6am pitch black outside but the ship is already alive with guests cameras at the ready as we approach the runway between the green and red navigational lights. To our right the lights of Panama City glow in the darkness while on our right the full moon is lowering her eyes as she nears the horizon. To both sides the blackness is no longer as the 50 or 60 ships close by are lit up like miniature fairylands, all waiting patiently their turn. We are moving like a cat in the night; stealthily creeping along towards the Bridge of the Americas at the Pacific entrance. Some ships are too high unless at extremely low tide to pass under. Passing between the US coastguards nine vessels and approximately 20 huge container cranes we are in the commercial section now. Ahead of us is the fully laden blue and white container ship, the Mol Express, with only two feet on each side clearance it is one of the largest vessels able to transit the canal.
Moon asleep; sun rising; the light is eerie. On our port side the construction works of the new canal are coming into view. This work was mooted just before WW11, suspended and now full speed ahead with a completion date planned 2014. Several new cruise liners are too large to fit the present chambers.
We are moving closer to the other ships ahead as the passageway narrows and we get closer to Miraflores Locks, the first on the Pacific side. A tug is still at our starboard side guiding our path. Powerful tugs,sitting low and pushing through walls of water, constantly at work guiding a ship to the lock then moving back to guide another ship in to place. Back and forth all day and night long.The tugs are required as the mix of salt and fresh water causes the ships to swerve slightly off course. As we enter a lock a small rowboat is used to bring the tow rope to the ship which will be attached to the locomotive that runs alongside guiding the ship through. The row boat has proved to be the most effective method as all the ships are of different heights and sizes. The locomotives guide 8 ships through in each shift.
Each chamber of the locks uses 52 million gallons of water each time. With the new construction this water will be recycled but at the present it is just discharged. When the water level of the chamber in front is equalized with the chamber we are in, the gates just open slightly and then the lock master opens them fully.
Moving through the three locks of Miraflores, we pass the weir and hydroelectric power station which supplies all the electricity requirements of the Panama Canal. For our entire journey through the locks frigate birds, sea gulls and pelicans have shadowed us.
Now approaching the Pedro Miguel lock, built in 1913 (only one chamber),which will then lead to the Culebra Cut. This lock has the retractable road, a narrow link between the shore, the centre platform between the east and west channels and the other shore. As we move on the landscape changes dramatically to a dense green and heavily forested. A The Mol Express has moved through and is now passing under the Centennial Bridge completed in 2004, 100 years after it was begun.
Since 1954 digging has continued to widen the Cut. The terraced banks have widened the cut by 900 meters through mostly solid rock. Red and
A white mark on the shore signifies the water levels reached in the dry season. Rising up to 30 meters in the dry season. It is here at the Cut, where the new channels will meet the original canal. By installing florescent lighting along the Cut and the locks in 1963, round-the-clock transiting was possible.
Contractors Hill on the left and Gold Hill on the right have concrete braces added to the face of the hills to support the rock face and avoid landslides.
Engineering, sanitation and environmental problems had to be overcome to built the Canal. Yellow fever and Malaria the deadly enemies, were eradicated by the Americans.There are few reminders of the French, but one, a cemetery is behind the Gold Hill.
Entering the lake, the largest man-made built between 1906-10 we transit across about 23 miles to Gatun Locks. The islands we see are really the tops of mountains before the area was flooded for the lake. We are passing a US Naval supply ship and a constant stream of ships coming from the Atlantic side, as we are the last to transit from the Pacific side today. Once a ship enters the canal there are only two places it can tie up before continuing the transit. One just before the Pedro Miguel lock and the other near the Gatun Locks.
The weather is humid but still overcast.The birds are no longer with us.The landscape is more dense but only as high as the Maasdam; What we are observing is really only the top of the Continental Divide. Deep dense rainforest.
The Gatun lake has been widened, islands removed to provide a safer transit through.After transversing the lake we come to the Gatun locks.Tugs are at the side of the Mol Express guiding it into the right hand chamber, in the left chamber a pleasure craft is in front of a tanker; going through together. The Gatun dam is to our left. Sometimes the entire 14 gates are opened to allow the waters out of the lake to eliminate damages to the locks.To the right the area under construction for the new chambers of the new set of locks. The new width will be 400×180 ft almost half as big again. The new lock will only be one way; the water will be flowing sideways through the three consecutive chambers thus saving water. Only 7% of the water used will be lost.
We are entering the first chamber of the Gatun Lock and see the container ship before us being guided through by the mule locomotive. Again we are being shadowed by the birds. The landscape has changed dramatically; lowland few large trees mainly scrub.
At the highest level of the lock are two sets of gates as a safety measure. If a ship should break loose and damage a gate the second gate should protect the lock and flooding of the lake. 105 holes evenly spaced along the bottom of the walls allow the water to flow in at 3 million gallons a minute to fill the chamber. It will take 12 minutes to fill 26000 gallons from the 2nd chamber to the first chamber. The container ship in front is so much lower than us that we cant see its hull.
Ships fly flags indicating their allotted position, a flag indicating that a Panamanian officer is on board is also flying.
A line of vehicles await the closing of the gate before they can cross across the chamber. The vehicles proceed down a ramp to the road on the front of the gate on each of the two front chambers then up another ramp to the road again. A bridge or tunnel will be built when the new locks are built. The canal saves about 20 days sailing time.
There are three things a ship requires prior to transit: a Panama Canal pilot who will be in command the entire time of the transit; Be able to fit into the locks which are 1000 feet x110 feet; Payment made prior to transit.
Tidal variation on Pacific side is 45 ft on Atlantic side only 4 ft and both are at different times.
As we enter the third chamber we notice the water from the chamber next to us spilling out and mixing with the sea water. Swirling water of an apparent different colour.
Out of the locks and making our way towards Colon and the Caribbean Sea. Passing huge container terminal and ships waiting to transit the canal tonight. A rock breakwater wall offers little shelter. The waves are smashing up and over, the spray high into the air. A trader ship lists towards the shore at an odd angle; a victim of the stormy sea.
Now making our way to Cartagena then Florida.
We are in the open seas. Grey green swell with occasional white frosting; dull windy nothingness as the water meets the sky blurring the horizon. The swimming pool has just overflowed so its time to move inside and prepare for the evening entertainment.