Cruise through the pathway of history

The Panama Canal

by Mary Hartman

"There is a charm of adventure about this new quest."

So said the New York Times in the 1870's when the Panama Canal was nothing more than a glint in the eye of a French entrepreneur, as well as the United States Navy. The Navy had just commissioned a ". . .survey of the Isthmus of Darien, to ascertain the point at which to cut a canal. . ."

Now, 128 years later, the idea of cruising the Panama Canal is a glint in many an eye -- one the world's ultimate cruise destinations, according to cruise industry statistics.

The charm of adventure not only remains, but is enhanced each time a ship disgorges a load of passengers, who arrive back home with tales to tell about this "cruise of a lifetime."

The Panama Canal is, after all, one of the wonders of the modern world. Completed in 1914 and linking the Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic, the 50-mile canal cuts north and south -- not east and west, as most of us surmise -- through the Panama landscape. Before the canal, ships moving from Asia to Europe or back had no choice but to sail around South America -- at a distance of 13,000 extra miles!

We traversed the Panama Canal on the Royal Odyssey, which at the time of our trip had just been sold to Norwegian Cruise Lines. While not one of today's superliners, the ship provided all of the amenities, most especially a thrilling transit through the canal. Although the trip included stops in Cozemul and Costa Rica, before docking at Acapulco, its highlight was the canal transit.

As the ship sailed into Limon Bay on the Atlantic side of Panama, and began inching its way into the 500-foot-wide passage leading to Gatum Locks, passenger jockeyed for "50-yard-line" positions on deck and clung to them with the tenacity of someone hanging, for dear life, onto Super Bowl tickets.

Then, the wonder of it all -- ever so slowly the enormous gate of the first Gatum Lock eased open and the Royal Odyssey slipped through to begin its eight-plus hour transit of the Panama Canal. Once inside the lock, the gate closed behind us and the ship was floating in a chamber 110 feet wide and 1,000 feet long.

From our positions on deck seven, it was difficult to feel or sense the rising of the ship. By the time we were in the third Gatum lock, however, we had retired to the dining room for lunch. As we were seated, our window view on both sides of the ship was limited to the lock's massive gray concrete walls. Then gates closed, the water flowed in and the ship began to lift. Up, up, up we went, this time very much feeling the rise. Soon enough the concrete wall had been replaced with a mangrove swamp and the Republic of Panama in the distance. In between our salad and the main course, we had been lifted 85 feet to the top of the lock and from the dining room window we could see and feel every inch of the ride!

Ever so smoothly, then, we sailed out of the last lock and into Gatum Lake, a 23-mile long body of water formed by an earthen dam across the Chagres River near the Gatum Locks. The lake was dotted with small islets and filled with ships -- some westbound, as were we, others headed east. On that day, ships from 16 nations passed through the canal, including from Greece, Italy, Norway, France, Britain, Korea, Taiwan (Republic of China) and Japan. The Japanese ship, identified with a massive logo that screamed "Toyota," carried -- what else? Brand spanking new cars! These car-carrying ships look far more like massive ocean-going boxes than boats; in fact, they are dubbed "ro-ro's" (roll on, roll off), designed as they are to provide easy-on-easy-off for their cargo.

As we eased west through one of the locks, the Republic of China ship was moving east, filling the lock to within a foot of both sides of its chamber! The cliche, "fits like a glove" must have been coined in the Panama Canal! A few inches larger and that freighter would be headed around the Horn!

In addition to the foreign carriers, we also passed a submarine, with only its topside poking above the water, as well as an ultra-luxurious yacht, replete with its jet-set crew and passengers smiling and waving from its teak and brass-polished decks.

Norwegian Cruise Lines paid a $52,000 toll for the Odyssey's transit of the canal -- a cost built into passenger fees. With approximately 750 passengers on board, this works out to a few cents less than $70 per person. Up to that point, we were told, the steepest toll ever paid for a canal passage was $150,000 coughed up for one of Carnival's mega-liners. The least expensive toll was 36 cents, collected from a swimmer who transited the canal under his own power in the 1920s!

Once through Gatum Lake, the ship entered the Gaillard Cut, site of Panama's Continental Divide. Cutting through the eight-mile-long divide, formed of rock and shale, posed the greatest challenge to canal engineers. In addition to the enormity of the task, construction crews were plagued with massive and devastating landslides that occurred throughout construction and even after the canal opened. The area is named after Col. David DuBose Gaillard, the engineer in charge of this section of the canal. Its history, including the fact that the Cut has been widened since 1914 from its original 300 feet to 500 feet, sparks special interest among passengers as ships move through this portion of the waterway.

At the Gaillard Cut, ships are more than halfway through the Canal, but two smaller sets of locks remain -- the Pedro Miguel Locks and the Miraflores Locks. At Pedro Miguel, at the south end of Gaillard Cut, we begin our descent into the Pacific by being lowered 31 feet into Miraflores Lake, a small artificial body of water about a mile wide. From the lake, we entered the Miraflores Locks and approached the Port of Balboa on the south side of the Canal. Then, as the day began to wane, we glided beneath the Bridge of the Americas, a structure as beautiful and grandiose as its name implies -- a bridge connecting the two American continents and their cultures, history and people. To the south rose the skyscrapers of Balboa, Panama's capitol city. To the west lay the vast Pacific. We had left the Panama Canal behind, but we would carry our experience home with us. We had just carved another notch in our belt of travel memories.

For my husband and I, the trip was especially nostalgic: Family members had lived in the Panama Canal for 25 years. Our brother-in-law had been vice-principal of a junior high school there. Six nieces and nephews grew up in the Canal Zone. "Be sure to look for the football field near one of the piers beneath the Bridge of the Americas," said cousin Tim. "That's where I played football when I went to high school." The football field in Balboa, St Joseph's Catholic Church along the canal in Gamboa, where one of the children had been baptized, and the highway paralleling the south side of the canal prodded our imagination as we pictured our family's busy years in the Panama Canal Zone.

Would we recommend the Panama Canal cruise? Absolutely! We'd do it again in a moment. Travelers can choose from among almost all the major cruise lines from the upscale to the more moderate. All will offer an unforgettable experience.

If you are interested in learning about the history of the Panama Canal before you go, you will enjoy reading the "The Path Between the Seas, The Creation of the Panama Canal - 1820 - 1914," by David McCullough. McCullough's book is seen by many as the definitive history of the building of the canal, including the roles played by the United States as well as by France and its chief architect of a Panama Canal concept -- Ferdinand de Lesseps, who in the 1860s had successfully engineered the Suez Canal project. Reading about de Lesseps' aspirations in Panama will give special meaning to the small "ditch" that cruise passengers can see on the north side of the canal near Limon Bay. The ditch represents the French effort in digging the waterway, an attempt that had foundered by 1890. In 1903, the United States signed a treaty with Panama to build the canal. Subsequently, the U.S. purchased the French Canal Company rights and property, and construction began. To this day, however, some rusted artifacts of the French effort can be seen along the waterway.

The Panama Canal is rich in history. The traveler who learns something about this history will be equally rich in understanding and appreciating this project. Engineers describe the canal, its lakes and locks, as having been so well done when it was completed in 1914 that even today, it cannot be improved. Your trip through the Panama Canal will show you why!

Mary Hartman

About the Author

Mary Hartman
Mary Hartman is a veteran sea-goer and globe-trotter. Her resume reads a media relations specialist with Colorado State University and a free-lance writer who lives in Louisville, Colorado, USA.