A Remarkable Passage through the Panama Canal

by Nick Kendal

Navigating through the locks of the Panama Canal
Navigating through the locks of the Panama Canal

What an adventure! For 10 years, we have had a Panama Canal cruise as a highlight on our Bucket List, savouring the day when we could finally tick the box.

We joined the elegant Sea Princess on her San Francisco to Barbados voyage, with Central America and Panama as major attractions, arriving at Fuerte Amador, the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal. Our anticipation was palpable as the impressive high rise skyline of Panama City came into view and we knew the passage was at hand.

After a day of touring the former American installations and a fascinating visit to Miraflores Locks to see the canal workings and the excellent Panama Canal Museum at the locks, we returned to the comfort of our mini-suite on the stern of Sea Princess.  

We could reflect on the wonder of watching another large cruise ship just feet away navigating the locks on the final steps of its 87ft descent down to sea level, knowing that we would be ascending the next morning. We forced ourselves out of the Raz-Ma-Tazz disco for an earlier night than usual, ready for an early start.

Up at around 5.00am, Sea Princess was already quietly positioning towards the pilot station on this warm pre-dawn morning as our senses quickened for the experience to come. Turning into the entry channel for the canal, we headed up along the ship to the bow to see the glittering rows of red and green buoy lights guiding us inexorably to the Bridge of the Americas, while to the starboard side, the lights of Panama City stage-lit the area.

We were not alone. Hundreds of equally enthralled fellow passengers lined the ships rails to take in the views – cameras clicking all around.

Gliding under the huge steel bridge, we crossed the start line in the rising dawn of a glorious sunny day. Majestically inching our way along the first cut of the canal we gently rounded the first bend to see Miraflores Locks ahead of us. The locks were already lifting two vast commercial ships loaded with containers and cars as we wondered what cargoes lay within the steel boxes heading towards the Atlantic. Perhaps there were millions of televisions and computers, exotic foods and Californian wines – who knows?

As Sea Princess moved towards the starboard lock gates we were fascinated to notice a small rowing boat leave the massive engineering of the lock walls and towards our large ship’s bow. Amazingly, this was the technique used to link the steel hawsers of the first locomotives on the lock sides that would hold us squarely positioned as we were to transit the locks.

All the while, graceful Pelicans and birds of prey glided around the huge structures eyeing up fishy breakfasts in the churned waters. The giant doors opened and we shifted gently into the first lock chamber. We could see the museum and viewing galleries we had visited the day before as Sea Princess was raised though the chamber, through the next gates and up again.

Our on-board commentator told us about the construction of the canal, the considerable human cost and it’s completion on the day after the outbreak of World War One.  The scale and quality of the engineering in such an era added yet more to an already impressive experience.

We retired to our balcony stateroom on the stern as we departed Miraflores, watching for crocodiles beyond the weirs as Sea Princess moved onwards towards the locks at Pedro Miguel, 87 feet above sea level. Along this section, we could see at first hand the new workings of the Panama Canal expansion programme, in which huge new locks and new cuts are being constructed to increase the canal’s capacity. Giant earth movers, floating cranes and other machinery were at work to add to the genius of those first pioneers 93 years on.

From Pedro Miguel, we cruised along the sunlit eight mile cut into Gatun Lake, watching the tugs keeping us in line, looking for wildlife and enjoying a fine Princess breakfast on our balcony. An occasional glance at our stateroom television showed us the forward view of ships of all types and colours moving towards us and they burst into life as they re-appeared to view from our sunbeds to glide onwards south to the Pacific.

Sailing past beautiful wooded tropical islands amid the wider views of rainforests that surround the huge man-made lake, we cruised quietly onwards to the final stage at Gatun Locks.

Now for the final surprises. Passing through the manicured locks, we descended through three levels to sea level and the Atlantic Ocean in this one huge structure. Looking back to the following ships as we left the final gates after this descent, it was seriously impressive to see these huge vessels stacked so very high above our own level.

As the new Gatun lock workings came into view and our camera batteries demanded a re-charge, while the pilot boat returned command to the splendid Captain Foster and his excellent crew we moved serenely away, Sea Princess’ straight white wake intensifying as we accelerated onwards towards Colombia, continuing our cruise through the Panama Canal.

This was one impressive and memorable day.