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
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
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
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
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.