A sense of how large Gatun Lake is
It took most of a day to make our way through the Panama Canal locks from the Caribbean Sea on the east side of Panama to Gatun Lake. We deliberately booked a stateroom with a balcony for this cruise so we could watch the process.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to convey the size of the Panama Canal and Gatun Lake. Simply put: They’re HUGE. After going
Gatun Lake vegetation
through the locks on the Atlantic side, the ship entered Gatun Lake which is so large you can’t see to the other side. In addition, there are hundreds of little islands scattered throughout. The water level in the lake varies but there are channel markers along the way to keep the ships safe.
A brief history of the Panama Canal
A working crane
A canal connecting the Caribbean Sea with the Pacific Ocean was first attempted by the French in 1881. France had the world’s best-trained corps of civil and military engineers. Even so, they were not able to improvise and adapt to the difficult and unfamiliar terrain of the Isthmus of Panama.
In addition, the French were unable to understand the cause of the yellow fever and malaria
that eventually killed 20,000 men. One of the theories was that malaria was caused by poisonous marsh gas released into the air by rotting vegetation. They thought yellow fever was air borne from animal and human waste, sewage and rotting animal carcasses. The French finally admitted defeat in 1893 and stopped construction efforts.
Threatening clouds over the islands
Americans had always been interested in a canal that would link the country’s east and west coasts. However, their interest was primarily in building a canal through Nicaragua. A large river could take a ship from the east coast of Nicaragua to Lake Nicaragua in the middle of the country. From there, a short canal would be needed to continue to the Pacific side.
The French wanted $109 million for the equipment and their work in the Panama Canal. A special commission was ordered by
A Gatun Lake island
President William McKinley to study the feasibility of a canal in Nicaragua. After the Walker Commission recommended Nicaragua for the canal, the French lowered their price to $40 million and the United States changed directions. The US resumed construction of the Panama Canal in 1904.
Through the locks
Under the direction of Army doctor William Gorgas, work began to eradicate yellow fever
A lock with the water level down
and other diseases even though people in power were skeptical that these diseases were caused by mosquito bite. John Stevens, the construction engineer in charge of building the Panama Canal, supported Gorgas’ efforts and with his help, progress was quickly made.
The canal was finished in 1914. It was managed by the US until 1999 when Panama took over control of the operation and maintenance of the canal under a treaty signed by Panama’s then President Torrijos and US President Jimmy Carter.
Another part of that treaty specified that Panama is not allowed to have a military force to protect itself or the Canal. Instead, it is the duty of the United States to protect and defend Panama. We have a similar treaty with Japan that was signed as part of Japan’s surrender ending the Pacific portion of World War II.
My view of the Canal
A tugboat "steering" a shipping vessel
Thinking back to 1903, the architects and Army Corps of Engineers did a seemingly impossible job of planning and executing the project with only basic instruments like a slide rule, compass and complicated equations that had to be solved by hand. There were no computers, no CAD, no way to visualize the finished canal. They didn’t even have calculators in 1903!
When it was finished in 1914, there was no way that anyone could imagine the size ships would become. Each lock is 1,000 feet long
and 110 feet wide. Princess Cruise Line has two ships that were specially built
Empty lock and cheering crowd
to navigate through the Panama Canal: the Coral Princess and the Island Princess. Each one is 964 feet long and 106 feet wide. With such tight clearances, two pilots come on board to assist the captain in navigating the ship.
This little tug boat can push a huge vessel like this around so it’s able to leave port, dock properly or to avoid any underlying problems. A tug like this helped our ship as well.
At one point while making our way through the locks, we went by a strange, very large, building with open “balconies.” All three levels were packed with what looked like hundreds of overly enthusiastic people – tourists, maybe? – waving, clapping and yelling out to us. I have no idea who these people were. Were they there specifically to watch our cruise ship go through one of the locks? Were they Panamanians or tourists? I should have asked someone but never thought to do so, so it will remain a mystery.
A train runs along the canal
A tour guide told us that Princess pays $300,000 – $350,000 US to go through the canal. I was not able to confirm that number. Because of the size of today’s ships, the canal is undergoing a major update. The Panamanian government is building a new set of
I like the softening of the hills
locks that are larger and deeper along side the existing ones. This expansion is scheduled to open in 2014, on the Canal’s 100th birthday.
Tom and I enjoy history and learning new things and I will say that this cruise has been full of these opportunities. Except for the weather – October is in the rainy season – this has been an exceptional cruise. The next time we plan one, though, we will make sure to check the rainy season/dry season before booking.
Until next time,
Susan L. Stewart