Tuesday 18 January 2011

Panama Canal...a few photos

As with all ports and places of interest that we call at, there is a talk given in the theatre to give us some background and history, and the same was true of the Panama Canal. In the days preceding our transit, a certain amount of hype was being generated which I succumbed to by setting my alarm extra early on the morning of our arrival.  Actually, neither of us had slept that well the night before (unusual, as we are both sleeping better than at home) and I put that down to being excited!  So I got up at 6.30 in anticipation of securing a good spot on deck at the front of the ship and left Katie in bed, still dozing!  Such was the hype around the visit that space on the decks was going to be at a premium, especially if you wanted to get an un-interrupted view.  For a few days, we’d scoped out a small deck right at the front of the ship, above the bridge, and earmarked it as being the best place to watch.  It ticked all the boxes, it was right at the front, it didn’t have any glass obstructions and it was always deserted with it being relatively difficult to find, you had to go to the gym to know it was there.  I’d also decided to wear swimming trunks so that I could sit out any tropical downpours and remain in my prime spot regardless of weather.

So at 7am I walked the entire length of the ship, camera, sun cream and cap in hand.  As I got closer to our special deck, the ship was still quiet, both in numbers of people around, and also because we were crawling along at 2 knots.  The anticipation of who might already be there, if anyone, was almost making me break into a run.  Well, as you might have already guessed, we weren’t the only ones to have earmarked this particular spot, about 50 other people also knew it was there, and had also decided to get up extra early to claim their space.  Still, there were a few small gaps at the front to squeeze into, even on this “small” deck it could easily accommodate more people.

It was early morning, the sun hadn’t yet gained its full strength and was still obscured by clouds, so it was still only the kind of hint of warm you get on an early summers morning in the UK.   The air was still, and despite the number of people, it was quiet.  I liken the atmosphere on that deck at that time as being similar to a solar eclipse experience.  Everyone was there for the same reason, we were all looking in the same direction in anticipation of this “event” yet we had no control of how quickly it was going to happen, or what it would be like when we got there.  Yet the slow, gradual progress of the ship ensured that we knew it was inevitable.  Quite magical really.

The canal consists of 3 sets of locks, and we were first approaching Gatun Locks.  These are a set of 3 individual lock chambers, that would lift the ship 3 times, until it reached the height of the Gatun Lake (26 meters above our current sea level), through which we’d sail for a few hours until we reached the other locks on the Pacific side where the process was reversed.  It took us about 10 hours in total to get from one side to the other.  The operation runs 24 hours a day, providing both passenger and cargo ships a significant time and money saving to go from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.  The alternative route would be to travel right around the southern tip of South America.  The time and fuel savings for a shipping company that it provides are considerable.  So much so, that the canal charged P&O $300,000 for us to use it on Monday.   

As we approached, you could see other ships in front of us being lifted by the locks.  It is quite an unusual site to see a huge container ship, 10 meters higher than you, and then another in the next lock, 10 meters higher still.  I tried to capture as much as possible on the camera, but I’m not sure how well it conveys the perspective.  I would have liked to get a picture of Arcadia from ashore to try to capture the scale of the ship against the surroundings of the canal but we were not allowed ashore during the transit.

As you might imagine, the skill required to maneuver a ship of Arcadias size into the locks, is not inconsiderable.  For that reason (and possibly insurance reasons!) a Panama Canal pilot boards the ship and stays with it for the entire transit.  It becomes his or her job to control the ship once in the locks and to coordinate the “mules” (like small locomotive engines that run on a track each side) which attach to each side of the ship to control the speed and sideways movement.  Arcadia needs 8 mules in total to do this, and with less than 50cm of space between ship and concrete wall on each side, the operation is very precise and very slow!

So, as we made progress through the first couple of locks, things at the front of the ship got quieter, and we decided to take up position on our balcony at the aft for a different perspective.  It was a great position to watch from, because we are on a lower deck, and therefore closer to the action.  After the initial excitement, we had some breakfast and the shower that we’d missed earlier.  It was now very hot and humid again, so a shower was really only offered temporary relief.  Most of the day was spent sailing across Gatun Lake, we passed several dredging operations with huge barges ready to take away the silt from the bottom of the lake.  Finally we reached the locks on the Pacific side, and returned to our balcony with a couple of friends and a bottle of Champagne.  Many others had a similar idea, and the aft of the ship became like a mini party zone, each balcony hosting several other people, and previously unseen neighbours being introduced.   We popped the champagne as we cleared the last lock and emerged into the Pacific Ocean.  It was a truly unique day, one which we may never be able to repeat.  We’re both so impressed by what we saw, from an engineering and structural point of view but also from the atmosphere that was apparent on board, it was a great party day!

1 comment:

  1. most interesting - thank you. I would one day like to experience it.