as to when the new locks will be finished, not 2014/15 which was the original plan.
A "Mule"

Soon our ship was connected to the "Mules" at the first set of Gatun Locks. Mules are electric locomotives that run along the side walls of the locks that keep the ship centered as it moves thru the locks. The mules so not pull/push the ship. The cables are kept taut or slack to ensure the ship never hits the lock walls. They are powerful little beasts. Their electric power comes from a slot between the rails, much like streetcars in Washington DC and New York City did back in the day.

Soon we were in the first lock. Once in the lock with the doors closed, it takes about 8 minutes for our ship to rise enough to enter the second lock. Gatun has 3 sets of locks before allowing us entry into Gatun lake. Each lock requires the addition or release of over 26 million gallons of water. Luckily they were ships going up and down on either side of the canal, so ultimate "only" 26M gallons of fresh water from Gatun Lake is washed out to sea for every ship that transits the canal.
Entering Gatun Lake

By around 10~11am were started our transit across Gatun Lake and into the Culebra cut. This was a very slow transit with ships everywhere. Gatun Lake is the source for water fro the canal. Luckily it rains a lot in Panama to be able to have this huge man-made lake. But Panama does have a dry season, where they were in the middle of, so the lake was lower than normal. This would prove important later on in our journey

As stated  earlier, the French had tried to build a canal before the Americans. But the French plan to to have a level canal. There was thought that the Pacific and Caribbean had different water levels, but that is plain false. What is true, is the Pacific side has tidal influences which can affect the water height by up to 18 feet depending on the time of day. The french plan did not work, and with Malaria, it made it impossible. Soon the Americans took over and decided to go over the mountains. 

Gatun Lake control house, finished in 1913,
the canal opened in 1914
The canal opened in 1914 with 3 sets of locks on the Caribbean, and 1 set of one, plus another set of 2 locks on the Pacific side. The total canal length is about 48 miles. The canal overshadowed the first American Transcontinental Railroad, the Panama Railroad (not the UP/CP line in North America), but the Panama Railroad is still an important lifeline in Panama. The locks do not require any pumps. The only energy used in canal operations is the opening of the lock doors. Water is strictly gravity fed thru gate valves. Very efficient, just with a huge water loss. The new set of lock intends to be able to recycle 50% of the water, which is good since the new locks will require more water. But again, gravity will be it friend, with the addition of water storage. An interesting fact about the canal, is when you head from the Caribbean to the Pacific, when you exit on the Pacific side, you will be further east then when you started in the Caribbean. Bizarre, yes, but when you look at a map, most of the transit you are heading more north/south then east/west. So geography over-rules your common sense.... Check it out...

New bridge over the Culebra Cut
After going thru the tight Culebra cut, we enter the Pedro Miguel lock. It is single set of locks that drops the ship from Gatun Lake into Lake Miraflores. This is where the dry season, and that the Canal Pilot is in charge becomes important.

The ship connected to the mules again, just like at Gatun. We entered the singe lock with out fan fare and soon we were dropping about 31 feet. The the forward lock door opens and we slowly head into Lake Miraflores. 

The "notch" in the control house roof was caused by our ship
As the side "fly" bridge was starting to go past the Control house, something happened with one of the tensioning cables from the Mules that allowed the ship to sway towards the building. The Fly bridge is wider then the ship itself, then there was a crashing sound. The fly bridge was crunching the roof of the Pedro Miguel control house. Roofing tiles came crashing onto the rails for the mules below. However the ship never stopped moving. Stopping would cost more money. Ground workers quickly removed the tile pieces to allow the locomotives to pass. Later the Ships Captain explained, that yes he was on the bridge, but the Canal Pilot was in full charge of the ship, including the tension cables on the Mules. It sounds like there were a variety of factors that lead to the incident.
1) The fly bridges on the Legend of the Seas, had been made a little wider during a recent retrofit since the ship had been thru the canal last.
2) Lake Miraflores was lower then normal due to the dry season.
3) One of the cables on the mules was allowed to go slack when ti shouldn't have. 
Miraflores Visitor's center as seen from our ship.
We saw the canal the day prior from the visitor's center.

All 3 factors worked together to allow the roof of the control house to be damaged. However, Royal Caribbean International, or the Captain of the Legend of the Seas, will not be held accountable, since the Canal Pilot was in charge. The Captain seems to smile when he said that, and maybe he should charge the canal to fix the paint scratch on his ship :).

After that excitement we were soon coming up on the last set of lock, Miraflores. These 2 locks till lower the ship from Lake Miraflores into the channel that takes us to the Pacific Ocean. There was not excitement like the last set of locks, but a send of accomplishment was building on the ship. Before long we were on the Pacific side and by 6pm we were crossing under the Americas Bridge and heading to sea.
The America Bridge and our exit from the canal

In total is took us 12 hours to transit the canal from end-to-end. I walked about 5 miles on board ship watching its progress. Admiring the engineering of the 1914 canal and seeing the building of a 21st century canal was awe inspiring, and exhausting. Royal Caribbean paid about $300K in tolls for us to transit the canal, with the use of pilots and tugs and Mules. The Bucket list item complete!!!

For the evening, I believe we skipped the night's entertainment, but did eat sushi at the Izumi Grill for dinner. Soon we were in bed for the night. It was hard to believe we still had 8 days left on board ship....

Gatun Locks looking towards the Caribbean

A bit taken out of the Pedro Miguel Control House
Roof tile on the trackway
The new Gatun Locks under construction
The canal
Railroad crane for canal maintenance

Looking back from the Pedro Miguel lock
Note the gap between the ship and the canal wall...
Dredge in Culebra Cut preparing it for the larger ships

Gatun Locks
Canal Tug

Gatun Lake

Culebra Cut

Railroad Crane