I woke at about 6:15 a.m., later than I had wanted, since our entry to the canal was scheduled for 6:30 a.m., and all Panama scheduled times are estimates. Of course, our balcony would serve us well for a private, uncrowded vantage point for our transit, but for the initial entry a forward view is best since it gives you a view of the upcoming locks and ships in locks ahead and adjacent to you, often much higher or much lower than you are depending on the stage of lifting or lowering of each of the locks at any given moment. Two of the more magical aspects of transiting the canal are feeling your huge ship rise 20 feet or more as if weightless, and watching neighboring vessels floating as many feet above your level.
The obvious choice for vantage point was the Observation Lounge on the highest deck, Deck 12, forward, where serendipitously, there is a regular early-riser continental buffet set up daily at 6:30 a.m. When we reached the forward end of Deck 12 we could see that the railings and forward seats in the lounge were all jammed with passengers, which came as a surprise to me since I expected a ship of Mariner's size with so small a passenger load to have plenty of space on the railings to view the transit. The reason became apparent when I looked for an alternate spot to stake out. The only public area with a viewing perspective in a forward direction is on Deck 12 at the Observation Lounge. The only other choices are the larger suites, which are quite pricey. Even Deck Six, which provides access to the lifeboats, and is, on many ships, a promenade deck which circles the entire vessel, only extends half the length of the ship. This amounts to a slight disadvantage of Mariner's architecture as it relates to a Panama Canal transit.
At this point, the Panamanian lecturer, who boards the ship with the harbor pilots, launched into his commentary on the history of the canal and real-time description of the processes taking place at any given moment. There are many misconceptions about the canal, some of which I labored under when I first sailed through it, so the ongoing commentary is truly informative. For one thing, many expect the canal to take the form of a narrow channel. It does appear that way, but for only nine out of the canal's 50 miles. This is a section called the Gaillard Cut, which crosses the country's highest terrain, passing through the continental divide. The "long ditch" approach was attempted in the ill-fated French project to build a sea level canal across the isthmus. Had the French succeeded in digging a trench down to 40 or 50 feet below sea level, the current system of locks and dams would be unnecessary; ships would be able to simply sail from one end to the other, the way they would transit any channel. The task was daunting, especially given the technology available to the French in 1880 when they began work, and 20 years of attempting to cut a channel through as much as 500 feet of bedrock while fighting disease, heat and nearly constant rain spelled doom for the endeavor.
The successful solution decided on in 1903, when the U.S. project started, was to create two lakes with a depth sufficient for the drafts of the largest ships the canal could accommodate, referred to as "Panamax" vessels. At the northern, or Atlantic, end, at an elevation of 85 feet, is Gatun Lake. The three-stage Gatun Locks account for the vertical movement of ships between sea level and 85 feet. Between Gatun Lake and Miraflores Lake is the Gaillard Cut, also, of course, at 85 feet. This is the artificially excavated channel cut as a link between the two lakes. Ships coming from the Atlantic (our direction) are raised to that 85-foot level, then sail across Gatun Lake and through the Gaillard Cut. Then they are lowered to 54 feet above sea level, the elevation of the second lake, Miraflores, through the single-stage Pedro Miguel Locks. Then, at the far end of Miraflores Lake, they enter the two-stage Miraflores Locks to descend back to sea level, and thence into the Pacific Ocean. Those ships going from Pacific to Atlantic follow these steps in reverse. The entire transit requires about nine hours.
Besides the monumental achievement of digging the canal, the most impressive thing for me is the level of reliance on natural forces that the canal engineers incorporated into the operation of this marvel, especially considering it was built early in the 20th century. Dams not only create more than half the navigable waterway, but they also provide electricity to power most of the canal functions, including the electric locomotives called "mules," which keep ships centered in the canal. Though the lock gates weigh thousands of pounds, they are constructed with buoyant cores; by "floating," they require little force to be opened and closed. These multi-ton behemoths, once moved using only tiny, 40-horsepower diesel engines, only recently have been upgraded to slightly more powerful hydraulic devices. Lastly, there are no pumps in the canal system. The locks are filled and emptied using gravity alone, with a constant supply of fresh water descending both ways from the continental divide.
Before we can proceed into the locks it is necessary to attach us to the steel cables the "mules" will use to help guide us through the canal. In a charming anachronism, the task is performed by two men in a rowboat, who row out to Mariner and hand ropes tied to the cables to our crewmembers, who attach them to the ship. Then, as we enter the first chamber of the Gatun Locks, we can see a container ship ahead of us in the second stage, 26 feet higher than we are. Next to us a supertanker slides in the same direction as us into the chamber to our left, and we rise above it as the lock chamber fills with water.
(The lock system is two lanes wide. During the early part of the day both lanes move in the same direction: northbound from the Atlantic side, southbound at the opposite end. The northbound and southbound ships pass in the Gaillard Cut and Gatun Lake, and by midday, when the "rush hour" traffic has abated, the locks become two-way.)
