A firsthand look at the Panama Canal Cruise: The highlight of a 10-day trip from San Juan to Acapulco was a passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific on a ship that was nearly as wide as the canal itself.

February 02, 1997|By Doug Brown | Doug Brown,SUN STAFF

If you could add another wonder to the Seven Wonders of the World, it might well be the Panama Canal.

An engineering marvel wrought by an international work force under the leadership of American visionaries, the canal made the centuries-old dream of uniting the two great oceans a reality.

Almost everyone knows what it is and where it is. But what does the Panama Canal look like and how does it work?

We got the answers to those questions on the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Legend of the Seas during a 2,911-mile, 10-day trip from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Acapulco, Mexico, in January.

We went snorkeling off exotic islands in the Caribbean and spotted monkeys and iguanas on a raft trip in Costa Rica, but the trip highlight was when Legend of the Seas squeezed through the Panama Canal from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific.

No larger ship goes through the canal. The Legend of the Seas, which took its maiden voyage in 1995, is 105 feet wide and almost as long as three football fields. The sets of locks at both the Atlantic and Pacific entrances are only 110 feet wide.

"There may be 2 1/2 feet of room on each side, but to me it looks like 6 inches," said Bengt Ronsen of Sweden, the Legend of the Seas captain. It seemed that way even though this was his 28th transit through the canal.

The canal is 51 miles long, cut through the mountainous isthmus that joins the North and South American continents. It runs northwest to southeast.

"The wind can be a factor, a little tricky, especially when you enter the locks on the Atlantic side," Ronsen said. "Tugboats help us, and we have two canal pilots to assist with the maneuvering."

Ships are hooked by cables to three locomotives on tracks on each side and guided gently through the locks. Only once during our passage did the Legend of the Seas' steel fender bump against the concrete wall of a chamber.

Our canal transit required about nine hours. At times, passengers stood three-deep at the rails to watch the operation.

Passengers are pampered on cruise ships, of course. Because this was the hottest day of our trip, we spent most of the time in the air-conditioned, circular Viking Crown Lounge on the top deck, from which we could see for 16 miles in any direction.

The three locks, or water steps, at the Atlantic end raised Legend of the Seas 85 feet above sea level in stages. When the ship was inside a lock, with the gates closed, the chamber was filled with fresh water from a man-made lake fed from the mountains. As the Legend was raised, it was eerie to see the ship a quarter mile ahead floating 30 or 40 feet above us.

After we passed through the Atlantic locks, there was no tight squeeze until we reached the Pacific locks. We traveled the 32 miles to those locks via Gatun Lake and Gaillard Cut, which is like a narrow river.

More than any other section of the canal, eight-mile-long Gaillard Cut gives the impression of the waterway as an enormous ditch. It was carved through rock and shale most of the way, and created devastating land slides.

At the Pacific locks, our ship was lowered 31 feet from Gaillard Cut to Miraflores Lake, an artificial body of water a mile wide.

We were lowered the remaining two steps to sea level at Miraflores Locks, the tallest of any in the system because of the extreme tidal variation in the Pacific Ocean.

Throughout our journey, a Panama guide fed us facts over the ship's loudspeaker, to wit:

There are 800 species of birds in Panama, more than in the United States, Mexico and Canada combined.

Since the canal opened Aug. 15, 1914, more than 700,000 vessels have passed through. The daily average now is 34.

In its 82 years, the canal has been shut down only three times. The first was for seven months in 1915 because of a landslide. The second was for 16 hours in 1968 when a Japanese carrier with 45,000 tons of coal had an accident, blocking an entrance. The third time was in 1989 when the U.S. military closed it down for 37 hours for security reasons.

"But never," the Panama guide said, "has the canal been shut down because of lack of water. For each transit, 52 million gallons of fresh water are dumped into the oceans in the process filling and emptying the locks, enough to supply the city of Boston for 15 days."

Ship tolls are based on tonnage. It cost Royal Caribbean $140,000 (payable in advance, please) for the 69,130-ton Legend of the Seas to be taken through.

That dwarfs the smallest toll in canal history, paid by an adventurer named Richard Halliburton in 1929. He swam the canal, and based on his weight of 140 pounds was assessed a toll of 36 cents.

The canal handles 94 percent of the world's shipping from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Ships still are built with canal requirements and measurements in mind, and no vessel has ever gotten stuck. When a cargo or cruise ship intended to go through the canal is being built, plans are sent to the Panama Canal Commission for approval to make sure it will fit.

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