Welcome back to another episode featuring the Panama Canal. This week we make the full transit through the Canal from the Pacific to the Atlantic through three sets of locks that I featured in last week’s post. The transit takes about ten hours so we were up early for coffee and packing our luggage that would go by bus to our lodging in Colon on the Caribbean side of Panama. We boarded the bus at 7 AM for the few mile ride to the dock to board our transit vessel.
As we waited on shore for the signal to board from the ship’s Captain, we could see the vessel patiently waiting for it’s next group of passengers.
If the vessel we were about to board, the M/N Islamorada, could talk, I’m sure the stories would be both entertaining and hair raising! The Islamorada was built in 1912 in Massachusetts as a luxury yacht with wealthy clientele in mind. And indeed one of the early owners was Al Capone, the notorious Chicago Mafia boss, who used this boat from 1919-1933 to run rum from Cuba and the Dominican Republic to Florida. It’s said that the boat had luxury suites, a casino and a bar for friends and clients of Capone. When Capone was arrested in 1931 and sentenced to prison for tax evasion, the Islamorada was confiscated by the U. S. Government. It was then used as a mine sweeper by the Army during World War II. After the war, the vessel made it’s way to Panama and used as a hotel and tour boat. It’s now owned by the Canal and Bay Tours Company capable of taking up to 104 passengers through the Panama Canal.
We boarded the vessel and anxiously waited for our day long adventure to begin.
We made our way out of the harbor to the waters just outside the entrance to the canal to wait for a signal from the Canal Authority when we could begin our transit. During the wait, I took some photos of the “cue” waiting to make the trip through the canal. We learned that vessels just don’t show up and wait their turn, shipping logistics companies make reservations up to 1-2 years ahead of an expected transit! And if they lose their turn, to bad so sad, as they also have to pay the fees in full ahead of the transit. You may wonder how much it costs for a vessel to pass through the Canal. It varies by size and the load the vessel is carrying. A typical fee for small private pleasure boat is in the range of $800-3200. The fee for a cargo ship runs from $450,000 up to $1,500,000 for one of the NeoPanamax cargo container vessels. We were told the story that the late Paul Allen, one of the founders of Microsoft, arrived at the Canal without a reservation, headed to the Galapagos for a party he was hosting. Not wanting to be late for the party, he found out that everyday the Canal Authority auctions off to the highest bidder one slot. The story goes that he bid $220,000 for his place in line when it would have cost a few thousand dollars if he’d reserved a spot ahead of time. I guess if you can afford a $200 hundred million dollar yacht, you can cough up the dough to pay the fees!
As we waited, a Canal Authority boat approached and pulled up to our side to drop off the pilot that would be guiding us through the Canal. Every vessel is required to have a pilot aboard to ensure a safe and uneventful trip.
Since we were in a small vessel, we were paired with a large, a much larger vessel to make the transit. Meet the Star Laguna, it’s a general cargo carrier built in 2012 and flies under the flag of Norway. It’s 670 feet long and 104 feet wide. Since it was riding “high” in the water, we speculated that it was empty and heading someplace for a new load of cargo, likely grain. Did you know there are websites that will show where the vessel is at any given time, currently the Star Laguna is sitting in the Port of Jacksonville, Florida.
Soon we were underway, following the Star Laguna past the Amador Causeway visible in the foreground. This causeway, made from the rock excavated during the construction of the Canal, connects the mainland to a series of four islands and serves as a breakwater for the Canal entrance. Prior to the return of the Canal to the government of Panama, it was part of the Canal Zone and occupied by the US military. In the top photo, note the modern skyline of Panama City. In the second photo, the colorful building is the Biomuseo of Panama focused on the natural history of the country. Watch for a future post on this unique and interesting museum.
Ahead of us, the Star Laguna passes under the Bridge of the Americas. This bridge was built by the Americans during their occupation of the Canal Zone to connect the east and west sides of the country. It also connected the Pan-American Highway that runs from Prudhoe Bay in Alaska along the Pacific Coast to the tip of Chile in South America. That is except for the Darien Gap, a 100 mile stretch in eastern Panama to the Columbia border. Those attempting to drive the full length from north to south have to detour by ferry boat over to Columbia to pick up the highway.
We pass through the Port of Panama with it’s many cranes and lots of harbor activity. Apparently, some vessels unload their cargo in this Port and it’s transported across Panama by rail and reloaded. Why? Not sure, but maybe it’s to large for the locks or to save transit fees.
