Holland America Line’s 11-night Panama Canal Sunfarer cruise, roundtrip from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, departs November 26. More: hollandamerica.com. their ship. Britain was officially in mourning and many of the women aboard wore black until after the funeral. On January 25, my grandmother wrote, “The BBC news was broadcast at 6pm but the reception was very bad. It was nearly all royal funeral news. It is remarkable how many women are all in black at dinner for the king. I suppose the colours will come out after Tuesday next.”
On the day of the funeral, January 28, her ship was docked at Las Palmas in the Canary Islands: “At 12.30pm all the British people assembled to keep two minutes’ silence in memory of King George. It was rather nice to know that we could do this as being in a foreign country it makes rather a good impression … at 6.15pm there is a memorial service for the late king on the ship and the evening dancing was cancelled. However the national mourning is now over and people feel a little more free.”
As I take a leisurely bath (tubs are standard in most Zuiderdam staterooms; a real luxury on a modern cruise ship) and blow-dry my hair in air-conditioned comfort, I consider what it must have been like for 30s passengers at the mercy of the heat in a much smaller ship without stabilisers or ensuite bathrooms. Just two days out of the Canaries my grandmother wrote that it was too hot to sit in the dining room. “After tea I felt my first taste of giddiness. It was not nice. I bathed Tony in such a hot room with no air and I suppose the steam just finished me.”
Within another four days most passengers had given up dancing because of the heat, and later, berthed at Cristobal in the then American-run Panama Canal Zone, her cabin had become an oven. “We spent the most terrible night I can ever remember. We had an electric fan going all night and everyone felt on the verge of collapsing. One could not possibly sleep. This tropical heat cannot be understood unless one has experienced it.”
The extraordinary feat of human endeavour that finally linked the Atlantic and Pacific oceans across Panama was the highlight of my grandmother’s day.
She wrote, “We went to the army quarters (American). They protect the place five miles either side of the canal. Their houses are fine and the place is beautifully kept … it really is a most wonderful thing, this Panama Canal, when one sees and hears what had to be contended with while it was under construction … how it took 10 years to cut through one part alone and what it really all meant in the way of hardship.”
A century after it opened, the canal still wows visitors. It is why most passengers on my cruise chose this itinerary, which goes through the first set of locks — into Gatun Lake, 25m above sea level — and I like to think it was seeing the Panama Canal that inspired my father to train as an engineer.
TELEGRAPH MEDIA GROUP