PANAMA AT LAST!


Days 9 and 10.  The cruise from Puerto Quetzal to Fuerte Amador, Panama was for the most part uneventful.  We reached the southernmost point of the journey around 2:30pm on December 6th and turned back to the northeast for Panama.  It was strange, so strange, to see the sun setting to the "east" over Panama City.  Turns out that Panama City is one of the few places in the Americas where the sun seems to set in the east because of the topography.

 

Modern high rises fill the sky, and they are nearly all apartments.  The businesses are farther back and not really visible according to our guide. 

Then we were treated to a glorious sunset shortly before dinner time.  The ship pointed to the right in the center of the photo is following the buoys to enter the canal.  

We then got on a tender for a night time visit of the Miraflores lock system not to far from Panama City.   It was about a 1 hour bus ride from Fuerte Amador to the main visitor center.  The center was opened specially for us that night and no other visitors were allowed.  Good thing.  This excursion was popular and soon the visitor’s center was jamb packed with Statendam passengers such that a person could hardly move or get a picture.  The "Stolt Viking" shown in the above picture is a typical Panamax ship.  About 965 feet long and 106 feet wide with a tropical fresh water draft of no more than 39 1/2 feet.  Ships up to 90,000 tons displacement can squeeze through.  The Stolt Viking appeared to be some sort of tanker, perhaps oil or chemicals. 

The scope of the Panama Canal is simply amazing.  There is no way that pictures can capture the enormity of the operations going on.  We then toured back through Panama City looking at the old US military base that has been converted to housing.  The guide was amazed at the size of the US embassy.  I couldn’t get any pictures of it because of the darkness, but the facility seems much larger than what the US really needs.  The Panamanians are full of speculation about what goes on behind the gates.  They are just sure the FBI is a big presence.  I didn’t bother to point out that Panama was basically out of the FBI’s jurisdiction.  I suspect CIA and a lot of "guards" (read Army Special Forces or Navy Seals) that could show up very quickly if terrorists chose to attack.

The inside of one of the tenders.  They have a capacity of 150, but I think that 100 is quite crowded.  We needed tender service only at Fuerte Amador.  Everywhere else there was a good dock.

The next day.  My beautiful wife poses while approaching "The Bridge of the Americas".

Miraflores locks.  There are two steps here, raising ships about 65 feet.  These are the tallest gates in the systems, owing to the larger tidal variations in the Pacific Ocean.

The Lockmaster’s building and the Visitor’s Center (right) that we visited the night before.  We are entering the left set of locks from our perspective.

Miraflores Lake with Pedro Miguel locks in the distant left center.

Pedro Miguel locks with the Centennial Bridge in the background.  Note the ship in the Culebra cut under the bridge.  That ship is not far from the Continental Divide.  One way traffic for the next several miles until we reached Gatun Lake.

The turntable for the "mules".  These guide the ships through the locks and also assist with braking.  The ships provide their own propulsion.  Our ship required the services of 6 mules with two tugboats on standby.  Two mules each side forward and aft for guidance and positioning, two mules each side just forward of midship for braking and additonal positioning control.  Two tugboats nearby for the unexpected.  Everything ground based is electrically powered.  Power comes from the dams that impound Gatun lake.

The heat had now forced me into retreating to the "Crow’s Nest" lounge on the 12th deck.  Work is underway for two new complete lock systems to compliment the ones already in place.  Scheduled for completion in 2014, they will handle ships up to 1200 feet long, 180 feet wide, with up to a 50 foot draft.  Looks like the construction people have a lllooonnnnggg way to go!

 

Looking back over the construction towards the Pacific Ocean.

Again looking back.  This time towards the Continental Divide, which is over the terraced rock on the left and the closer bluff on the right.  A tug boat follows us, more on this in the next picture.  All told, nearly 120 million cubic yards of rock and dirt were removed from the 9 mile long Culebra cut.  Excavation continues as the banks are not yet stable even after 100 years.  I believe there is a plan to widen the cut for two way traffic by 2014.

Uh oh, trouble!  Here was where the tugboat was heading.  The pilot of this ship lost his way in a blinding downpour and wandered out of the channel into shallow water.  There was a dredge and several tugboats working on this little problem as we passed by.  The work had been ongoing for several days.

Approaching Gutan locks.

APL Garnet in the left locks, Statendam in the right.

A mule steadies our ship as an employee crosses one of the lock gates on his way to work.  Each gate weighs approximately 300 tons.  The date of completion was 1913, an amazing accomplishment of engineering even by today’s standards.  Everything still seems to work as designed, nearly 100 years later.

Our 10 hour transit was considered quite rapid by our captain.  We were able to arrive at Cartagena a little early and we had a little more time to explore.  Ships pay a pretty penny to use the canal.  The Statendam paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $200,000 US for passage.  Or I should say the passengers paid for it.  The price is computed by passenger capacity of the ship and was included in our ticket purchase.  Cruise ships book morning time slots and pay a premium so the passengers can enjoy a daytime passage of Panama.  No one seemed to object!

I’ve ticked one more item off my bucket list.

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About Ken

I am a federal employee that loves to travel. I don't get any time off during the busy salmon tagging season, March through November. So, I save my leave and explore the warmer parts of the world during the winter.
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