A fear of flying (that’s another story) forced me to look at alternatives to get me from London to Sydney without having to get on a plane. The alternative I chose was to spend 42 days at sea cruising. I would be visiting places such as The Azores, The Caribbean, Panama Canal and City and Tahiti before reaching Sydney. The cruise to me was a means to an end, to get me from A to B without having to fly. I had no plans to enjoy the voyage but I unexpectedly began to. This is my encounter of my day sailing through the Panama Canal.
The Panama Canal is a link between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and many vessels of all sizes transverse it regularly. I was on an ocean liner and like all boats we had to congregate at the port to ‘report in’ before the pilots could even begin to guide us through. Waiting with us were small yachts to large container ships and ocean liners like what I was on. About 35-40 sea vessels per day traverse the canal. This equates to about 13,000-14,000 vessels per year.
How the Panama Canal works
The Panama Canal is 83 kilometres or 51 miles long. It traverses the Isthmus of Panama and has a number of locks that lift and lower ships so they can pass through the canal. Why are the sea vessels lifted and lowered you ask? I asked that also and learnt that the oceans that the Panama Canal connects are not the same level. The Pacific Ocean lies a little higher than the Atlantic Ocean, about 26 metres I believe. With the help of Lock Gates, the vessels entering the canal are lifted and lowered so they are at the right level to enter the ocean.
The original locks are only 34 metres (110 feet) wide but a third lane of locks to allow larger boats pass through opened in 2016. Thank goodness it was built because otherwise ships would have to traverse the often dangerous route around the southern most tip of South America. Not having to go that way has meant around 20,000 miles, or a few weeks sailing has been cut from the journey.
Like all cruise ships, my cruise ship provided loads of information on each destination and the Panama Canal was no exception. To say I learnt a lot is an understatement. For instance, I didn’t know it would take all day to pass through the canal. I always thought it was a quick trip and maybe took about an hour, but instead it took about 10 hours. And can I say, it was so interesting and there was always something to see.
3 sets of Locks in the Panama Canal
There are three sets of locks in the Panama Canal. The three-chambered Gatun Locks, the one-chambered Pedro Miguel Locks and the two-chambered Miraflores Locks. Each lock is built double to accommodate two transit lanes. So the lock doors open and ships are hauled through the locks with the assistance of small railway engines. You can see the tracks on the side of the locks. The locks are 110 feet wide and 1050 feet long. If sea vessels are wider or longer than this they cannot use the Panama Canal, lucky for us, our ocean liner fitted.
And yes, you could feel the ship going up and down. Basically, we sailed in to a lock, water was either pumped into the lock or removed to make the vessel reach the level of the ocean it had to reach. As I walked around the ship I was amazed at how the whole process of moving sea vessels is such a well organised process.
Like most of the passengers on the ship, I spent the day outside on one of the many decks experiencing the Panama Canal. I should add The Panama Canal was quite a party zone. People on all sorts of water vessels were waving and saying hello to each other as we moved through the canal and locks. Some vessels even blew their horns.
The rugged landscape of The Panama Canal
To see the surrounding landscape that many workers had to transform in to the locks is truly amazing. Many areas of the canal had to be widened and mountain rock cut through which is evident with some of the cliff faces you pass. According to hospital records, 5,609 people died of diseases and accidents during the 10-year construction.
Another note of interest added to the day was that we were outrunning a storm. Many of us passengers were predicting when we thought the storm would hit. The storm did hit us later that night but after we had docked in Panama City.
Once through the final lock it was plain sailing from there on in. It was a bit of a let down to be finally through as I was enjoying the whole experience. Once docked at Panama City I alighted the boat for an evening of local entertainment, food and drink. It capped off a great day.
Last words on sailing through the Panama Canal
One of my favourite parts of my 42 days at sea voyage was sailing through the Panama Canal. I had learnt about it at school but to actually experience it was just fantastic and I consider it a highlight of my travels. After all, it is considered to be one of the seven modern wonders of the world. After cruising through the Panama Canal, I think I would agree with that.
I travelled aboard the Belorussia, once a large ferry ship that sailed the Baltic Sea. It was leased by P&O for the voyage from Southampton to Sydney. The Belorussia is unfortunately not sailing the seas anymore but if you want to experience The Panama Canal, or any other oceans for that matter I highly suggest you check out P&O.
Sharyn McCullum has travelled most of her life thanks to her dad who worked for an airline. In her 20’s she went overseas on her own for the first time and found herself in London where she spent 4 years living, working and playing and travelling through many countries. Her travels have inspired her ‘Live Work and Play’ series of working holiday guides and a number of travel websites. She continues to travel regularly and currently calls Melbourne home.