A Man, a Plan, a Canal, Panama

What can we tell you about the Panama Canal that you don’t already know or you can’t get a more reliable, more complete version on Wikipedia: Panama hats are actually made in Montecristi, Ecuador; the “west” end of the canal is east of the “east” end.

From Colon to Panama City is about 40 miles; the transit took us from about eight in the morning to about seven at night. There are three locks up and three locks down; the biggest change is 31 feet and total of 85 feet. Compared to some of the locks on the Mississippi, that’s not too impressive except they have to get up and over the mountain range that runs the length of the Americas, including the Andes and the Rockies. They moved a lot of rock to get it down to 85 feet. But there is still a reason they dug it where they did.

What is impressive is the size of the chambers. The old locks, which we used, are 1100 feet long but they have to allow room for the gates at one end to swing. I don’t remember the width but the poor little Black Watch had about 11 feet of clearance on each side; the ship in front of us had about five; the minimum allowed is two feet. However a couple US  battleships in WWII were allowed through with less than one foot on each side. Since the US controlled the canal then, I’m not sure who would have said no.

The chambers in the new locks are 1400 feet long and also wider. While that channel has been open for a while, it doesn’t carry nearly the same volume of traffic. It probably costs more and certainly uses more water. After all that, a couple of largest new cruise ships do fit in the locks but are too tall to go under the Bridge of the Americas.

The locks are built in pairs so two boats go through at a time. They didn’t mention it in the narration but I assume they must pass water back and forth to minimize water usage. She did keep talking about 2.3 million gallons of water for one transit. Or maybe it was 23 million; you can look it up.

They claim the two oceans are the same level but I’m not sure how they decided that or when they measure it: the Atlantic side (they call it that even though it is several hundred miles from the Atlantic) has a maximum high tide of 19 inches; the Pacific side has a high tide of 22 feet. There must be at some point they’re even.

Tolls are based on things like tonnage, how many “mules” required, how many cables required, number of passenger berths, and probably some other stuff. The maximum toll to date was $490,000 for the Norwegian Pearl; the lowest was 36 cents for a man who swam through (which is no longer allowed and the minimum for anything was since established at $1100.) They also charge cruise ships for the luxury of scheduling a time in daylight. They didn’t tell us what our toll was.

There never were any actual mules involved in the operation. The things called “mules” are locomotives that look more like Thomas the Tank, with the right paint job, than anything I’ve seen pulling a train. Their job is to keep the boat centered and to help with braking in case the pilot botches it up. Otherwise the boat goes through under its own power. We used six mules and twelve cables but we’re just a baby cruise ship.


We have been suffering with temperatures in the low thirties Celsius but the sun is brutal. When we started the transit, there was considerable jockeying for space at rail. Within a couple hours, the premium space was in the shade.

Most of the work during the transit was done by people who work for the canal. This includes the pilot, the narrator, and about twelve men who had fives minutes work to do attaching the cable from the mules before the locks and detaching them after the locks. Most the time, they sat in the shade, and playing with their mobiles, after arguing the important issues of the day, which may have had to do with US politics or with where they were going for lunch, with considerable vigor.

The cable guys didn’t ride all the way through but stayed with their own set of locks. Part of the job involved throwing a line to two guys in a row boat who attached that line to a heavier line that was attached to the cable that was attached to the 55-ton,  $2,500,000  mule. They tried replacing the row boat with harpoons but the guys on the receiving end didn’t like it and they tried outboard motors but they sometimes didn’t start. They went back to row boats. Every lock had a big bull’s eye next to it that was used for line throwing contests to keep their skills up to snuff.

Tomorrow at 6:20 am, we cross the equator and pass into the southern hemisphere. We have already observed the appropriate rituals to appease the sea gods, which mostly involved throwing the Captain and a few other assorted crew members into the pool after they had kissed a dead fish.


A crew member awaiting her sentence with some trepidation. The Captain is the big guy with a beard, behind the little blonde, near the judge with the white wig.

(I think we are on Eastern time and if I ever get my Samsung Galaxy, Doré’s Surface Pro, the satellite  internet connection, Google, and Microsoft to play nicer together, I will add pictures. One day it did all work .)

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