Heading for Open Water in Panama

Heading for Open Water in Panama

PANAMA CITY, PANAMA – It’s 6:30 a.m. and we’re huddled beneath the overhang on Deck 12 of the Crystal Symphony, zipped into our rain jackets in the face of a driving rain.

There are, they say, two seasons here: rainy and rainier. This is the one day of our 14-day cruise when we most hoped for sunny skies because, five days after leaving Miami, the Symphony is poised to enter the Gatún Locks of the fabled Panama Canal.

Less hardy types gather in the comfort of a panoramic lounge. We opt for an up-close-and personal view of this engineering marvel.

A lifetime ago, in my Grade 5 geography class, the Panama Canal received little mention beyond the fact that it was situated in one of the most strategic locations in the Western Hemisphere.

We learned that it was one of the man-made Wonders of the World, taking 35 years of labour by almost 65,000 people to complete. Cutting a deep swath through the Continental Divide between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the canal helped giant cargo ships eliminate a long and dangerous swing around Cape Horn, cutting weeks (and expense) off a voyage from New York City to Los Angeles.

But these were just facts to absorb, regurgitate for exams and seldom think of again. That is, until I read, The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1879-1914, a definitive history of the canal, by David McCulloch.

After that, I knew I had to experience this marvel in person.

Crystal has a reputation for having exceptional on-board lecturers and Richard Morgan, a retired Panama Canal Co. executive and expert on the canal’s history and technology, told us all about the herculean efforts required to complete the project. It’s an epic tale.

As we approach the first of the three Gatun Locks, Morgan provides a running commentary.

At 6 a.m., the pilot comes aboard. This, Morgan tells us, is the only place in the world where a captain actually hands over command of his ship to the pilot, who holds the canal’s highest-paid position ($200,000 annually).

A small boat rows alongside our 46,200-metric-tonne ship to deliver a set of lines that will tie the Symphony to six small, muscular electric locomotives, called “mules,” which will manoeuvre the ship through the three Gatùn locks. A second group of mules will guide us through a further set of locks and into the Pacific.

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In between lies Gatún Lake, an immense, island-studded reservoir. Created by the Americans who built the canal in the early 1900s, it was the largest man-made lake in the world at the time, buttressed by the biggest dam in the world and the source of all the water for the canal.

Because it lies in the middle of a rainforest, there is enough water to operate the locks by gravity, with no pumps required.

We nose into the first lock with what looks like inches to spare, although we’re told it’s a foot or so on either side. The pilot and the mules operate with Swiss-watch precision, ensuring that the ship never so much as air-kisses the sides of the lock.

Once inside, the behemoth gates swing closed and water from Gatún Lake drains in, lifting our massive ship eight metres in 10 minutes.

“It’s like watching a giant bathtub fill,” comments the rather blasé man standing next to me. But for me, it is both astounding and humbling.

Easing into the second lock, we head aft to see what we’ve just come through. Already, there are ships behind us, waiting their turn.

In 90 minutes, we clear all three interconnected locks, rising about 26 metres as we enter the 32-kilometre-long Gatún Lake. Tropical sunshine replaces the driving rain. Dotted with tiny islands against a backdrop of lush rainforest, this is the most bucolic spot on the passage. For the next several hours, we enjoy the scenery from the comfort of our cabin balcony.

At the lake’s southern end, we pass through the 15-kilometre-long Gaillard Cut. Morgan explains that American engineers employed 60 steam shovels and 150 trains to excavate and remove the ground for the 15-metre-deep channel. Finally, it’s all hands on deck again as we enter two remaining sets of locks, the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores, where we are lowered approximately 26 metres back down to sea level.

Here we see signs of the $5.2 billion (U.S.) expansion that, when completed two years from now, will accommodate much larger ships and double the volume of goods through the canal.

Here we see signs of the $5.2 billion (U.S.) expansion that, when completed two years from now, will accommodate much larger ships and double the volume of goods through the canal.

Half a day after we settled into the first lock, we sail beneath the Bridge of the Americas and out into the open Pacific, pondering the wonders we’ve just seen.

Seldom in my life have I ever wished that I was back in that classroom in Grade 5, but this is one of them. I could have aced that geography exam.



- Crystal’s legendary 6-star service has earned the company more “World’s Best” awards than any other cruise line.

- In June 2012, Crystal Symphony completed a two-week, $15 million facelift, including new, chic decor and furnishings for public rooms. Stateroom verandahs have smart new deck chairs and there’s a new welcoming foyer at the tender embarkation area.

- Symphony’s Bridge of the Americas 18-day cruise departs New York City Oct. 31, sailing through the Panama Canal to Los Angeles, including a stop at fabulous Panama City: Two-for-one fares start at $5,920 (U.S.) per person.

- Crystal Serenity’s Voyage Between Two Seas departs Miami, Jan. 5 for a 13-day cruise to Los Angeles, also sailing through the Panama Canal: Two-for-One fares per person start at $4,175 (U.S.), with early booking discounts.

- The new, all-inclusive pricing policy includes complimentary fine wines and premium spirits throughout the ship, and open bar service in all lounges. Also included — pre-paid gratuities for housekeeping, bar and dining staff and butler service for penthouse travellers. Dining is open in all restaurants including specialty restaurants Prego, Silk Road and the Sushi Bar.

- Now you can share your cruise stories with the new Storyteller by Crystal Cruises app available on iPhone.

- For more details visit www.crystalcruises.com






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