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.
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.
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.
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.
Daylight broke as we waited to enter 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.
Dredging is critical to the continued operation of the Canal. Silt and hillside erosion are an ongoing problem.
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”).
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.