Panama Canal Crossing
Trip Start Feb 11, 2010
28Trip End Apr 04, 2010
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Bone, Tom & I stayed up early morning until 1:00 AM to watch the Star Flyer go under the 5,400 foot long Bridge of the Americas (opened in 1962) near the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal. We had to go under at exactly lowest tide in order to not hit the top of the 226 foot masts. The bridge cleared the canal surface level by only 201 feet at high tide! It was dark out, so I took no pictures or movies. But it sure looked like we scraped the bridge as we passed under.
We then went to bed and awoke at 5:30 AM to watch the approach to the Miraflores Locks at 6:00 AM. I called Bill on my cell phone to tell him we were entering the locks so that he could see us in the canal web cams. He watched us live on the internet as we went through the two Miraflores locks
Next, after going across the one mile long Miraflores Lake, we went through the one Pedro Miguel Lock. Reluctantly, we had to take breaks to eat breakfast and lunch. Miss food?? No way! Now we were officially at the highest point on the canal system, 85 feet above sea level. We entered the Gaillard Cut, part of an 8 mile long arm of the artificial, 20 mile long Gatun Lake. The Gaillard Cut was a part of the canal that was blasted from the 360 foot high continental divide. It was only wide enough to allow ships to safely pass single file. Traffic control was efficiently coordinated by the Panama Canal Authority, similar to when a two lane highway is reduced to one lane due to maintenance. One lane of traffic moves as the other waits its turn. Future plans are to widen this part of the canal for two way traffic. As we passed through the magnificently tiered Gaillard Cut, I kept thinking about the thousands of workers who died from disease and accidents during the canal construction. Over 27,000 workers died (22,000 during the French project and 5,600 during the USA project). In sharp contrast to the death toll, the canal saved money, time, fuel, wear and tear for ships. For example, the canal saved 7,800 miles at sea on a trip from New York City to San Francisco
We easily sailed under the Pan-American Highway's 3,500 foot long, cable-stayed designed Centennial Bridge. Opened in 2005 to alleviate congestion on the Bridge of Americas, the bridge clears the canal by 262 feet. But from the Star Flyer deck, the 226 feet masts still looked close to hitting the bridge above. We sailed across beautiful Gatun Lake, past many lush hilltop islands formed from the rising waters when the artificial lake was filled almost one hundred years ago. It was very hot and muggy on deck with little breeze as we motored slowly toward the Caribbean. The day was beautifully hazy and sometimes sunny as a local Panamanian woman guide gave us interesting facts on the hot foredeck during the transit.
As we approached the final three Gatun Locks on the Caribbean side of the canal, we passed by the large hydroelectric Gatun Dam of the Chagres River that formed Gatun Lake. 25% of the electricity produced by the dam is used to run the canal. The rest is sold to Panama's electric grid. To the northeast, we could see excavations for the new US$5 Billion dollar Panamanian controlled canal project. The proposed sets of larger locks at both ends are expected to double the existing locks' capacity and will allow much larger ships to transit the Isthmus of Panama by 2015
Time flew by way too fast. We made it through the entire canal system in about 9 hours, not including the time waiting to enter the first locks. What a wonderful experience! We were one of almost 15,000 ships per year that the canal serves, each taking 52,000,000 gallons of water to transit the locks. We docked on the Caribbean side of the canal, near Colon at Cristobal, Panama to load food, supplies and to refuel. We got off the ship but everything was closed on Sunday. We got back on the ship and celebrated this momentous adventure. Later in the wee hours after resupplying, the ship headed for the San Blas Islands.
Some additional interesting facts about the complex canal history...The French canal project began in 1880 and ended in 1889 after spending about US$235 million. The USA canal project started in 1904 and cost US$375 million to finish. Over US$1 billion has been spent on maintenance and improvements since then. The first ship to officially transit the entire canal system (590' steamship SS Ancon) did so in 1914. Amazing that 95 years later, I was standing on the deck of a 360' sailing ship making the same crossing
Here is the URL for a time lapse movie of ships leaving the Pacific Ocean and going up through the two Mira Flores Locks on 03/21/2010. Star Flyer appears in the left lock, at about 40 seconds into the movie, behind another smaller freighter:
Here's another of Star Flyer going down through the three Gatun Locks into the Caribbean Sea on 03/21/2010