January 11, 2010
I set the alarm on my smart phone for 6:30am, as we were scheduled to enter the Gatun Locks at 8:00am and I didn’t want to miss the approach. The alarm went off, I got up and dressed, then looked at the stateroom clock – 1:45am!! My phone’s time was off by 5 hours. Back to bed, fully dressed, until 6:30. Getting up this early was worth it – we were both very excited.
Although sea level is virtually the same on each side, tidal changes vary greatly from Atlantic to Pacific, from up to 3 feet on the Atlantic side, to as much as 20 feet on the Pacific. Each of the first twelve chambers is 1000 feet long by 110 feet wide by 48 feet deep. The six new chambers are 1400 feet long by 180 feet wide by 60 feet deep. Each of the new lock chambers has three holding basins. 60% of the water in the new chambers is reused, thus reducing the water lost to sea to nearly the same level as in the old chambers.
Ships were already lined up in the moonlight to make the transit. We entered from the north through the breakwater between Colón and Cristóbal, both cities named for Christopher Colunbus (Cristóbal Colón). We sailed under the new Atlantic Bridge, just inaugurated in August, 2019, then through the Gatún Locks. Off to the right, we could see the path to the newer locks, which began operating in 2016.
The pilot arrived by boat to board Crystal Serenity. The pilot must be on board arrive before we can enter the canal, and works from the navigation bridge. The pilot is in total control of navigational through the canal. It takes years of training to become a canal pilot, at least 4-6 years. A senior pilot requires a few more years of training.
Two rowboats (pangas in Spanish) will come out to the ship to attach cables from the “towing” locomotives. There are two locomotives on each side of the ship, and they don’t actually “tow” the ship, rather they guide it to keep it from running hard into the side of the canal. These locomotives operate on a cog rail, running on 400 volt current.
Once we passed through the three Gatún Locks, we entered Gatún Lake, a 166 square mile artificial lake created to make the canal possible. What once was hills and valleys is now covered by 87 feet of water. We paused at the town of Gamboa, where the pilots are changed, from those taking us through the upper half, to those who take us through the lower half.
Then through the Culebra Cut, about nine miles long, which presented the greatest challenges to those digging the canal, ultimately defeating the French. This section is subject to landslides every year. Engineers had hoped to find the “angle of repose,” that point at which land will no longer slide down the mountain. They never have.
Next, we went through the Pedro Miguel Locks, where we could see the new, much larger locks to our right, then the two Miraflores Locks. Once we sail under the Bridge of the Americas tomorrow, we will be officially out of the canal. This bridge was built in 1962, and is the only bridge at Panama City for traffic over the canal.