Starting from the Atlantic side, ships are waiting in the Bahia Limón for their assigned slot. This is the canal side of Colón with access to the first locks, known of the Gatun Locks. By law, a local pilot is required to board the ship to help the Captain navigate. He or she comes on board the night before - if you are quick-eyed you will see a small boat approach the ship and drop the pilot off. This way the cruise ship is ready to start passing through the canal in the early morning hours. You will typically hear the captain announce “all decks open”, which signifies the start to the passage and gives guests access to the front of the ship.
The Panama Canal turns 100 years old this August. On August 15, 1914 the “SS Ancon” was the first ship to pass the new 60 mile (80 kilometers) canal. The canal shortens the distance between New York and San Francisco from 14,000 miles (22,000 kilometers) to under 6,000 miles (10,000 kilometers). The French and Americans built it in two batches between 1880 and 1914. During the construction period more than 30,000 people lost their lives in the swamps: they died from accidents, malaria, yellow fever, and snakebites. The Americans invested $375 million dollars and controlled the canal until December 31, 1999. Since then, it resides under the ownership of “the people of Panama”.
How It Works
The pilot maneuvers the huge cruise ship carefully into the first lock. As a passenger it feels like sitting in a shoebox. There are only a few inches between the reeling and the walls. In fact, if you reach out you can touch the lock! That’s how close it is. After the cruise ship is positioned properly, the gates close. It takes 8 minutes to lift the ship by 30 feet (9 meters) as water floods into the lock, slowly raising the ship. Little engines steer and stabilize the ships, as the ships can’t use their own propulsion or thrusters in the narrow locks.
Every year 14,000 ships pass the canal, approximately 200 of which are cruise ships. The difference in the water level between the Atlantic and the canal is 80 feet (26 meters). The ships are lifted in 3 steps over this hurdle. Then the ships cruise in the canal and on artificial lakes through the rain forest and the continental waters divide until they reach on the other coastal side the other lock system where again 3 locks lower the ship back to the sea level.
The Panama Canal is a busy water street. Up to 40 ships pass through the canal each day. And it’s a huge source of income for the Panama government. The transit fees are calculated based on the cargo or number of passengers. A ship like the Norwegian Pearl pays e.g. $300,000 dollars and for the MS Zaandam it’s approximately $200,000 dollars. During the night it’s much cheaper. But that’s not an option for a cruise liner as the guests onboard would not appreciate waking up having missed the entire experience!
If you want to experience the original Panama Canal crossing, you need to hurry a little. In 2015 the modernization of the canal will be completed. The locks are being elongated and widened, so that bigger ships can use the canal. But for comparison: Royal Caribbean’s Oasis class ships will still be too wide to pass through.
When your ship arrives at an appropriate time at the last lock, you be greeted by an announcement of the local visitor center. “Bienvenidos, Bienvenue, Welcome to Panama.” And everybody will wave their hats. So grab your camera - and your hat - and enjoy this famous crossing!
Click here to learn more about the Panama Canal and the new lock system.