Thursday, 27 March 2008

Round the World Five - Day 22 (Thu, 27 Mar)

Itinerary: Panama Canal Partial Transit.Today after breakfast one of our drivers will meet you in the hotel lobby for an early morning transfer to Flamenco Island. There you will board a Panamanian vessel for a Canal Transit. As you approach the canal, you will be able to observe the Bridge of the Americas. Breakfast and snacks are included while you are aboard the ship. An English-speaking guide is onboard the ferry and will narrate the dramatic history of the building of the Panama Canal, which was completed by the US between 1904 and 1914. A partial crossing is scheduled, allowing you to enjoy the cruise all the way to Gamboa Dredging Division. Upon arrival, transfer to your hotel.

Once again, it's an early start. Pick up at 6.30 a.m. for transfer to Flamenco Island.

When the Canal was built, stone was used to make a causeway about 5 km long on the Eastern side of the approach to the Canal at Panama City. The intention was to prevent silting-up of the Canal approach and I believe it was successful. The causeway now links three former 'islands' to the mainland - Isla Naos, Isla Penco and Isla Flamenco. There's a major marina and shopping plaza on Flamenco and the 'trip boat' which goes into the Canal starts there.

Checking-in resulted in passengers being equipped with one of two colours of wristband. I was trying to work out the fiendish purpose behind this division but, in practice, it only seems to be used to operate a system of two 'sittings' for the buffet breakfast and lunch we were later offered. My transport had got me there for 6.50 and there were plenty of other passengers already waiting. In fact, we didn't actually sail until just before 8 a.m. We started to make our approach to the canal but then had to stooge around waiting for the Canal Pilot, which all ships must have. We watched as a huge 'PANAMAX' 'Ro-Ro' car carrier preceded us towards the canal. 'PANAMAX' is the term applied to a ship design which is a large as the canal can handle (leaving just two feet clearance between the hull and the lock chamber wall each side). 'Ro-Ro' is an abbreviation for 'Roll-on, Roll-off' and two massive ramps are provided on these ships which are lowered when berthed, allowing the cargo to be driven on and off the ship. As we closed up to the 'Ro-Ro' vessel, we could see that it was the 'New Nada', registered in Panama. Two of the powerful tugboats were preparing to 'nuzzle' the 'New Nada' into the locks. Larger vessels may need some distance to change direction or stop unaided, and their tall profile makes them tricky to handle in windy conditions.

After a while, a launch approached, came alongside, and the pilot jumped aboard. The approach to the canal is spanned by a huge arch girder bridge, the Bridge of the Americas, so we had good views of this as we passed beneath. By this time, we had received our call sign for the day '21CZ' from Miraflores Control Centre, indicating both our 'running order' and type of vessel. We were not to enter the first lock until 10:50, so we had a while to wait. The Port of Balboa comes up on the starboard side before the locks so we went fairly close to the quay and watched a couple of container cranes at work on the 'Maersk Valparaiso'. Before you get to the locks, there are a number of mooring buoys for waiting vessels to use, so we made fast and waited.

The 'New Nada' continued its careful approach into the first chamber of the Miraflores Locks, using the left of the two parallel locks. As we waited, we were overtaken by a smaller container ship, the 'Green Brazil'. She was set to enter the right-hand lock and her size allowed room for us to 'tuck-in' behind her. As we approached, the 'New Nada' was almost in position, filling her lock chamber, and the 'Green Brazil' was gently moving into the right-hand lock chamber. We were entering at sea level, the low level, so the walls of the lock chamber loomed high above us as we approached the stern of the 'Green Brazil'. In the lock to the left of us, the immense bulk of the 'New Nada' was even taller than the lock walls, although this vessel, too, was still at sea level. Our passengers responded to the excitement of the situation and the foredeck was now thronged. With one or two others, I climbed onto part of the superstructure so that I had a less obstructed view for taking photographs.

A special railway track runs parallel to the locks on both sides and the electric locomotives, the 'mules' are connected by cables to each larger ship, not for towing purposes, but purely to position the ship in the centre of the lock chamber to avoid contact with the lock walls. The 'Green Brazil' had four attendant 'mules' - left and right at the bow, left and right at the stern. The 'mules' were moving forwards, keeping pace with the ship, whilst a winch on the 'mule' maintained the cable ternsion. 'PANAMAX' vessels, like the 'New Nada', require eight mules for positioning. The Canal Pilot on the bridge controls the whole operation. He uses radio to instruct each 'mule' and, rather oddly, the 'mule' acknowledges each command by sounding a bell. The whole process is accompanied by a series of 'clang-clang' rings from the 'mules'.

Our smaller vessel required no 'mules': we simply passed ropes ashore and made fast to the right-hand wall of the lock chamber. One of the canal tugs, the 'Herrera' followed us into the lock and tied up behind us and then the massive mitre lock gates closed behind us, the valves were opened and millions of gallons of water flooded into the lock chamber, raising all three vessels in the lock over 25 feet in less than 8 minutes. Simultaneously, to our left, the 'New Nada' was being raised.

As the lock chamber filled, we rose above the lock wall, adjacent to a grassed area with a 'court' marked out and a large 'bulls-eye' target erected at one end. An important part of the locking process is passing lines between ship and shore. This is done by throwing the weighted end of a thin 'messenger line' from one to the other, with the actual cable then being attached to the messenger line and hauled across. The 'court' is for the 'Line Handlers' to practice their throwing skills and there is an annual contest between men from the three lock sites on the Canal. Two men practised as we waited for the lock chamber to completely fill. Of course, as the vessels rise and fall, the lines need continuous adjustment. The 'mules' have an electric winch for this purpose but other lines are adjusted by the vessel itself, either manually (in our case) or using winches (in the case of the tug behind us).

The lock gates ahead of the 'Green Brazil' now opened, revealing the second lock chamber, with lock walls even higher. A ramp between the lower lock and the upper lock allows the 'mules' to get to the higher level. The 'Green Brazil', with her attendant 'mules' slowly eased forward and we and the 'Herrera' followed. To our left, the 'New Nada' matched our progress into the second chamber. To our right was the modern building of the Miraflores Control Centre. The public galleries were thronged with visitors, but I don't think the spectacle from the building would have matched our experience on our ship. One of the original 1913-built 'mules' produced by General Electric in the U.S.A. is on display outside the Control Centre. The present 'third generation' 'mules' were made by Mitsubishi in Japan.

We made our way through the second Miraflores Lock, then on to the single lock at Pedro Miguel and through the narrows of the Gaillard Cut as far as Gamboa Dredging Division, where we disembarked and were returned to Flamenco by bus, where my regular driver was waiting to take me back to the hotel.


Partial Transit, Panama Canal.