Once the gate has been closed behind us, the lock begins filling with water, and, with an eerie feeling, we can sense the ship smoothly rising. At the conclusion of the first lock chamber, it was time for a new perspective. The best way to enjoy traveling through the canal is to experience it from different parts of the ship at different levels. At a minimum, a high, forward-looking vantage point gives you a great overview of lock structure and the ships ahead and abeam of you, but you get little sense of movement. Watching the lifting process from a low or midlevel deck amidships gives you a real, eerie feeling of upward motion, much the same as you get riding in a glass elevator. In this case, thousands of tons of steel hull are being raised, magnitudes more than an elevator car with a human being inside (though even this early in the cruise, with the food as good as it's been, I don't feel there are magnitudes of difference between my weight and a multi-thousand-ton ocean liner). Lastly, choose a mid- or upper-level deck next to one of the mules. As you enter the lock you will be eyeball to eyeball with the engineer. Then, if you are in the lifting stages of your transit, after the eight minutes or so it takes the lock to do its job, you will find yourself staring down at the top of his locomotive from the perspective of looking down from a second story window.
By 9 a.m. we had reached our anchorage in Gatun Lake, and tendering commenced to the dock of the Gatun Yacht Club. This title is a bit of a misnomer. Once it may have functioned as a real yacht club, but now it is essentially a tender dock servicing cruise ship tenders and day tours. Inside there are a bar, facilities and, of course, plenty of space for the sale of handicrafts and trinkets. One other unique offering available at the "yacht club" is a roped-off swim platform where many of our fellow passengers took advantage of the opportunity to go swimming and to bring home the bragging rights that they had actually swam in the Panama Canal.
Our choice was a rainforest walk and eco-cruise on the Chagres River, which is the main source of water for operating the canal. At the yacht club we were directed into small buses (about 20 per vehicle) and our guide, Gail, introduced herself and delivered a narration on the wildlife, history and the sights we passed on our way to the trailhead for our stroll through the rainforest. During the 15-minute drive we passed Gatun Town, originally built by the Americans for the canal construction crews, now providing housing for canal workers.
From the bus we began an easy walk on a trail: basically flat, with only a few elevated roots to deal with. During the hike Gail pointed out many species of flora and fauna, including hordes of ants and spiders of horror-movie proportions, as well as the more warm-and-fuzzy monkeys, who were often visible along the trail, though generally at a distance.
Reaching a little dock on the riverbank, we waited for our boat to arrive. The vessel, which resembled the African Queen as though painted by Carnival's Joe Farcus, boarded us for the 45-minute round trip, while Gail regaled us with tales of the history of the Chagres River, which served as a conduit for the spoils of the Conquistadores, and, commensurately, as a magnet for pirates, including the famous Henry Morgan. Though she tried to sight wildlife, by and large the trip seemed to go on far longer than need be. Back ashore at the yacht club, when we compared our experiences with those of other passengers who had guides with poorer English skills than Gail, we did not find too much real enthusiasm for the expedition.
At the yacht club the Indian market was set up, and the promised folklorico show was in full swing, a typical "stomp and clomp" affair familiar to anyone who has ever cruised in Latin America. What was interesting was what followed: a similar presentation by the local indigenous Indians (Kunas and others), the men in nothing but loincloths, the women bare breasted in mola (native embroidered cloth) wraps, men and women both with elaborate patterns dyed onto their skin. The dancers also manned the crafts tables, selling molas, animals carved from nuts and other rainforest vegetation, and baskets. Except for an area displaying mass-produced T-shirts, the whole operation had a bit of National Geographic impression about it.
Returning to the ship, we enjoyed a lunch of freshly made hamburgers at the Pool Grill before getting ready for dinner. Tonight, our plan was to dine in the Mediterranean Bistro, the casual alternative restaurant that takes over a corner of La Veranda nightly. We thoroughly enjoyed the style, presentation and taste of this venue. It features the same fine linens, sterling tableware, china and Riedel crystal stemware as the more formal dining venues, but the ambience is casual. As we have learned onboard, however, casual on this ship is more formal than on most, and a surprisingly large number of guests were voluntarily decked out in what would be characterized as the ship's "informal" dress code.
The Mediterranean Bistro serves a buffet-style tapas bar as a starter course, with a la carte entrees from a different Mediterranean country's cuisine offered each evening. Tonight was Italian, and I enjoyed a deliciously prepared osso buco (braised veal shanks), while my wife had a chicken breast with pesto sauce. For dessert we shared a tiramisu. Our dinner companions were a 48-years-married couple from Southern California whose cheerful eccentricities we found charming.
After dinner we made our way up to the Observation Lounge to watch our passage through the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks as we descended from the Gaillard Cut to the Pacific Ocean. Though our intentions were good, by the time we had passed through the single chamber Pedro Miguel locks (at about 9:30 p.m.) we thought we had a pretty good handle on what going through the locks at night waslike, and, like most fellow passengers who had been awake since 6:00 a.m., our bleary eyes informed us that under the covers was a terrific place to be.