Cruise Diaries: Cruising the Panama Canal

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What is 47.8 miles long, took 10 years to build and links the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans? If you said the Panama Canal, go to the top of the class.

Cruise ship travels lightly under cloudy skies through the Panama Canal

As a cruise journalist, I’ve sailed the world but a voyage through the world’s most famous waterway has always alluded me so this year I decided to celebrate its 100th birthday the only way possible. By cruising right through it!

The Bridge of the Americas is in sight

Bridge of America during Sunset in the Panama Canal

So here I am, at 6:30 am, huddled under a towel (the canal cuts through a rainforest so it can be a bit wet!) on the top deck of Celebrity Cruises Infinity watching as the Bridge of the Americas looms out of the mist. And I am not alone. Hundreds of other passengers are up early and braving the drizzle, and so excited that the historic transit is about to begin.

Plenty were out-and-out “canal geeks” who knew everything about its history and operation, while others had clearly not been paying attention in the on-board lectures and were still struggling with the concept of this engineering marvel (“So how exactly does a lock work?”) dug 100 years ago to link the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

Quick history on the Panama Canal

The first attempt to dig the Panama Canal was made by Ferdinand de Lesseps, the Frenchman behind the construction of the Suez Canal, but after 10 years and with 20,000 men dead from yellow fever, malaria and snake bites, his project collapsed.

Historical image of the initial stages of building the Gatun locks at the Panama Canal

It was resurrected 12 years later, in 1903, by President Theodore Roosevelt, who signed a $10 million treaty giving the US the right to build and control the canal in perpetuity (a neat aside: children born in the security zone on either side of the canal were not recognized by either the US or Panamanian Governments and were known as Zonians!)

Passageway of the Panama Canal, without water or locks, was built in 1912

Where De Lesseps had planned a sea level canal, US engineers decided to ‘lift’ ships over the Isthmus, raising and lowering them using a series of locks that are filled and emptied by gravity.

And through the locks we go

Once under the Bridge of the Americas, we climbed 85 feet above sea level by means of three locks, sailed through the Gaillard Cut, a narrow eight-mile channel nicknamed the Big Ditch as there were so many landslides during construction, then across the 15-mile-wide Gatun Lake, finally returning to sea level, but this time in the Atlantic, via the three Gatun Locks at Colón.

Mules hoist onto Celebrity Infinity as it remains within the passageway at the Panama Canal

It was the end of an eight-hour journey that had probably cost Celebrity Cruises more than $347,000 – that’s the cost of a day-time transit, hire of the ‘mules’ that steady the ships when they are inside the chambers and stop them from bashing against the concrete and a skip-the-line fee. At each lock there are two channels so only two ships can transit at the same time, but there are still long delays if you don’t pay for a priority pass.

Gatun Locks fill and empties the passageways to allow ships to move through the Panama Canal

It was also finally time for me to sit down after being on my feet for the entire eight-hour transit bar 30 minutes for a hastily-grabbed lunch. If that doesn’t propel me to canal-geek status, I don’t know what will.

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