Crossing the Panama Canal

The Norwegian Pearl
The Norwegian Pearl – Our chariot through the Panama Canal.

Canal Zone, Panama

My wife, Lynn, and I have just returned from a Panama Canal cruise. Over the next few weeks, I will share some photos and stories from the trip. After departing from Miami, we visited Colombia, Costa Rica, and several ports in Mexico. We disembarked from the Norwegian Pearl at Los Angeles. I will eventually focus one post specifically on our cruise ship experiences. In this week’s post, however, I will dwell on the Panama Canal itself.

The Panama Canal has been on my bucket list for some time. The engineering marvel, completed in 1914, has been saving shipping companies money and time ever since its completion. The canal, built to handle ships that were as large as the engineers could conceive at that time now has a limit on the size of modern ships that it can accommodate.

When a shipping company constructs a vessel, if the ship is ever expected to traverse the canal in its operating lifetime, the design constraints that cannot be exceeded are the length, width and draft (depth of the hull in water). Those design specs for container and passenger ships are 965 feet long, 106 feet wide, and 39.5 feet draft. The height of the superstructure (air draft) is limited to 190 feet to clear the Bridge of the Americas on the Pacific side. There are some exceptions to these numbers, and a quick “google” of the term “Panamax dimensions” will provide you with all the detail you might wish.

Suffice it to say, the cruise ship we sailed upon, the Norwegian Pearl, was completed in 2006, and is built within Panamax dimensions, specifically 965 ft, by 105 ft, by 27 ft. The Pearl, and her sister ship Norwegian Sun, departed Miami for Alaska, where the two ships will spend their summer doing Alaska cruises. In the fall, they will return via the canal to the Atlantic for their winter cruise season.

The Pearl had just come out of dry dock. We noticed new carpeting, and lots of touches that were not quite complete. We departed two hours late. It was not hard to understand why. Looking from the Promenade Deck (deck 7), over the side, we could see them loading pallet after pallet of bananas, lettuce and other foods, long after our scheduled departure time. The ship had been completely emptied for its dry dock experience, and it took longer than expected to accommodate the reloading. But I digress… this article is about the canal. I will save more details on the cruise ship for another post.

Ships at Colon
We arrived at Colon, Panama at sunrise. The ships here in the Atlantic Ocean side are awaiting their scheduled passage through the canal.

The Panama Canal, its design of utter simplicity, however its execution, let’s just say, not quite so simple. We think of the canal as bisecting the continent from east to west, but if you look at a map, you’ll see it really traverses north to south. They started with building a dam on the Chagres River to create Gatun Lake. The lake surface, some 85 feet above sea level, is the height that ships must reach by traveling through a series of locks. The ingenious design uses the water from Gatun Lake to fill and drain the locks. No pumps are needed as gravity does all the work.

Entering Gatun Lock
The Norwegian Sun is escorted to the first of three Gatun Locks by a tugboat.

Both cruise ships arrived at the north entrance to the canal around 7 AM. The ships were boarded by crews of employees from the canal authority. Ship captains are not allowed to maneuver their own ships through the canal. Pilots from the canal authority, trained in the operations on all manner of ships, are given control. It is the pilot’s responsibility to get the ship safely through the canal. For the next eight hours, a spokesman from the canal authority provided narration during important parts of the transition via the ship’s paging system.

Gatun Locks
The Pearl and the Sun share the same 105-ft width. The Pearl is over 100 feet longer and just meets the lock length requirement.

Approaching Gatun Locks, canal authorities on the ship extend ropes that will be tied to eight “mules”, special train engines that will slowly pull the ship into the lock, secure it during the lift or descent, and then tow the ship safely out of the lock area.

Container Ship At Gatun Lock
A tug positions a container ship getting ready to enter the lock as the Sun prepares to leave. Note the difference in height of the water on the other side of the gate.
Sun Entering Gatun Lake
The water level in the third Gatun lock matches the level in the lake. The gates will open so the Sun can enter the lake.

After traversing the three Gatun Locks, we sailed on Gatun Lake. The lake is large, covering 21 of the over 50 miles through the canal.

Gatun Lake Island
There are many islands in Gatun Lake, once the largest man-made lake in the world.

Once in the lake, we sailed toward the Pedro Miguel Lock. We passed many ships and barges carrying cargo.

I didn’t need to know Spanish to understand what this barge carried.

