Through the Panama Canal on a cruise ship

Save big on your next cruise va­ca­tion!

Winnipeg Free Press - Section F - - TRAVEL - By Joe Kafka

NINA and Fred Fen­ton have gone on 40 cruises, in­clud­ing five times through the Panama Canal since 1998, but they keep com­ing back.

While aboard the Nor­we­gian Sun on their lat­est jour­ney into the sto­ried wa­ter­way link­ing two great oceans, the re­tired cou­ple from Lin­coln, Cal­i­for­nia, mused at the sim­ple — yet very ef­fi­cient — work­ings of the cen­tury-old en­gi­neer­ing won­der. “This is a true marvel,” said Nina Fen­ton. “It’s amaz­ing how they were able to do what they did back when it was built, and it is still func­tional to­day,” added Fred Fen­ton.

My wife and I met the Fen­tons dur­ing a 15-day cruise from Los An­ge­les to Tampa, Florida.

On one sunny (and very hot and hu­mid) fall morn­ing, throngs of pas­sen­gers leaned on deck rail­ings to watch as the ship slowly edged into a se­ries of canal locks lift­ing it 26 me­tres above sea level for en­try on the Pa­cific side and low­ered it the same amount as it sailed into the Caribbean Sea at late af­ter­noon.

Nearly 100 mil­lion litres of wa­ter can flow into a lock in just eight min­utes. Grav­ity fills the locks with wa­ter from Mi­raflo­res and Gatun lakes, which are lo­cated on the con­ti­nen­tal divide be­tween the locks in this 77-kilo­me­tre isth­mus.

Elec­tric lo­co­mo­tives at­tach ca­bles on both sides of ships to en­sure they are cen­tred while slowly mo­tor­ing on their own power through each lock. Our huge cruise ship had just just a me­tre or two to spare on each flank.

“It’s a fan­tas­tic ex­pe­ri­ence,” said Ronny Borg, cap­tain of the Nor­we­gian Sun. “I never get tired of it, and I’ve been through the canal maybe 20 times.”

Borg said the short­cut be­tween oceans, which cost Nor­we­gian Sun a $379,000 tran­sit fee on this trip, saves ships three to four weeks that oth­er­wise would be spent go­ing around the south­ern tip of South Amer­ica.

My wife Gina and I had ear­lier been on cruises into the eastern, west­ern and south­ern Caribbean, Alaska’s In­ner Pas­sage, the Mex­i­can Riviera and Hawaii. We were look­ing for some­thing dif­fer­ent, and the day-long jour­ney through the Panama Canal was truly fas­ci­nat­ing.

“It’s amaz­ing that this whole sys­tem was en­vi­sioned and built more than a cen­tury ago and is still work­ing well,” said cruise pas­sen­ger Roger Mathi­son of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Mathi­son and his wife, Pat, spent the day tak­ing dozens of canal pas­sage pho­tos from var­i­ous decks and play­ing cards near a cafe­te­ria win­dow that of­fered an ex­cel­lent view. At one point, they even saw a large crocodile in the wa­ter.

Most ma­jor cruise lines and some smaller ones of­fer lengthy Panama Canal trips from one U.S. coast to the other, pri­mar­ily in the drier Septem­ber-April pe­riod. Ships on shorter cruises go into the canal, turn around and re­turn to their ports of ori­gin.

As our cruise ship care­fully nudged through the locks, we had a bird’s-eye view of other in-tran­sit ves­sels in the next lane. The day­long jour­ney also of­fered a glimpse of the mas­sive con­struc­tion project that will add an ad­ja­cent third lane of canal traf­fic, al­low­ing even larger ships to use the short­cut in the fu­ture.

Ex­ist­ing locks are 305 me­tres long, 34 me­tres wide and 14 me­tres deep. The new locks will be 427 me­tres long, 55 me­tres wide and 18 me­tres deep. A Panama Canal Author­ity spokesman said the project should be com­pleted in late 2015 or 2016. Con­struc­tion of the ex­ist­ing canal was fin­ished on Aug. 15, 1914.

Nor­we­gian Sun is one of the largest ships that can tran­sit the canal, Capt. Borg said.

“We are the widest ship to­day that can go through,” he said, ex­plain­ing that the ves­sel mea­sures 32 me­tres at it widest point.

Our ship was 869 kilo­me­tres north of the equa­tor when first en­ter­ing the canal from the Pa­cific Ocean. Although there were no port stops dur­ing canal pas­sage, we ear­lier docked at the Mex­i­can ports of Puerto Val­larta, Hu­at­ulco and Puerto Chi­a­pas, as well as Puntare­nas, Costa Rica. Af­ter leav­ing the canal, we stopped at the busy South Amer­i­can port of Carta­gena, Columbia.

Each stop of­fered a va­ri­ety of ac­tiv­i­ties, from scenic tours to zip-lining, and from shop­ping to sim­ply be­ing beach bums. Nu­mer­ous sea days on Nor­we­gian Sun also pro­vided re­lax­ing meals at its many restau­rants, ac­cess to the pools and spa, and a plethora of other ac­tiv­i­ties and amuse­ments.

Watch­ing the ocean on a sea day, I spot­ted a whale spout (un­for­tu­nately not the whale), sev­eral dol­phins chas­ing prey, dozens of fly­ing fish and a 1.2-me­tre long shark.

While cross­ing a sus­pen­sion bridge on a hike a through the Costa Ri­can rain for­est two days be­fore en­ter­ing the Panama Canal, Gina and I were stung sev­eral times by a small swarm of ag­gres­sive bees. While painful, it was a small price to pay for an un­for­get­table trip that took us from one side of the Amer­i­cas to the other and turned the clock back a cen­tury, for one spe­cial day in the trop­ics.


Elec­tric lo­co­mo­tives, called ‘mules,’ guide a ship through a Panama Canal lock. Ships pull through the

locks un­der their own power, and the mules keep them cen­tered by at­tach­ing ca­bles to each side.

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