Some baby boomer travel experiences are worth repeating. That’s certainly true of a Panama Canal transit. The journey may travel along the same watery path; but each time, Alan and I discover new facets about The Big Ditch.
On our first Panama Canal cruise transit, we sailed from east to west—beginning in the early morning on the Atlantic side and ending in the Pacific Ocean around midnight, including a stop for excursions near the Gatun Yacht Club. On our recent holiday cruise on Silver Cloud, the journey through the canal began from the Pacific side and continued straight through to the Atlantic, giving us the opportunity to see all three locks in the daylight. Come along with us:
On the morning that Silver Cloud waits for her turn to enter the Miraflores Locks, Alan and I look out the balcony window to discover that we are surrounded by at least 50 ships. It’s like a giant parking lot at sea. Motors idle as captains wait for the pilot boat to lead their vessel through the locks of the Panama Canal.
As Silver Cloud follows the pilot boat to the neon green arrow pointing to her lane in the locks, the sounds bring back memories of our last Panama Canal transit. Ring, ring—a bell trills. Clang! Something heavy and mechanical thuds to a close. Squeak! The wheels of a locomotive squeal on the track as a ding, ding, ding signals its approach. This is the language of the canal—all bells, whistles and the mechanical groans of heavy equipment.
From the balcony, Alan and I watch a freighter ease into the lane next to us. Her crew is standing at the rail watching us as we watch them. Cameras are pointed from both sides, along with waves and smiles.
Men in rowboats attach lines from locomotive engines, known as mules, to each side of Silver Cloud. The locomotives run along tracks on each side of the canal lane, keeping the ship centered in the water. Creak. A gate shuts behind us and water begins to fill the chamber. The mules work in tandem, pulling up an incline on each side of the canal lane. Ding, ding, ding. Once we are at the proper water level, two doors hinge open in front of us and our journey continues.
Up on the top deck, cruise guests crowd the rails for photographs. Over the loudspeaker, a local expert explains the intricacies of the canal. She points out the construction of the new lane, scheduled for a 2014 completion, which will double the Panama Canal’s capacity as well as allow today’s larger ships to pass through.
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Before joining Alan in the crowd at the rail, I accept a mimosa from the bartender who’s set up shop on the top deck. Silver Cloud knows how to make this a festive occasion.
There’s a special breakfast on the pool deck with cooked-to-order eggs accompanied by a selection of pastries that will require many laps around the jogging track for working off calories. However Alan and I have another plan. We’ve called ahead to order a room service breakfast on the balcony of our cabin where our eggs benedict will be accompanied by a close-up view of the action.
It’s a steamy day as Silver Cloud sails along Lake Gatun on the way to the Gatun Locks. According to the facts that we learned from Captain Larry Rudner’s guest lectures about the Panama Canal’s history, 27,500 workers died during its construction. The jungle landscape that we see on the lake’s shore is evidence to why so many of them died from yellow fever and typhoid.
The sounds of the Panama Canal are repeated when Silver Cloud negotiates the Gatun Locks in the late afternoon. Clang! Ding, ding, ding. Thud! As the last gate closes behind us, Silver Cloud enters the Atlantic where a new language greet us—the creaks and groans of our ship entering a stormy sea.