At the south end of Gatun Lake lies the “biggest dig” in the canal. The Culebra Cut arguably cost the most lives in construction of the canal. From the “natural” edge of Gatun Lake, a 12-mile cut into the Culebra Mountain Range was needed to link Gatun Lake with Miraflores Lake. The elevation at Miraflores Lake is 54 feet, necessitating another lock, the Pedro Miguel.

Pedro Miguel Lock
Two boatmen collect ropes that will be tied to two of the eight mules used to tow the Pearl through Pedro Miguel Lock.

The Sun and the Pearl are considered to be “16-line ships” as they are secured by two lines to each of the eight mules. In the photo above, the four mules on the port (left) side of the ship are waiting for line attachment.

From the Promenade Deck, we were able to get up close and personal with one of the mules.

Once the mules have secured the ropes, automatic winches adjust the length of the ropes as the ships rise or fall within the lock chamber.

Sun at Pedro Miguel Lock
Passengers on the Sun watch as they are lowered to the elevation of Miraflores Lake.

After Exiting Pedro Miguel Lock, we traversed Miraflores Lake and entered the final two Miraflores Locks.

Canal Expansion
At Miraflores Lake, construction activity is well underway for completion of a larger chain of locks that will support much larger vessels than the canal can currently support.

By 2015, a third set of locks will be completed. Many of the mega-ships that currently must travel around Cape Horn will be able to travel through the expanded canal.

Miraflores Lock
Pelicans taking advantage of fish temporarily trapped in the lock. Once the ship leaves the lock, the fish are in shallow water and are easy prey if they don’t make it out of the lock and into open water.

After leaving the last lock, we sailed under the Bridge of the Americas and into the Pacific Ocean.

Bridge of the Americas
The Bridge of the Americas reconnects the two American continents and marks the gateway to the Pacific Ocean.

A trip through the canal takes about eight hours, and must be scheduled several weeks in advance, canal fees paid in advance, thank you very much. I wondered as we went through the canal, how much a shipping company pays to bring a ship through the canal. After all, they save many hours and thousands of dollars in fuel and supplies by not having to sail around South America. I had heard several numbers, but the final number provided by the DVD documentary they played on the ship’s TVs after the transition turned out to be $520,000 for the Norwegian Pearl. Fees are paid on tonnage and the Pearl holds the record of the highest fees ever collected on a single trip through the canal. Doing the math, given an approximate maximum passenger load of 2300 people, Lynn and I each paid about $225 as part of our fare to traverse the canal.

Our next stop, Puntarenas, Costa Rica, where we would ride a 1910 vintage train and take a boat ride to view some of the most exotic birds I have ever seen in the wild. However, I can’t skip over Cartagena, Colombia, which was our first port on the trip. Next week, be ready for the Cartagena adventure.

John Steiner


  1. John that’s really interesting. I watched the show on them building the canal. Wow, it has changed allot. Thanks for the great pictures, looks like a tight squeeze through the locks. Have a great time on the rest of your trip. Be safe and say, “Hi” to Lynn for me. Dana

  2. John,
    I really enjoyed that. On my father’s first trip to South America, he left the ship at La Guayra in Jan, 1939, before it got to the Panama canal: his second chance came in Aug of 1945, en route from France to Okinawa, and they turned around about 200 miles from the canal and headed to New York because we had bombed Hiroshima. He and my Mom finally got to take a cruise through the canal bot my mother’s scrapbook didn’t have the kind of information my father would have put in it, the kind of information you did. Thank you for letting me know so much more about their trip through the Canal when they traveled down for a Reunion of the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company workers ,

    • Thank you very much for your story. As a fledgling blogger with less than a dozen posts and not many followers, it’s wonderful to hear that someone had a good experience reading what I wrote. I appreciate your taking the time to comment.

  3. Wow, great post! I think the canal is so fascinating, and never in my life did I believe that one day I would see it in person, or live in this wonderful country. I have yet to take a trip on the canal though. I’m really looking forward to it so your story and pictures are very interesting. It’s such a tight fit for so many of the ships you wonder how they do it, but it seems to always work out.

  4. […] The photo above features an early morning view of the westbound entrance to the Panama Canal. All of the ships in this area waited their scheduled trip westbound through the canal. The cruise ship hit the canal early in the morning, scheduled to start the transit shortly after sunrise. We would leave the west exit of the canal around 3 PM that same day. You can read more about the canal crossing and view some more of my canal images here. […]

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