The Second Time Around… The Panama Canal.

Three years ago I wrote about getting up at 5:15 so we wouldn’t miss a minute of transiting the Panama Canal.  I got to the forward Crow’s Nest lounge a little early.   This year we set the alarm for 6:15 and got to the Crow’s Nest just as we were approaching the Gatun Locks.

The last time we saw the lattice work that is the frame for the gates to the new locks standing upright  the steel looking like the skeleton of a new set of condos.  Today the new locks are in operation.  As we went through the old Gatun Locks we could see ships in the new locks through the trees and mist.  It was a rainy day, the latest of several rainy days, in Panama’s dry season.  Gatun Lake was full, the dam, spilling.  When the upper locks filled, lifting the ship in front of us, water spilled over the top of the gates into the lock below.

When a ship enters the canal rowboat comes out, seamen throw lines to the rowboat which takes them to the the locks where they’re attached to “mule” engines that hold the lines taught and keep the ship aligned in the lock.  The Amsterdam goes into the lock under her own power with help of a tug.  The “mules” ride along at the same pace.  They have cogs and when the ship moves up and forward the mules do to, ascending at a steep angle.  Coordination of the whole process is done with bell signals.  It’s a pleasing form of communication.  Maersk has so many ships the same size that the canal has painted stripes for the mule operators to show them where to stop to hold Maersk ships during rise and fall.  The whole lock system works on gravity, no pumps.  Water from the lake fills the locks and eventually spills out into the ocean.

In Gatun Lake we pass a New Panamax ship too big to fit into the old locks.  Leaving the lake we sail through the continental divide at the Galliard Cut, with its terraced sides to prevent landslides into the canal.

There are two sets of Pacific locks.  For part of the procedure the mules ride along at the same level as our room on the Lower Promenade Deck.  I stand next to the mule and actually exchange a few words with the engineer.  As the mule approaches the descent to sea level and begins to tip down I get the same feeling in my stomach as I get on a roller coaster then the car begins to tip for that first plunge.  I run forward to catch the mule coming down toward me.  Then we are though the canal.

To read the Captain’s account of the canal transit, and the relations between the canal pilots and the Captain you can check his blog at: .   Navigate backwards from the current post.  It is worth reading.

On the Pacific side there is a good view of the new locks.  I’ll write about them in my next post.


I posted pictures of the process on a sunny day on this blog three years ago. They are here, and here.

One thought on “The Second Time Around… The Panama Canal.

  1. Thank you for sharing the thrill,After being through many times ourselves. It brought back the thrill of going through the locks and looking all around us at the other ships, the people on land, and in the gallery wave to us and cheering us on.

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