According to Matthew Parker’s Panama Fever, when the Culebra Cut was becoming a man-made canyon in the early 20th century, hordes of tourists went down into it because it was an awesome sight. Tourists have always wanted to see this canal. The ship we were on carried 1,300 people, and mostly all of them were on a deck by 6 am. The best view, when I first saw it, was 5 passengers deep. One woman told me that she had already been in her spot for several hours.
On decks in the dark, we all floated past the Frank Gehry designed Biomuseo Panama, and I had a pang of regret that our journey through the Canal didn’t include on-shore stops. It looked like a place to visit as did Panama City on the Pacific side of the Canal we were entering. By the time we reached the 22 mile halfway mark, Ruth and I visited every deck with a view. Deck 5 had the best one and was, of course, the most crowded, until breakfast time. Decks 6 and 7 had good views that were quite high. The walking deck, #3, had the best side views. Oddly, we discovered that our cabin was a good place to experience the locks. Many of the decks had only-through-windows views. One of these contained the ship’s exercise room, and Ruth discovered that it was a good place to see the Panama Canal because it was deserted and the windows were neither tinted nor rain-spotted.
What most impressed me about the Panama Canal was its efficiency of operation. As Matthew Parker said, “The mechanical marvel of the canal was the machinery of the locks.” What I didn’t know until I started reading about it is that no ship passes through the locks under its own power. Ship movement in the 110-feet-wide locks is controlled by 3 pilots who board at the Canal’s entrance and communicate with the crews on a group of electric cars that look like train engines. They roll up, down, and sometimes to the tops of impressive mechanical hills on the concrete docks. General Electric made them until the 1960s. When an upgrade was needed, Mitsubishi took over their creation. The marvel of this is that the entire system is powered by electricity generated in a hydroplant next to the major spillway that was designed and made operational in a steam and horse-powered era.
Ships pass through 8 locks, 2 of them new. We did not see the new ones up close, but we did see a monster ship with a red hull passing through one of them in the distance. More about this later. We left the Pacific Ocean at the 2 Miraflores Locks, crossed Miraflores Lake and entered the single Pedro Miguel Lock to be in the Culebra Cut. Passing the spot where the Chagres River flows into it, I was reminded of Matthew Parker’s comment about the Canal’s construction, “Even rocks weighing a ton were lifted up and carried off by the powerful Chagres’ current.” Gatun Lake, which is 88.5 feet above sea level, leads to the last 3 locks and The Caribbean Sea.