Written November 1, 2023, offshore in the Pacific Ocean.

Yesterday, October 31st, we made our passage through the Panama Canal. Before I discuss that remarkable experience I must visit October 30th.

As we approached Colon, Panama, there was a remarkable increase in ship traffic. Many vessels were anchored waiting their turn to enter and transit the canal.


We were advised that shore excursions were cancelled due to widespread protests. Viking Star would dock for 6 hours solely to refuel and provision. However, at dock port security informed the Captain that passengers would be permitted to disembark if they remained within the secure port zone. Christine and I took the opportunity to “stretch our legs” and wander through the duty free shopping area.


Later that evening Dr. Ian MacLachlan gave his third lecture on the Canal, this time focusing upon the Neo-Panamax. (Last night we shared table and a delightful dinner with Ian and his wife Diane.)

The Neo-Panamax is a significant expansion to the Canal that opened in 2016.

Exclusas de Agua Clara, Gatún, Canal de Panamá, Wikipedia

It features new locks that have a capacity for much larger vessels and has doubled the capacity of the Canal.

Vessels sized to fit within the original locks are deemed “Panamax” vessels, while those larger ones that fit the new lock system are “Neo-Panamax” ships.

Here are some facts that compare the old and new lock systems together with how our ship “measures up”. Viking Star is 748 feet long, 95 feet wide, and has a draft of 21 feet. She is easily accommodated within the confines of the original locks which are capable of handling vessels up to 965 feet long, 106 feet wide, and drafts up to 39.5 feet deep.

The Neo-Panamax locks allow passage of ships 1,201 feet long, 168 feet wide, and 50 feet deep. While the numbers may not seem that significant, the VOLUME of a Neo-Panamax ship is much greater, more than double the capacity. The significant constraint not yet addressed is the Bridge of the Americas which limits the height of vessels to no more than 205 feet.

From Wikipedia

As an aside, the toll for Neo-Panamax vessels to transit the Canal can exceed 1 million dollars. Our toll for Viking Star was approximately $50,000 dollars. The cheapest toll ever was charged was to Richard Halliburton in 1928, 36 cents. The adventurer swam the 48 mile length of the Canal. It was still required that he be accompanied by a pilot boat!

Since we fit within the original locks, that was our transit.

I awoke at 4:45 a.m. on the morning of October 31st and was on-deck in the pre-dawn by 5 a.m.. I was not alone.

My camera has a setting which allows me to take pictures without a flash in extremely low light conditions.

Looking aft at the Atlantic Bridge

It really came in handy. Other passengers trying to use their cell phones and less capable cameras were audibly frustrated.

At this point in my narrative I will mostly rely upon captioning the pictures for details:

We approached the Gatun Locks that through three chambers would lift us 85 feet to the level of Gatun Lake.

The arrow directs us to the right or left chambers.

Daylight broke as we waited to enter the locks.

One of the six “Mules” that would keep us centered as we proceeded through the locks.

After over 100 years the Canal operators still find that rowboats are the most efficient way to transfer lines to and from the vessels.

We were assisted on our 36 mile passage across Gatun Lake by an onboard Pilot and accompanied by a tugboat, in case anything went wrong.


Passage through Gatun Lake was through a well marked channel. This was shared by ships in both directions.

The markers seen on shore to the right of this ship are aids to navigation. By keeping them lined up the pilot is assured of being in the channel.

Dredging is critical to the continued operation of the Canal. Silt and hillside erosion are an ongoing problem.

The dredging operations base for the canal.
Dredging underway.
This is the 375 foot tall “Herman the German”. A huge floating crane taken from Germany at the end of WW2. During the War it was used to lift submarines. Today it aids in the maintenance of the massive lock gates and can lift nearly 800,000 pounds.

The Panama Canal is number one on The American Society of Civil Engineers list of The Seven Wonders of the Modern World. Among the greatest challenges faced in building the canal were conquering malaria and yellow fever, creating Gatun Lake (at that time the largest dam and man-made lake in the world), and digging through the continental divide (known as the “Culebra Cut”).

The Centennial Bridge is seen here through the Culebra Cut..
One side of the Culebra Cut.

60 million pounds of dynamite were used by 6,000 workers and a vast array of equipment to open the cut!

Past the Cut and the Centennial Bridge we reached the Miraflores Locks. Again configured in three descending chambers, these lowered us 85 feet to the level of the Pacific Ocean.


Finally our transit of the Canal was complete with the passing under of the Bridge of the Americas.

As we left the breakwater the skyline of Panama City gleamed white on our right…

…while ships on the Pacific side waited for their turn to cross to the Atlantic.

I spent 11 hours on deck watching our transit unfold. Over 16,000 vessels make the crossing each year.

Peace Everyone. Pete

PS. Earlier in the voyage I heard a surprised voice call our names, “Mr. Pete, Ms. Christine!!” It was Sasa from South Africa, who is an officer in Guest Services. We developed a close friendship with her on our earlier voyage around Cape Horn in 2019. She has been following our travels through my posts ever since, and was visibly relieved to see me in “in the flesh” and in good health.

14 thoughts on “Passage Through the Panama Canal

  1. Hey there you two! Wow – that is very interesting about the Canal. I must have been staring out the window when we went over that in elementary school! Fascinating stuff! It is funny how you keep having people from your past – pop up in front of you! Coincidence? I wonder… perhaps a larger plan to show you your impact on people? Or their impact on you? What do I know – still getting over jet lag (at least that is my story and I am sticking to it). Thanks so much for taking us along on your passage through the Canal. Enjoy every moment! Hugs –

    • So glad you guys made it home safe! This morning we are in Costa Rica. It’s hard to imagine cool temperatures of the Midwest in the midst of this heat and humidity. I really enjoy meeting people, but I am a situational introvert. The world is really a very small place. Hugs to you and Frank!

  2. As always, such beautiful pictures and educational explanation of this leg of our adventure. Must have been nice for Christine not having to operate the locks while you steered through. Just a couple of days ago I read an article about the drought that had lowered the lake feeding the canal causing havoc and reducing the number of ships allowed through daily. Happy we made it through.
    I wonder if anyone is building anything today that will be operating this efficiently in a hundred years. Wish you smooth sailing as move into El Niño waters.
    Peace to you.

  3. Lieber Pete, vielen Dank für deinen ausführlichen und sehr anschaulichen Bericht. Ich lerne viel beim Lesen deines Blogs. Ich weiß, dass du Kanäle liebst und der Panama Kanal ist wohl der König unter ihnen. Viele weitere Abenteuer wünscht dir die “Landratte” Tina

  4. Great Information! I remember reading about the canal in grade school, but it has been so many years, I forgot some of it, so it was nice to get a refresher course. Glad you and Christine are having a good time.

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