Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Partial Transit of the Panama Canal

Although the sun was shining at 8 a.m., by the time we arrived at our "put-in" spot on the Canal, it was mixed clouds and sun, but still warm - in the low 80's. This first picture is a view looking westward, the direction we were headed for a partial transit of the Panama Canal. The vessel we were on is called Pacific Queen and they regularly offer a "three-lock" journey from the portion of the Canal that is nearest the Pacific Ocean.

Jey-hu got this great shot of a huge tanker which shared the lock with us. We were told that the ship had only 24 inches on either side of the hull. The electric 'mules' are on rails on either side and attach to the vessel by steel cables to guide it into the lock, then those operators follow the pilot's instructions as the ship either is raised or lowered in the lock chamber. Once the vessel is at the level required, the 'mules' release it and the pilot continues to the next lock.

Every vessel, large or small, must have a pilot on board to transit the Canal. The two sailboats, shown below, each had a pilot and at least two line handlers. This is the only
time a captain is required to release his command of the vessel. Once the ship has cleared the Canal controlled areas, the pilot gets off and the captain takes back the command. Even the ship we were on had a pilot and we watched him leave once we entered the Pacific Ocean.

Our transit took almost six hours, and we were only on the western third of the Canal. The average time is 15 hours to go through all the locks and some of that time is spent waiting for one's turn to get into a lock. Once in, the lock can be drained or filled in about 15 minutes. We watched the water levels drop 32 feet in 10 minutes! The gates in the locks are the original gates... built 95 years ago and still working well today.
Shown above are the San Miguel locks, which is followed by the Miraflores, just one mile further along. The 48-mile long Canal was completed in 1914, but the idea for it began to percolate as early as 1819! The French tried to make the project go first, but they were unsuccessful. You can read more about it here. The jungle is still very evident and while the water in the Canal is mostly fresh water from a man-made lake, it is not advisable to swim anywhere because of the caymans (nasty creature from the crocodile family),
and although we heard about a fellow who did swim the entire length of the Canal, no permission like this will ever be granted again.

During the 1960's there were a lot of conflicts in connection with the Canal, but in 1977, a treaty was established to make it a neutral international waterway, with a guarantee of passage for any vessel even during war. The treaty also was the beginning of the hand-over of 'ownership' from the U.S. to Panama which was completed on December 31, 1999.

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