Join Crystal Insider Joe Kita as he transits the Gatun Locks of the Panama Canal from the Bridge of Crystal Serenity.
January 23, 8:15 a.m.
Crystal Serenity has just entered the breakwater to the Panama Canal’s Gatun Locks. But compared to the excitement elsewhere on the ship, the Bridge on Deck 11 is almost serene. Most of the window shades have been pulled down to shield the officers from the stark morning sun. On the port side windowsill is a cascade of white orchids, and nearby is a table set with fresh fruit, pastry, orange juice and fresh coffee. It’s also surprisingly quiet.
Captain Egil Giske and his officers have been up here since 3:30 a.m. when we departed Colon after a two-day stay. Captain Giske, who estimates he has transited the Panama Canal 70 or 80 times, sits in a barbershop-like chair surveying what’s ahead. There are about 7 miles to go before reaching the first set of locks, which will lift the 69,000-ton Crystal Serenity 85 feet in three stages to Gatun Lake.
The first of two Panamanian pilots boards the ship from a shuttle boat and enters the Bridge. He sets up at the nose of the ship, where he and his partner, who’ll join a bit later, will direct the vessel’s speed and heading, monitor canal traffic, and advise on negotiating the locks and lake. Every ship that transits the canal must have at least one pilot aboard for safety.
Our speed steadily drops from 5 knots when we entered the breakwater to 4 and then 3 and finally zero as Gatun traffic control, much like at an airport, lines up the vessels on its liquid runway. The Canal operates 24/7 year-round with about 35 to 40 ships transiting the original locks daily in both directions. Sometimes the traffic can get freeway heavy. Tony Grenald, who spent 30 years with the Canal’s Public Information Office, says he’s seen as many as 300 ships at anchor waiting to get through.
The second pilot and a group of line handlers board the ship from another shuttle boat. The line handlers will secure the cables that fasten the ship to the eight miniature locomotives or electronic “mules” (four on each side) that will guide us through the locks.
“Steady course 178,” says the first pilot.
“Heading 178, sir,” responds the officer at the helm.
“Speed 4 knots.”
“Speed 4 knots, sir.”
There’s a fork in the breakwater up ahead. Go left and you enter the new bigger locks, opened just last year, built to handle ships that were too wide for the originals. Go right, as we are now, and you enter the locks that opened in 1914. Farther to the right is the sea-level canal the French tried to build prior to that. It meanders off into the jungle before sputtering out, a grim reminder of the magnitude of this project and the nearly 20,000 men who died from accidents or disease before the Americans took over (5,000 more still died after that).
“Heading 186, sir.”
“0 pitch, sir.”
Unbelievably, in the midst of all this technology a rowboat appears. One man is at the oars; another sits in back. They’re ferrying the steel cables out to the ship. “We tried shooting them out from shore but that proved too dangerous,” explains Tony, “and we tried putting an outboard motor on the boat but that can be unreliable, so we just went back to the rowboat.” Indeed, simplicity is one of the most striking things about the Panama Canal. Gatun Lake, which is the third largest man-made lake in the world, is 85 feet above both oceans, so all the locks are entirely gravity operated. No pumps. Even more than a century later, the operation stills awes the engineers on board.
“Ninety-four percent of the machinery is original,” adds Tony. “Everything is very well-maintained.”
The first set of big, hollow, steel doors, 82-feet-tall and weighing a combined 740 tons, slowly begins to open, the cables are secured between ship and mules, and the crew on the Bridge takes up their stations. We are entering the East chamber of the Gatun Locks. (Picture a two-lane waterway that can accommodate vessels going in either direction, depending on traffic.) One pilot is to starboard and another is to port. They are in constant communication with Captain Giske and all the locomotive drivers, telling them when to speed up or slow down on their tracks to create tension or slack in order to center the ship. (Contrary to popular belief, the locomotives do not pull ships through the locks; the ships use their own power.) To acknowledge receipt of pilot instructions, the locomotive drivers give a happy toot on their horns, which adds a bit of levity to what can be a very stressful process, depending on the size of your ship. In the Serenity’s case, there’s about 90 feet of clearance fore and aft but just 24 inches to port and starboard. (To monitor these tight fits, the Bridge actually has a little window cut into the floor on the far starboard and port sides. Officers peer down these and periodically call out: “All good port [or starboard]!”
We’re fully in the first chamber of the lock, the doors close behind us, and water from the second chamber begins pouring down into the first at the rate of 3 million gallons per minute. The approximately 69,000-ton Crystal Serenity is being imperceptibly lifted 28 feet higher from the Caribbean Sea where it entered.
The water levels between the chambers have equalized, so another set of doors – even bigger than the first set at a combined 1,380 tons – slowly opens before us, and the same process begins again. The pilots’ radios cackle, the mules toot, and Captain Egil Giske watches with an eagle’s eye.
We’re fully in the second chamber, and a bulk container ship named the Atlantic Hawk is entering the west side of the lock, heading in the opposite direction. She’s empty of cargo, though, and her buoyancy is causing the many tugs that surround her to nip and nudge like sheepdogs moving a herd. Aboard Crystal Serenity we occasionally feel a shimmy as one of the mules overcorrects, but it’s steady as she goes. We rise 28 feet higher again.
We’re fully in the third and final chamber, with the Atlanta Hawk finally tamed and just off our starboard side. Her rusty hull stands in stark contrast to the snow-white beauty of our ship. Even Canal workers along the shore, who see up to 15,000 ships per year pass through here, pause to admire us and snap a photo.
The final doors slowly open, and we exit into 164-square-mile Gatun Lake. It has taken 26 million gallons of water from the lake to lift the ship these 85 feet, and it will take the same amount to lower us into the Pacific later on. Fortunately, the surrounding Panamanian jungle receives 900 inches of rainfall annually. Without that seasonal replenishment, none of this would be possible. The mules retract the cables, and the line handlers are off-loaded.
“Radar on,” says Giske.
“Radar on, Captain,” instantly replies an officer.
It’ll take Crystal Serenity all afternoon to traverse the lake and then step down 31 feet through the Pedro Miguel Lock and another 54 feet through the two-step Miraflores Locks. It’ll be about 6 p.m. before Captain Giske and his crew can rest – at least for a little while, on this World Cruise.