Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018 — A leisurely trip through the Panama Canal on the good ship Islamorada.
The Islamorada now takes tourists through the Panama Canal, but it has quite a history. It was built in 1912, and purchased by Al Capone in 1919. He used it as a “rum-runner”, bringing then-illegal booze to the US from the Caribbean. It was eventually confiscated by the US government, and served as a mine-sweeper during WW II.
So we are off. Our journey begins in familiar territory, going down the channel we overlooked in our hotel room, now following the course of the large ships we have seen. On our right, beyond the pelicans, is the Panama City skyline.
Coming up to us is a small boat which will deliver our pilot to us.
He will guide us through the Canal, as he and fellow pilots do for all the ships in the Canal.
We go under the Bridge of the Americas. Off to the right, we notice that there is enough traffic on the Canal to make billboards a creditable source of advertising.
Beyond the bridge, there are ships being loaded with containers. This port area is a large storage and redistribution yard where containers can be left off, and others going to the ports where a ship is heading added on. These large ships are thus able to better maximize the value of their trips.
Low and behold, we are headed toward the first lock! Come to find out we have been given permission to enter the gate, and proceed without any other ships in the lock with us — a very rare opportunity.
Very soon we are in the lock bay, with a rope tying us to the side to keep us from drifting too much. The rear gate is closed, but for some reason it takes awhile for the water to start to lift us up. The birds watch for fish.
Once the water has gotten us to the right level, the gate in front of us opens, and into the next bay we go.
That bay brings us up to the level of Miraflores Lake for our brief trip across to the last step up at the Pedro Miguel Locks.
At Pedro Miguel Locks, we will be put into a bay with a tug boat and a large tanker.
We are tied to the tug boat, and come extremely close to the back end of the tanker.
The bay fills from the bottom through several ports that are opened together to bring the boats up evenly without much motion front to back or side to side.
Thus the mules engines, tied to the larger vessels, have a steady change as the ships rise relative to the position of the mule on the side of the lock bay.
Now we are at the height of the Gatun Lake and are ready to enter the Calibra Cut area. The tanker leaves, followed shortly by the tug. The tug pulls up behind the tanker, and it seems as though it will end up pushing it. But no, it ties on just behind the tanker.
We are told that the tug boat in that position serves as a large rudder for the boat, helping it to steer through the channel. Looking back, I notice that the large container ship we saw at the entrance to the Miraflores Locks (the pink one) is coming toward us. It came through the newer locks.
We enter the Culebra Cut. Work is ongoing here to widen the channel through here. The big challenge is the landslides that bring dirt and rocks back into the channel. They have developed two obvious tricks to counteract this movement. The first is the terracing evident all along the channel.
The second are the rectangular geometry of pads on the higher vertical surfaces drilled into the sides to hold the earth in place.
Gatun Lake spreads out before us, and we have a nice leisurely cruise through it, taking in the scenery. Making the trip are a number of large ships.
The large cruise liner is the first we’ve seen. We’re told that due to flooding in Colon, our destination on the Caribbean, it had some trouble getting into the Canal, so it will have a foreshortened cruise. It is in the process of turning around and we will see it in Gatun Locks.
Gatun Locks are the next stop. This is the three-step down part of the process as we go from the height of Gatun Lake back to sea level.
Sharing our bay is another large tanker. For some reason in the lock bays where the height is lowered, smaller vessels go in first, and the larger tanker second. The tanker steams up behind us. It doesn’t come fast, but it does bring scary images to mind as it moves up toward us. Also sharing our bay is another tourist vessel, the Discovery. It is smaller in length than our boat, but large enough to have a group of perhaps 20 people on board.
The Gerakas, the ship we accompanied at the Pedro Miguel Lock bay is in the bay beside us here. It sits very high in the water compared to the ship coming up behind us, clearly empty of cargo.
We go through the process of lowering to the next level and then moving to the next bay in sequence, and then we are on our way to Colon. The Discovery hurries on ahead of us.
It seems we have to wait for a spot to dock, so we spend quite a bit of time motoring around the harbor, first going by some interesting ships, then watching the cruise liner dock, and finally we get our chance.
The blue ship with the white top is a car carrier. Tied up next to it is a tanker which says its cargo is liquified petroleum gas. The ships off to our left side are smaller freight vessels. We haven’t seen any of these smaller vessels during our trip through the Canal, and I wonder if these are just used to haul containers around the distribution yard here. The storage and distribution center here is at least as large as the one on the Miraflores end of the Canal.
Our trip through the canal has taken nine hours by the time we dock. The plan allows for 12 to 13 hours, so our trip has been swift.
After landing, we find our bus, and it takes us through the town of Colon and to our hotel. Tomorrow we will do some touring around, and get on board a train to take us back to Panama City.