Panama Passage

A Trip Through The Canal Is Locked In Memory

Special Cruise Issue

February 26, 2006|By PHIL MARTY | PHIL MARTY,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

PANAMA CANAL, PANAMA -- The Panama Canal is one of those things you learned about in grade school, perhaps found mildly interesting, then filed away -- very far away -- in the back of your mind, along with historical tidbits like Seward's Folly (what was that again?) and the Spanish-American War (Remember the Maine?).

But when you are sitting in a canal lock, marveling that your 780-foot-long cruise ship has just been lifted 28 feet in only eight minutes, you get a new perspective -- and admiration.

It took the United States about 10 years, 5,600 deaths and $375 million -- a good piece of change back in the early 1900s -- to dig and claw and blast across the roughly 50 miles that separate the Atlantic Ocean from the Pacific Ocean at this link between North America and South America. Before that, the French had seen an estimated 22,000 die, mostly from yellow fever and malaria, in an abortive effort that lasted seven years.

This was down-and-dirty work, and certainly not what we would consider high-tech (though it no doubt was at the time). Yet since the canal's opening in 1914, the operation hasn't seen a lot of changes. Oh, sure there's been some deepening and widening of various parts of the channel. And little electric locomotives (at $2.2 million a pop) now help guide ships, which today are so huge they nearly touch the sides of the locks. But it's still the original 730-ton, 82-foot-high metal gates that seal the ships into each lock. Gravity is still the sole source that moves the 52 million gallons of freshwater used for each lockage. And at Gamboa, 24 miles into the 50-mile transit from the Atlantic to the Pacific, sits a huge black crane that was handling maintenance tasks when the canal opened, and still is today.

On this day, the last in April 2005, our ship -- Holland America's 1,400-passenger Zaandam -- was one of the nearly 40 that use the canal on an average day. Some, like the Celebrity Cruises ship that passed through the Gatun Locks ahead of us, make only a token transit, anchoring in Gatun Lake while passengers go ashore, then heading back into the Atlantic. Our ship and the tanker next to us in the dual "westbound" locks passed through Gatun's three locks, then crossed the lake before descending the 85 feet to the Pacific through the single lock at Pedro Miguel and two at Miraflores.

For a ship traveling from New York to San Francisco (not our itinerary) the canal crossing saves nearly 7,900 miles -- and a lot of time. (Canal transits, on the other hand, usually take eight to 12 hours -- ours on the low end.)

(A word about that "westbound" reference: Though the intent, in our case, is to get from east to west, ships entering the canal from the Atlantic are northwest of the Pacific entrance. Really!)

Canal cruises, of course, can originate from the Atlantic or Pacific, and the cruise length can vary greatly. Some shorter cruises hit mainly Caribbean ports before ducking into the canal for part of the day. I boarded the Zaandam in Ft. Lauderdale and ended my 13-night cruise in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The Zaandam was continuing to Los Angeles and eventually the Pacific Northwest to spend the summer doing Alaska / Inside Passage cruises.

Cruising vets know this as a repositioning cruise, where the goal is to get the ship from its winter season haunts to where it will spend the summer. Though a canal transit is always an attraction, the cost of a reposi

tioning cruise usually is a better bargain than regular season just because the cruise line needs to move the ship. My inside stateroom, including transfers at each end of the cruise and trip cancellation insurance, cost $1,612.29, single occupancy, or $124 a night -- a deal.

With the canal the highlight, our ports -- in a few countries not on the typical tourist track -- were the bonus: La Romana, Dominican Republic; Cartagena, Colombia; Puntarenas, Costa Rica; San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua; Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala, and Huatulco, Mexico.

Tell anyone you are going to Colombia, Nicaragua and Guatemala and they are apt to give you an "are you crazy?" look. But all-too-brief stops -- the curse of cruise and tour bus travel -- left me feeling unfulfilled, not unsafe.

You have to get up pretty early in the morning to become a canal vet. I stumbled on deck at the bow at 10 minutes till 7 and found a few hundred passengers already there and space at the rail at a premium. (Those seniors -- who were in the majority on this cruise -- or is it on all cruises? -- are the early risers.)

Panama Rolls -- a tradition -- were being served, along with juice and coffee. Slathering on sunscreen to combat the announced UV factor of 14 didn't add much to the flavor of the rolls.

Ships going through the canal are charged according to the type of vessel and its tonnage. Our transit cost? $200,000! But that's not a record. That honor goes to the Coral Princess, which was hit with a $226,194.25 bill in 2003.

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