Saturday, 19 March 2011

Panama Transit

Miraflores Lock
Panama Canal Transit Day- The Main Event

7am The first of three pilots for the transit came aboard. One of the rare occasions where a captain hands over the direction of his vessel to someone else. We glided past Panama City, with its towering skyscrapers to starboard, and the leper colony to port, where five inhabitants remain. One who had been transported there as young as 10 is now 75, and the colony has been her only home.

We would be raised up to the level of the Gatun Lake by two locks, called the MiraFlores, sail into the Gatun Lake, and the dropped back down to the level of the Atlantic Ocean by two more locks called the Pedro Miguel Locks. Each time the locks are drained to lower the vessel, water is lost, but then recycled for the use ib the city- 26million gallons per lock- so 52million gallons in total. No wonder one other priority in the present expansion of the canal, is the conservation of this water in secondary channels.

Incidentally, another striking fact- the Panama Canal is the only place in the world, where the sun rises on the Pacific side and sets on the Atlantic side, seemingly rising in the "East" and setting in the "West". All due to the little "kink" in the curvature of the land- quite disorientating!

Less than 2 feet either side!
 Having heard so much of the excessively humid, wet conditions, we were surprised to find the eight hour transit from ocean to ocean quite pleasant in the brisk wind, but then this is the dry season. The wind in fact was so brisk that there was a bumping and jostling as we entered the Pedro Miguel locks, and the insurance assessors were sent for to assess the damage! Now here's the most mind-blowing statistic- the Queen Victoria is 106.9' beam, and she has as little as 1' either side of her in the locks!!!! I must have taken endless photographs of this insignificant gap- barely a tyres width! With this in mind, the efforts of the "mules" or little trains are crucial. The mules run on tracks, either side of the vessel, and tighten or slacken steel cables, which run from them to the vessel, to hold it as centrally as possible in the lock. Factor in a fresh wind, and that job becomes extremely difficult. Signals of bells beween mule drivers and the pilots aboard tell all that there ready to move through the lock. Even I found the engineering compelling, and I can see why some people would want to come back again and again for this spectacle.

The transit fees have been increased four times in the past year, and perhaps Panama City might have to be careful they don't price themselves out of the market. After all, Nicaragua is not far away. The first engineers narrowly voted against a transit through Nicaragua, but maybe one day there might be a Nicaragua Canal. The present canal cost the equivalent of $19 billion dollars of today's money. Perhaps the only people able to come up with such sums today would be the Chinese!

Container ship descending Gatun Locks
One more fact before we enter the Atlantic- because of the instability of the land in this are (remember mud-slides in Guatemala), finding "the angle of repose" or where the land settles and stops creeping back, means that the Panamanians are constantly having to dredge the canal basins. The scale of this is impressive. In fact, more material has been removed from the canal since building, than during the building!

With our backs to the Pacific we entered a blustery Atlantic, the Caribbean Sea, and set a course for the island of Bonaire, our only stop here. One of the Dutch Antilles, the ABC islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao, are less that 40 miles off the north coast of Venezuala.

Crocodile just below Gatun Locks
During the night we sailed past Colombia and on towards the West Indies.

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