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Panama Transit
A wonder of the modern world glides past the porthole
Copyright © The Star Ledger 2000

October 2000 (Travel Section Cover Story)

BY LERON KORNREICH

PANAMA CITY, Panama--When I set out on a cruise that would take me through the Panama Canal, I expected to sail through a long narrow passage, different from a river only in that you enter it through a set of locks. Six days into the cruise, I stood on deck feeling as though I were staring at modern-day pyramids.

Soaking in the view around me, I saw that practically everything was set in its place by man. Bewildered, I also learned that the process of passing through the locks is far more intricate than I had imagined. It turns out the canal isn't merely a thin man-made passage. It is a colossal engineering feat that includes an artificial lake so large it takes hours to cross.

We had set sail from San Juan, Puerto Rico. The closer we got to the canal, the more our journey proved the difference between a short cruise in calm waters and racing across the Atlantic Ocean toward the Pacific. Whether it was the soda in my glass shaking during dinner or those extra few steps I didn't mean to take during aerobics, I was constantly reminded I was at sea. The turbulence was bearable, though, and a small price to pay to reach the trip's prime destination.The morning we reached the canal, I woke up before 7 a.m. and raced to the tenth floor deck, heading to the front of the ship. I thought I had gotten up early enough but we were already inside the first lock out of three. There were mobs of people outside, and I had to use my East Coast attitude to elbow my way onto a perch atop a deck chair.

Looking above people's heads, I watched in awe as water flowed into our chamber of the Gatun locks, lifting the ship slowly until it reached the height of water in the second chamber. The enormous gates of the second chamber opened slowly and the ship entered. Then water filled that chamber, raising the ship to the height of water in the third chamber. In all, the ship was raised 85 feet, to the height of Gatun Lake.

I got a good understanding of what was going on by watching as a massive cargo ship in the chamber to our right went through the process a few minutes ahead of us. The ship was standing still inside the first lock as water rushed into the chamber. It rose an inch and then another and another in a nearly imperceptible process. But soon I noticed I had to tilt my head upward to see the cargo ship workers who had been at eye-level with me earlier.

Canal workers in tan uniforms and white hard hats moved swiftly and purposefully as if on auto-pilot. During this time, the ship's captain was a passenger. It is the only place in the world the captain of a ship is not in command. Before we entered the canal, a specially trained pilot came aboard and took charge and the ship's engines were shut off as it approached the first lock.

I peered down over the side of the deck and noticed that the cargo ship (and ours, too) was attached to machines that look something like train cabooses, conductors included. They're called mules and were attached to the ships by cables. They run up an elevated track that takes them to the height the ship reaches after the chamber is filled with water. I was amazed that these relatively tiny mules were hauling ships the size of towers. From my tenth floor vantage point, the mules seemed small enough for me to reach out and grab, as though I would be removing the caboose from the track of a model train set.

But as mighty as I felt looking down at the mules, I couldn't help but feel tiny compared to everything else around me. The locks' doors are 7 feet thick and stand strong like towering walls. But all it takes is a 40-horsepower motor to command them to hold back water from the Pacific and Atlantic oceans until the moment it's needed to elevate or lower a ship. Being at the halfway point between those enormous bodies of water provided a humbling perspective on my place in the world. I was a little speck on a big ship in a huge canal connecting two mighty oceans. Around me were hundreds of other human specks, pushing and shoving to get a better view.

Directly to my right stood a white building with a red tile roof stating the name of the locks and "Providing Passage into the Twenty-First Century." The building was a picturesque element in the industrial scene of tracks and mules and cranes. It also provided a measure of how high the ship was being lifted, because it shrunk toward the bottom decks as the process of filling our chamber with water got under way.

I asked the man standing next to me if he knew why the canal's engineers did not simply make the Gatun Lake lower, as opposed to raising ships to its level and then lowering them again. After all, I reasoned, the lake is artificial, so they could have made it any height they pleased. After a pause and a, "hmmm," the man admitted he was a tourist like me and had no more information than what was written in the brochure Royal Caribbean had distributed.

Determined to find the answer, I sought out a crew member, who said the surface beneath the lake was too rough and rocky to dig through easily. So it was impractical, if not impossible, to dig a lake any lower. Once we passed through the Gatun Locks, I ran to the back of the ship to catch the action behind us. Tugboats guided our ship through the lake. The sight of them made me smile because the only other tugboats I had ever seen were bathtub toys - and here these were coordinating our ship's passage through the canal.