This vessel was waiting it’s turn for the locks. If for some reason, a vessel can’t make the full transit by a certain time, they have to wait until the next day. It’s interesting to note that the Pacific to Atlantic transit takes place in the AM and the Atlantic to Pacific transit is in the PM. If you are curious about the scheduling by the Canal Authority, here’s a link to a website: https://www.pancanal.com/eng/op/Vessel-Scheduling-FAQ.pdf.
In this series of photos, we follow the Star Laguna into the first cell of the Miraflores locks. You’ll note that the Islamorada will get up close and personal with the Star Laguna. Also making the transit with us is a tugboat that is likely getting repositioned on the Canal to assist a ship through the locks.
As we wait for the gates to close and lift us about 25 feet for transit to the next lock, we note the spectators watching us from the observation deck of the Miraflores locks. The same place we watched vessels make their transit the day before. At this point we are at sea level.
The photo below shows a locomotive or “mule” (left over from the early days of the Canal when actual mules towed vessels). These mules, located on both sides of the lock, work to keep the vessel positioned in the lock while towing them through the cell.
As we move through the locks, we start out low and through water entering the lock we are raised to the next level.
From the Miraflores locks we pass through the Pedro Miguel locks, under the Centennial Bridge (built to take the traffic pressure off the Bridge of the Americas) into the Culebra Cut (aka Gaillard Cut). The eight mile Culebra Cut was one of the most challenging aspects and greatest engineering feats of building the Canal. The Cut had to go through the Continental Divide, in other words a mountain range, and because the Cut was deep, the sides were subject to landslides. It’s estimated that over 6000 men worked on the excavation of the Cut, moving millions of cubic yards of material, some used to build the Amador Causeway.
During our transit, there were times when we were waiting for things to happen. The ship’s mate would prepare the ropes to help stabilize the vessel once inside the lock. In the bottom photo in this series, he solicits help from my traveling partner to try and secure the ropes. It was one way he entertained the passengers during the transit.
During our wait while the cell filled with water, we took this selfie!
Along our route, this set of buildings was pointed out as the place where corrupt government officials and white collar crooks went to serve their prison time. From what we learned, it was far nicer than the prison where regular criminals served time.
After the Cut, our vessel sailed on Gatun Lake, the 21 mile artificial lake created by building a dam across the mighty Chagres River. After the dam was built, many of the hilltops became islands on the Lake. The Lake becomes a staging area for the transit as only one ship at a time can make the trip through the Culebra Cut. While on the Lake we met the container cargo vessel, Vecchio Bridge, that flies under the flag of Panama.
We also had a change in pilots during our transit.
Late in the afternoon, we approached the Gatun Locks on the Atlantic side of the Canal. There were would travel through three cells dropping 85 or so feet to sea level on the Caribbean. During this transit, we were in front of the Star Laguna but ahead of us was the cruise ship, the Coral Princess. During the winter, this ship works out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida serving many of the Caribbean ports. In the summer, it’s based out of Vancouver, British Columbia taking passengers to Alaska.
Once out of the locks, we pass under what is called the Atlantic Bridge that is still under construction and slated to open sometime this year. Until it’s open, travelers on the Atlantic side have to take a ferry or drive to the Centennial Bridge about 40 miles away.
The pilot is also picked up by a harbor crew. Here’s a short video showing how skilled the captains are maneuvering their vessels.
This vessel was on it’s way south through the Gatun Locks to the Pacific. It’s a ROLO (roll on, roll off) vessel otherwise known as a car carrier. The Otello flies under the Swedish flag and can hold about 8000 cars! Wonder what brand of cars it was carrying, Volvo’s maybe?
It was about 5:30 in the afternoon when the Islamorada docked in Colon. Also docked was the CMV cruise ship, the MS Magellan flying under the flag of Bahama. Most of it’s destinations are in the Caribbean Sea with many stops in Mexico.
Soon it was time to leave our transport for the day. She’d become like an old friend, comfortable, comforting and trustworthy.
We were also going to miss the commentator for the transit, Edwin. Very knowledge about the Canal and fun to be around.
That does it for today. I hope you enjoyed our travels through the Panama Canal. There’s a lot more to say but if you are curious put it on your bucket list and experience for yourself. You won’t regret it.
Next week, Back to Panama City.
Until then, happy travels!