Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Ocean To Ocean

The reason we chose the cruise we did is because it was going through the Panama Canal. Going through the canal is something Ed has been talking about for years, but I really didn't get the interest or appeal of being on a boat that was just going through a few locks, it didn't seem very exciting to me.  It turned out to be more interesting that I'd thought.

The Panama Canal has a long history, dating back to the early 16th century.  According to the history section of the Panama Canal website, the dream of creating a canal "can be traced to the 1513 Isthmian crossing of Vasco Nuñez de Balboa. He discovered that only a narrow strip of land separated the two oceans".

France began work on the canal in 1881 but had to stop due to disease and deaths - it's been reported that 22,000 workers died during their construction period.  The United States took over the construction in 1904 - losing more than 5,600 workers - and took a decade to complete the canal, officially opening on August 15, 1914.  It was one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever attempted.

There are three sets of locks that make up the canal system - the Miraflores Locks, the Pedro Miguel locks, and the Gatun Locks - t
he length of the lock system is 1.9 miles long, including the approach walls - here you can see us approaching the last of the three locks, the Gatun Locks, that will lead us to the Atlantic Ocean.  We are approaching one of the two lanes, which you can see already has a ship in it.  On the right there is another ship waiting to enter.   
Here you can see the top decks on the bow of the ship lined with passengers taking pictures and watching the passage through the locks.  We had a historian on board who narrated the entire trip through the canal.  The audio could be heard outside on the decks and inside in the public areas.
On each side of the walls of the canal are electric locomotives on tracks that hook up to the cruise ship.  They are there to help eliminate side-to-side motion of the ship, and they provide braking through the narrow channel.  They don't pull the ship through, they just guide it.
The electric locomotives, known as mulas (mules), keep the guide lines taught in tandem, making their way along the channel and even up a slight incline to the next lock.  
In this photo you can see the mule approaching the incline, and the doors to the next lock.  The original electric locomotives were 170 HP, built by General Electric, and cost $13,217 each.  Today's locomotives weigh 50 tons each, operate two traction units of 290 HP each, are built by Mitsubishi, and cost $2.3 million each.  
According to Wikipedia, the lock chambers are 110 feet wide by 1,050 feet long.  The Gatun locks, the one we're in, has three steps, which will raise us 85 feet to get from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean.  As each lock fills, it takes the ship to the next lock.

In this next photo, we are waiting for the water to fill the lock.  Each lock chamber uses 26,700,000 gallons of water to fill it from the lowered to the raised position. Twenty-six million, seven-hundred thousand gallons!  And it only takes 8 minutes to fill the chamber.  The same amount of water is drained from each chamber to lower it again.

The double doors of the lock gates are a safety feature.  If a ship were to hit one of the gates, it would unleash a torrent of water that could flood the lands downstream.  The double gates assure that the water is always contained.  

In the photo above you can see the doors and how the water level in front of us is higher then the chamber which we're in.  In the photo below you'll see that we are now at the same level (that the water raised us to) and we can move forward to the last set of locks. 
Again, here's the ship slowly making its way into the second lock.  The progress into each lock is slow - making sure the ship, which doesn't have much room on either side, doesn't hit the walls - but as mentioned earlier, the filling of the lock itself is quick.  
The gates separating each lock are strong enough to hold back the millions of gallons of water that fills it.  The gates are 47 to 82 feet high depending on their position and they're 7 feet thick.  The hinges alone weigh more than 16 tons each.  
Here we are entering the last lock.  It won't be long now before we're in the Caribbean Sea and on our way to the Atlantic Ocean.
The distance through the canal from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean is 50 miles. It took us all day - from approximately 7:00 am until 5:00 pm - to traverse the canal.  The average transit time is 8 to 10 hours.

Not only does it take all day, but it's not cheap either.  The toll for a cruise ship averages six figures.  One of the highest toll ever paid was by a Norwegian Cruise Line ship in 2010 that had to fork over $375,600 to make the journey.  

Today more than 15,000 ships go through the canal, 15 times the annual traffic the first year it opened in 1914.

Not only does using the Panama Canal allow ships to avoid the notoriously dangerous Cape Horn of South America, where "the waters are particularly hazardous, owing to strong winds, large waves, strong currents and icebergs - dangers that have made it notorious as a sailors' graveyard" but it also shaves 7,872 miles off the trip.

During our transit we were also able to view the construction of the newer, wider canal which will sit beside the existing canal, and is being built to allow wider vessels to pass through.  But Panama has competition, because Nicaragua is planning a canal of their own, even against the advice of scientists who claim it will wreck the environment.

It doesn't really matter what Nicaragua does because they'll have done it more than 100 years after Panama did, and now we can say we've been through the OC, the Original Canal.

We can also now check another item off Ed's To-Do list.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
2014: Where We Go To Squeeze Melons
2013: Yet We're The Ones With All The Rules
2012: There Is No Problem Here
2011: If This Is What Being A Loser Means, Count Me In
2010: The Only Thing It Extends Is The Humiliation Of Having A Small Johnson
2009: Wishing You All A Happy Lá Fhéile Pádraig
2008: There Should Be Some Sort Of Award For This
2007: Table Talk
2006: Cats And Grandchildren Make Great Indentured Servants
2005: Sorry, no post on this day. The blog didn’t start until May 2005!

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