Transiting the Panama Canal: An exhilarating cruise experience

The Panama hat - made famous by President Roosevelt during his visit to the Canal

The Panama hat – made famous by President Roosevelt during his visit to the Canal

One of the most magnificent, majestic engineering monuments, the Panama Canal changed world geography.

In 1914 it enabled ocean liners and cargo ships to sail through the narrow isthmus of Central America between the Atlantic and Pacific in just 8 hours. In 1880 the first overly ambitious, poorly managed French project to build “the great trench” was a tragic and financial disaster, costing the lives of twenty thousand workers through heat exhaustion and tropical disease.

Twenty years later President Roosevelt began to dream the impossible dream to set up an new American canal construction. From 1903 it took ten years to complete at a cost of $380m. On August the 15th 1914 the SS Ancon transited the canal to mark the official inauguration.

12th January 2015 saw the Silver Shadow follow its wake on the 50 mile journey. At 6.15 am we entered the first of three sets of giant locks, elevating the ship 85 feet above see level. We anchored in the tranquil Gatun Lake for a couple of hours awaiting our turn to transit the final Gatun Lock.

The Gatun Lock with locomotive on the canal side wall

The Gatun Lock with locomotive on the canal side wall

Cruise ships are a tiny proportion of the Canal’s business but are given priority. Pilots accompany the Captain and his officers to guide the ship through the extremely narrow 110 ft wide waterway. A fee ranging from $50,000 to $250,000 is charged based on size and tonnage. Along the lock walls, two electric locomotives run at each side attached by heavy cabled to pull the ship through.

A local expert, the author on the history and building of the canal, Patricia Holmes came on board for the day to give a fascinating running commentary from the Bridge. Most guests were out on deck or in the Observation lounge watching all the action as the Shadow was gracefully raised and then lowered through the various ladders of locks.

Cargo ships entering the Miraflores Locks.

Cargo ships entering the Miraflores Locks.

The most scenic landscape is the 8 mile Culebra cut which crosses the continental divide. Looking out both port and starboard the view of the Panama landscape is just thick steamy rain forest and crocodile swamps, such a wild, impenetrable terrain; you can only just imagine the extraordinary, super human achievement for the army of 24,000 international labourers working with steam shovels in unbearable heat. With incessant noise, dust and muddy landslides, it was described as Hell’s Gorge. Unskilled workers from Barbados lined up to go to Panama to earn a dollar a day, living in ramshackle huts. Skilled engineers and professionals were paid between $87 – $250 a month with comfortable free housing and medical attention.

To witness the crossing through the Panama Canal and appreciate its construction was s truly awesome, exhilarating cruise experience. A journey only possible due to the passion, determination and commitment of the French and American pioneers, one hundred years ago.

Panama City at the Pacific end of the Canal.

Panama City at the Pacific end of the Canal.


About vivdevlin

I am an international travel writer, specialising in luxury travel, hotels, restaurants, city guides, cruises, islands, train and literary-inspired journeys. I review dance and theatre, Arts Festivals and love the visual arts. I have just experienced an epic voyage, circumnavigating the globe, following in the wake of Captain Cook, Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson.

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