The Banks - Half a World Away travel blog

They have two sets of gates just in case some muppet crashes...

Noriega lives here!

This used to be a mountain top!

Panama Canal Transit

Woken at 6.30am by the revving of the Pilot Boat’s engine as it came alongside while Arcadia lined up in the approach to the first lock – so we decided we might as well get up and watch the action.

We tippy-toed along the corridor feeling it was “awfully early”, only to emerge on deck upstairs and find the place already heaving with people all jostling for position and trying to ensure they got the perfect “shot”.

After standing in a couple of good places, we finally settled on a pair of sunloungers in a corner of the back deck; we then took it in turns to go down and fetch/have breakfast, cups of tea etc, and remained on deck in our spot until driven in finally about midday by a more than slightly heavy shower.

Meanwhile we had been through 3 locks, and along the Gaillard Cut (11 km long).

To veterans of the English Canal system it all felt vaguely familiar; a lock is undoubtedly a lock, and works the same way. However, in England, with a 6ft wide boat, driving into a 12ft deep lock is an awesome experience. The Canal’s first two locks were around 17ft deep each – and we are effectively a 12 storey floating hotel so the difference is not nearly so noticeable – it does not feel so much like driving into a damp, dark tunnel.

However, widthways, these Locks are 110 feet wide, and the floating hotel is about 105 feet wide, so it took some precision of eye and probably a lot of practice to negotiate it in each time without knocking all the cups off all the tables aboard (not to mention knocking a lot of older passengers off their Zimmer frames). [Fortunately, they didn’t take the Timothy West approach to entering locks – get the front end in and the rest will take care of itself].

The Gaillard Cut opens out into the Central section of the Canal, which is actually a massive Lake. I accidentally misread the leaflet and thought it told us this lake is “marmalade”, which sounded an attractive proposition for a quick dip. Turns out it is “manmade” – not quite such fun, but much less sticky. It was made by damming the Chagres River, and is fed by their massive annual rainfall, as previously mentioned.

Finally, about 3pm, we reached the Locks at the Caribbean end of the Canal, where a series of 3 Locks dropped us 85 feet back to “sea level”.

Some interesting discussions about how this works - we went up a total of 66 feet, but down at the other end 85 feet. In the 1880s the French has a first attempt at building the Panama Canal, having just finished the Suez Canal and trying to do this on the same principle – as a “flat” sea-level canal, no locks. Given this evident “sea level” difference between the two sides, it is probably just as well they did not succeed – the “downhill” direction west to east would have been like white water rafting – and the “uphill” direction east to west would have been like trying to white water raft uphill, and I think eventually they would have emptied half the Pacific into the Caribbean……..I am still trying to work out why all the excess water does not just “spill” down one side of South America and up the other side to even things out, but I am on holiday and my brain hurts.

It was about 5pm when we passed the end of the last bit of breakwater and emerged into the proper Caribbean. By that time it had become very windy, and the Caribbean seems much more “swelly” than the Pacific we left behind.

In “other news”, slight confusion caused by “Breaking News” on BBC….

“Queen enjoys 90th birthday, Prince dies at 57”……….leading to the inevitable questions “which Prince?” and “did that not spoil her birthday?” before the full bulletin filled in the gap (“..the musician formerly known as….”)

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