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Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Transiting the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal

We awaken at 5am aboard Holland America's MS Veendam, though I've been awake more or less for the last two hours. Excitement mostly. My wife has a cough that still plagues her after several days, but it seems to have wound down suddenly in the middle of the night.

The location guide on the television indicates we're still roughly 25 nautical miles (fifty kilometers) from the canal.
Approaching Panama

Estimated time to enter the first portion is around 7am. We're a bit behind schedule, at least according to what was announced yesterday -- though the crew were explicit that plans could and likely would change. I believe the pilots are expected around 6:45. (Unlike most ports of call, where the pilot comes on the ship to help the ship's Captain guide his vessel, in the Panama Canal the pilot is the de facto Captain for the trip. It must be difficult for Captain van der Wal and others in his position to relinquish the wheel despite the necessity to do so.)

Our plan is to go up to the Crow's Nest, the general lounge at the topmost and forward most section of the ship's superstructure. It affords the best overall view of the proceedings, and most passengers are likely to be on the bow or along the sides of the ship. My intended position is the open-air Sky Deck, above the Crow's Nest.

One of the surprises of this voyage is that we will not be permitted to disembark as we pass through Panama. When I first learned of this I was a bit disappointed -- no feet on Panama terra firma -- but realized rather quickly that it's the canal not tourist shopping which is my interest. Cruising it end to end has been a lifelong goal

Since childhood I've been fascinated with massive engineering projects. The Hoover Dam. The Eiffel Tower. The Empire State Building. The Golden Gate Bridge.

The Panama Canal is perhaps the greatest of all engineering projects throughout history. The difficulty of conditions, and the scope and scale of the undertaking dwarf almost anything else constructed, save perhaps the Great Wall of China, Machu Pichu and the Pyramids (considering the relative technology available to the people of those particular cultures).

Bridge of the Americas
At 5:45 we head up for the first round and hopefully to secure a good viewing spot before the rest of the passengers awaken. Perhaps unsurprisingly the Crow's Nest is already abuzz and nearly full. We secure a table and chairs off to the port side, and we're joined shortly thereafter by our traveling companions. It's still pitch dark out, and a constellation of ships' lights form a horseshoe around our bow and both sides of the ship.

Panama Rolls and Coffee
The pilots board around 6:30, and by 9am we have slowly picked our way to the front of the line, passing the thoroughly modern skyline of Panama City and the Bridge of the Americas. As we approach the first set of locks a narrator hired by the cruise line begins his presentation from the Crow's Nest, at first covering the history of the canal followed by a description of each step in the process of passing through as we make our transit. By 10 we're entering Lake Miraflores. One more set of locks and we enter the central part of both the canal and of Panama itself.

 The southern portion of the canal, Galliard Cut, goes uneventfully. It's the dredged section, and the water is smooth without an excess of wind or inclement weather. By noon we're through the Pedro Miguel Locks and headed into the canal's largest and most beautiful area, Lake Gatun.

At 1:15 we round Barro Colorado Island and enter Lake Gatun. A gale force wind slams the sea lanes, rocking the ship from side to side and subjecting the heartier passengers to winds gusting (and maintained) at 30 knots. It makes it tough to stand still, and even tougher to frame an image and take photographs. I imagine the pilots are having a good deal of fun trying to keep the Veendam from sliding sideways in the channel. 

Surrounding the ship is dense and spectacular rainforest. An emerald green blanket of trees and underbrush, proving the amount of effort and risk taken by the builders of the canal. The beauty hides a great deal of danger -- animal and infectious. And just heat and humidity. It's January and yet the noontime temperature hovers around 84F/29C. 

Earlier in the day traffic was essentially northbound, heading from Pacific to Atlantic. Traffic in the southerly direction becomes more common the further we go. 

Going through the first two sets of locks we were followed closely by the sailing vessel Sea
Cloud, her passengers waving enthusiastically at the Veendam's. Now, in Lake Gatun there's no sight of the Sea Cloud. I'd imagine her masts and rigging, even folded and undeployed, are catching enough wind to slow her progress. 

She and the Crystal Serenity, headed south, have thus far been the only two cruise ships we've seen.

We transit Lake Gatun quickly, arriving at the Gatun Locks a little ahead of schedule. The ship slows. Our announcer comes back online, giving an overview of the locks at this end of the canal. Rather than the two locks process, as we did at the southern end, the Gatun Locks are a single three-step drop of 82 feet.

I'm sitting at the window overlooking the starboard side of the ship, watching the activity of securing and moving the ship safely along. I've ordered a martini -- the official Panama Vanal martini in my collection -- and am sipping at it when an elderly woman, carefully making her way down the Upper Promenade deck using a walker, approaches me to ask if she might sit at the chair directly opposing mine at the window. Of course I nod yes, and she sits gratefully down for a rest.

Lock view from our cabin
She's from Wisconsin, and the conversation soon turns to cheese, among other things. She's a very pleasant person, and we talk about any number of things as she asks, somewhat red faced, if she can have some of the peanuts the bartender brought me with my drink. I tell her to go ahead and enjoy them, I'm quite done. She digs in and explains she hadn't gone down to lunch, and missed the service altogether. She finishes half the dish, then sits back and we silently watch the proceedings on the dock, which rises and falls away as we move through each set of gates.

After a time I excuse myself to go check on my wife, who has by this point (3:30-ish) roused herself and is ready to come up to the deck to see the ship leave the locks and head oceanward. 

The Atlantic
By 4:30, more than an hour ahead of schedule, the Veendam enters the Atlantic Ocean proper, bidding goodbye to the city of Cristobal at the canal's Northern entrance, the canal, and Panama itself as we head across the Caribbean towards Cartegana, Colombia, and our first time setting foot in South America.

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