November 17, 2007

Today was the day we had planned our trip around; we were booked on a transit of the Panama Canal. We had to check in at the Flamenco Marina by 7 am, so we got up at 6 am, grabbed a banana for breakfast, and hopped into the Trooper at 6:30 am to be driven down to the end of the causeway. We stood in the line-up to check in, and were given purple wristbands. Then we went outside to join another line waiting to board the ship.

At 7:45 am they opened the gate and we all got on board. There must have been about 300 passengers on the ship. We headed for the top deck and secured two seats, but not out in the open. About 8 am the ship got underway and motored over to the start of the Canal. Here we had to wait for our pilot to come aboard. Every ship that goes through the Canal is required to have a Panama Canal pilot on board, with no exceptions. After our pilot arrived we headed upriver.

In the morning the Canal traffic goes from south to north, then around noon it changes direction. Our ship had a code number that indicated, among other things, that we were the 19th ship to enter the Canal today. All through the trip our tour guide told us facts about the Canal, which made it very interesting. Our ship was quite crowded, but serving the meals was very orderly. At intervals they would call a different colour of wristband, and those people would make their way to the lower deck where the food was being served. Breakfast was a half croissant, a hot muffin and some fruit. And during the trip we could help ourselves to tea, coffee, water, and juice.

We went under the Bridge of the Americas and soon arrived at Miraflores Locks. The procedure is to put more than one ship in a lock at once if there is room, so in the lock with us was a sailboat from Newport Beach named Ariadne, and another tour boat named Islamorada, which didn’t arrive for nearly half an hour. In the meantime we watched a huge container ship being lifted up in the other lock. While all of this was going on, our guide was continuing his narration. He told us how the locks worked, and what the little electric trains next to the locks were for (they hold the ship in place while the lock is filling), and that the procedures are basically the same now as they were when the Canal opened in 1914. For example, he told us that when the Canal was being built, concrete was new technology. The engineers didn’t know how well it would stand up to daily use, so they built the lock walls 20 metres thick!

Each time we went up a step we had to tie up all the ships, then shut the door, then let the water fill the tank, then open the door, then untie all the ships. This took about 15 minutes for each of the Miraflores and somewhat longer for the Pedro Miguel lock.

After Pedro Miguel we were off along flat water, travelling through the narrow part of the Canal. At times we were close to shore, but we didn’t really see much of interest along the shoreline. About 11:40 am we crossed the Continental Divide and so started “down” to the Caribbean Sea.

Shortly after noon we arrived at Gamboa, which was the destination for the people who were only doing the partial transit. Half of the passengers got off and were loaded into tour buses heading back to the city, so now we had lots of room to sit. As we left Gamboa they announced that people with purple wristbands could go down to get lunch. Lunch was a chicken breast with rice and salad, with a chocolate brownie for dessert.

We had now entered Gatún Lake, which was formed by damming the Rio Chagres. Because of the smaller size of our ship, we were allowed to take a shorter route through the lake called the Banana Route. This route took us through a lot of big and little islands that were hilltops before the lake was made. In the distance we could see some very black clouds which undoubtedly translated into the usual afternoon rain. At 2:30 pm we arrived at the east end of the lake near the Gatún Dam and the Gatún Locks, where there were several ships anchored waiting for their turn. But then they announced that we would be going through the lock with a US Navy ship, the USS Halyburton, and that we would be delayed until about 4 pm. So we motored over and tied up at an anchorage.

By now it had started to rain very heavily and we could watch the lightning in the distance. Quickly we were in the midst of a tropical storm with thunder and lightning and sheets of rain and wind. Because of the near-zero visibility, the Canal had been closed to navigation, and that meant that we were delayed further, until 4:45 pm. At one point the ship came loose from its anchorage, so the captain gunned the motors and we went around to tie up again. The lightning storm was beautiful to watch but it sure delayed our day.

During all of this, our indefatigable tour guide was narrating the complete history of the Panama Canal from the 16th century onwards. By 5 pm we were entering Gatún Locks. On this side we were going down the steps, so we could see the water level of the next lock a long way below us. In the lock with us were the Ariadne, two tugs, and the Halyburton. By the time we left Gatún Locks it was dark. It was really neat to be going through with all the lights on the Canal, but it was only a half hour until we docked at Colón. There were four buses waiting there for us and we all trooped off and climbed into them, purple wristbands first.

The ride back to the Flamenco Marina took about an hour and a half, and there wasn’t much to see because it was dark. At 9:30 pm on a Saturday the restaurants at the marina were packed full. But we were both tired, so we decided not to have dinner there. Instead, with some luck we found a taxi. This time we had a good map to show to the driver, so we were back at La Estancia at 10 pm, much to the amazement of Esteban, the manager. Bed was welcome after our long day.

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