Traverse City Record-Eagle


The Steps of Gatun

By Gloria VeltmanAn endless string of ships, all brilliantly lit, were strung along the horizon we couldn’t see because of the pre-dawn darkness. It was about five in the morning, and we were approaching The Steps of Gatun, the Atlantic side Panama Canal locks.


Ships from all over the world lined up waiting their turn to use the locks. Pleasure crafts, huge cruise ships and the endless container ships. In the dark, and even as it got lighter, there were too many to count.

We were well-prepared for our Canal experience by shipboard lectures and a program on the ship’s on-board TV station which had run a program the previous evening on the building of the Canal. I think it was originally a National Geographic piece, but I neglected to jot it down in my notes. It was narrated by David McCullough. Both my Aunt Mozelle and I had read his book, The Path Between the Seas, earlier in the year.

In the video, McCullough had updated his book with comments about the additional set of locks now under construction nearby, scheduled to be opened in 2014, the 100th anniversary of the completion of the Canal.

Approaching the locks while still pretty dark.

It grew light as we neared the locks. The on-board lecturer, a Dr. Tom Ryan, provided a live narration over the ship’s TV station. It was like listening to someone giving a blow-by-blow description of the Rose Bowl Parade.

Finding the right place or places from which to see everything and take pictures was a bit of a challenge, as you will see from the following pictures. Both of us spent quite a bit of time on a small outside balcony on the port side of deck 14. I also went up to decks 15 and 16, but the tinted blue plexi-glass screens made photography tricky. Aunt Mozelle went back down to our stateroom which had a small balcony and was pleased with the view she had from there.

Dawn, misty with the rain forest coming down to the water's edge.

Construction and maintenance on the canal is continuous. We caught some glimpses of the additional locks that are now under construction.

One of the many canal tugs. Contrary to what you would think, the tugs do not pull the ships through the locks. They are present for protection; to prevent the large, ocean-going vessels from getting too close to the walls of the locks.

Aunt Mozelle watching our progress from the balcony on deck 14.

This shows the difficulty in getting over all pictures. I was standing on the gangway leading from deck 15 to deck 16 when I took the picture. One passenger, a very tall Scotsman, stood on a plastic deck chair to take his pictures while his girlfriend held the chair in place.

Remember I said the tugs don’t pull the ships through the locks? That work is done by equipment called mules. Our on-board lecturer said that the engines weren’t much bigger than those used in lawn mowers and most of them had served for many years

One of the mules that pull the ships through the locks.

This isn't a very good picture but I wanted to show one of the many container vessels we saw. This one is from Singapore.

We enter the first lock or step.

Here is another shot of the mule on the port side that shows how tight the fit was in the lock. Supposedly two feet on each side, but looked like less.

A good view from the last lock or step.

Yes, those are people walking across the top of the lock right in front of our ship! Most are canal employees, but several were staff photographers from our ship.

Entering Gatun Lake.

We moored in Gatun Lake around 8 a.m. It is the third largest man-made lake in the world. From our breakfast table, we could see a scattering of small islands and a number of large container ships waiting to proceed on their journeys.

Aunt Mozelle was very impressed with the experience; it exceeded her expectations. I had been through the canal twice as a child. The first time with my mother on an Italian ship en route to join my father who was stationed in Colombia. I don’t remember a lot about the first trip, but the second one a couple of years later was memorable.

My father was with us. We were coming from the pacific side on an American ship. I suspect my father knew the captain because I was allowed to spend the whole transit up on the deck immediately outside the bridge. The ships, the locks, the jungly rain forest and cuts along the way, and the heavily militarized American installations all made a profound impression on me.

It is hard to single out one thing as being the most impressive in this passage through the locks. The history of the building of the canal is something that should not be minimized given the lives and money it cost. I would like to go through again someday, perhaps, from the pacific side, or with a different side trip.

In my next post, I will describe our train trip across the Isthmus.

  • Gloria

    One correction:  the McCullough narrated program was originally shown on NOVA not National Geographic. 

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