I snapped away busily, photographing ships far out on the lake's horizon. The lake is very wide, then narrows at the Gaillard Cut, where excavators blasted through masses of solid rock at the Continental Divide. When the canal was built, thousands of laborers removed 211 million cubic yards of dirt and rocks. But the land is not stable, so the work is never done.

When we reached the Gaillard Cut, around noon, I saw men atop the hills around us pushing back the rocks and soil that keep sliding toward the canal passage. We sailed past dredging equipment floating atop barges. We were surrounded by lush green hills, interrupted by large patches of dirt where the men were working. The scenery offered a distraction from the unnerving feeling that passing ships would hit ours because the passageway - just 500 feet wide - is uncomfortably narrow.

It took several hours to reach the Pedro Miguel locks. Unlike the first set of locks, these have just one chamber, which lowers vessels 31 feet to the level of Miraflores Lake. This time I caught a spot early enough to watch as the canal crew stepped out onto the deck below and threw heaving lines overboard to other crew members who tied them to wires attaching our ship to the mules. I gasped audibly as I felt the ship shake several times. I was certain it was bumping into the sides of the canal. After all, looking overboard I could see there was only the slightest space between the ship's sides and the walls of the lock. I wondered how much fixing a scratch on a ship costs considering the slightest scrape on my car leaves me out hundreds of dollars. It was only later that I found out that the shaking was actually the mule operators tightening cables, not the ship hitting the sides of the locks.

The Canal had to be self-sustaining, according to U.S. law. The Captain told us the Vision of the Seas pays more for passage through the Canal than any other vessel - $165,000. I figure it must be that extra weight we're all carrying from our visits to the midnight buffet. Driving in New Jersey, I thought the Port Authority raked in a lot of money from tolls. But the Canal's charges make my usual $2.45 trip seem like a bargain. Although some days I feel as though our ship passed from the Atlantic to the Pacific faster than I make it through the toll booth on the day of a Giants game.

The night before we crossed the Canal, the Captain told us a woman asked him what side of the ship the canal would be on. "The outside," my sister whispered to me with a giggle. Most passengers probably knew we pass through the canal not next to it. But the question we all wanted an answer to was where is the best spot on board to watch the passage. The Captain had sworn himself to secrecy after a mob descended upon the spot when he last revealed it. But I think I found the prime place. The tenth floor deck at the front of the ship standing atop a lounge chair and leaning against the rail. I made my way around the ship and checked out the view from several decks throughout the day. Although I was partial to the tenth floor, I realized that any spot on the ship was a better vantage than from the observation deck in Panama. As we made our way past it, we saw mobs of tourists waving wildly at us as they tried to get a good look at our ship as it passed through a set of locks. But it's only from my bird's eye view aboard the ship that I could catch all the details.

Amazingly, I found my eyes glued again as we passed through the Miraflores Locks. The gates are taller than those of the other locks because the Pacific Ocean's tides vary by up to 18 feet. I thought for sure I would be bored by the third set but there were so many particulars I hadn't caught onto before. Despite the humidity and the sweat soaking my forehead, I stayed on deck until we reached the Pacific Ocean. This time, we had to be lowered into shallower water so I saw the process in reverse. Each time a set of locks was about to open slowly, I heard buzzers ring. By this time, I knew to look ahead, beyond the chamber, to watch as water rushed out of the emptying chamber into the ocean, creating a whirlpool effect. As the water gushed out of the lock, we slowly dropped 31 feet. As we crossed the last set of locks, I could see Panama City in the distance despite a haze that descended along with a light humid drizzle. We had made it from the Atlantic to the Pacific just as the clouds that had held back for hours finally released a downpour of rain.

______________________________

Booking: You can book your entire package through any of the numerous lines offering canal transits or through a travel agent.

Tips: These add up. $3.50 per person per day for your waiter. Same amount for your cabin attendant. $2.00 per person per day for your assistant waiter and more or less than that for the head waiter.

Miscellaneous: At the start of the cruise, you are given a cruise charge card. You don't pay cash for any purchases on board. This includes alcoholic beverages, professional photos and souvenirs. If you're not careful, you'll find out the hard way that a mixed drink here and a souvenir T-shirt there can add up to hundreds of dollars.