January 8, 2015
We got up at 5:15 for our transit. We approached the first set of locks just as the sun was rising. On the port side of the ship the huge new gates for the new locks that will accommodate bigger ships stand with giant Panamanian flags draping over them. They are almost ready to be installed. The new ship channel is almost complete. But we head for the locks built a century ago, “mighty machines” of the early 20th century that will continue to do most of the work for current Panamax ships and cruise liners like ours even when the new locks accommodate much larger ships. Since the 1960s the locks have worked 24 hours a day with orange sodium lights illuminating the scene. We reached the Gatun Locks just at sunrise. There are many good books that can explain the whole locking procedure, which is fascinating and held my interest during the entire transit. I will let you read those and give you just my personal impressions.
It’s the sounds that attract me, and fortunately my ears had unclogged enough to be able to enjoy them. At the Gatun Locks it was the tooting of horns, the annoying, and fortunately rare, beep beep of a truck backing up, the bell signals on the “mule” locomotives on each side of the ship that hold it taught in the locks, the pleasant screech of steel on steel along the “mule” tracks, the click of the cogs as the mules ran up steep slopes of the lock to keep the ships in place, he whine of winches, the crackle of walkie talkies and orders shouted through a bullhorn, the sound of the spray of power hoses washing down the sides of a ship, seabirds; all of this accompanied by the constant sound of running water as the locks fill and drain. It is a busy set of sounds, each sound distinct and as a whole pleasing. The sounds evoke emotions while the visual transmits information.
After all of that sound the running through Gatun Lake at around 4 or 5 knots seems peaceful, water laps at the side of the ship as we glide past wooded islands and ships going in the other direction. From the quiet of the lake we sale into the Culebra Cut, the terraced cut through the continental divide that, along with disease and the problem of too much water running from the mountains, frustrated the French efforts to build a canal. The cut kept sliding into the channel (at times it still does and we can see a recent slide). In the cut the noise picks up again, with the sound of dredges, and pumps pulling silt as the canal authority widens and deepens the cut for the new super Panamax ships that will come with the new locks. This sound is less pleasing than the operation of the locks or the quiet of the lake, more industrial. All along the cut new navigation markers are set, still covered with black plastic, to be removed, with the old markers covered, on the day the widened, “two lane” cut becomes operational. The Authority is installing new LED lighting to light the whole cut. The Canal will be able to have two ships side by side after the change. The shipping companies and the canal authority like this. The Pilots’ Association is not so enthusiastic. As we come out of the cut big trucks haul dirt from the excavation leading to the new Pacific locks. There are a lot more back up back up beeps here. Then it is the pleasant cacophony of the working locks before we are out of the canal.
This is the first tranche of Panama Canal Pictures, Entry, Gatun Locks, Gatun Lake. The second tranche, The Cut and the Pacific Locks will follow in a later post. I will also have a post on Panama City.