Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The Great Panama Canal Cruise - The Canal, Pt 1

Continuing the daily live blog of our big Panama Canal cruise, sailing round-trip from Fort Lauderdale with Princess Cruises.

The Panama Canal

Our first view of one of the great engineering and human achievements in the world is pretty small-scale – a dim view of lights in the near distance building into a Christmas-tree effect as we get closer.

It is 6am and the first light of dawn is filtering through a heavy overcast, slowly revealing the outline of the Gatun locks of the great Canal, which opened almost 100 years ago.

We have inched up the initial stage of the Canal from Colon, on the Caribbean side of the Isthmus, and, within a few miles, are ready to enter the first part of the three-stage locks that lift ships up some 85ft to the level of Lake Gatun that effectively acts as a ‘bridge’ across this narrow part of Central America.

As it slowly becomes fully light, we can take in the overall effect of this spectacular achievement – the highlight of our cruise and one of the top sights in the wide world of cruising.

We are not here for a full transit but we will see the Gatun locks in action, twice, as we pass through on the way ‘up’ to the lake, then anchor for a while to allow a number of excursions ashore and then turn around and go ‘down’ again to the Caribbean.

It is a truly awe-inspiring sight as we maneuver into the first lock and are attached to four ‘mules’ - $2million train-type engines that maintain the ship’s position through each lock in a continuous pull up the full 85ft ascent.

There are two sets of locks, side by side, and a large freighter is already into the second lock alongside us, demonstrating the smooth, efficient and quite breathtaking transit that takes about an hour.

From our balcony we watch the entire “performance” as all 90,000 tons of the Coral Princess is carefully eased into position, using its own power and the two sets of mules fore and aft, and the first lock is then filled to the level of the second so we can move up in 28ft increments.

Many people are out on deck – and look like they have been there since 5am! – but we have a perfectly good view to start with. We can also enjoy the ultimate indulgence of room service and breakfast on our balcony as we pass through into the third lock.

The onboard lecturer maintains a regular commentary from the Bridge, and this is relayed both out on deck and on the in-cabin TV, ensuring everyone gets the full insight into what we are seeing. The ship’s ‘Bridge-Cam’ TV channel also provides an excellent forward view of the whole process.

It is a thrilling view, a slow-motion ballet of machinery that steadily urges us into the hinterland of Panama, this controversial country caused in a revolutionary breakaway from Colombia in 1903 and supported by the USA in their desire to build the Canal.

The effort took them 10 years and more than 5,000 dead men in a monumental building programme the like of which the world had never seen. It is all brilliantly documented in David McCullough’s book The Path Between The Seas, which also details the tragic French attempts from 1870-1890, and is essential reading for anyone heading this way (and anyone who just loves scintillating, well-written history).

Up in Gatun Lake, the totally man-made body of water created in the final stage of the Canal’s construction, there are another nine ships awaiting their turn to pass ‘down’ the lock chain, and the constant slow passage of traffic through the locks is almost mesmerising.

Next – Canal Pt 2 and Colon.

For more info and bookings – in the UK, call Princess Cruises on 0843 373 0333 or visit the expert cruise agents of The Cruise Line Limited on this link; in the US, call 1866 335 6379, or visit