An 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.
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.
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.
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
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.