Travel Writing Awards Entry

By Dudley Hawkins

There can be few sights more breathtaking than a fully laden cruise ship rising up in front of you as if by magic.  Gravity works in strange ways, and yet this is the means by which ships are transported across the isthmus of Central America – water cascading from a lake 85 feet above sea level enables massive ships to make the impressive ascent required to cut through the Americas from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea along the 48 mile transit of the Panama Canal.

We were aboard the sumptuous 30,000 ton cruise ship Azamara Quest, an upper-end vessel from the Royal Caribbean family.  The packed itinerary began at Acapulco, famous for its youths diving from the precipitous La Quebrada cliffs.  We took in bird watching in Huatulco, Mexico, a walk through Granada, the former colonial capital of Nicaragua and Central America’s oldest European city, a relaxing boat ride around the small islands across the extensive Lake Nicaragua, flying through the rain forest in Costa Rica suspended from high wires, a tour of Colombia’s San Andrés Island and a swim in its iridescent sun-drenched waters, back to Cost Rica for a jungle ride on the historic Blue Train, a stop-off at the port of Santo Tomas in Guatemala and finally a visit to the spectacular Mayan ruins at Coba and Tulúm.

But the highlight of the fortnight was surely the transit through the magnificent Panama Canal.

The history of the Panama Canal is amazing – a saga of human willpower succeeding against hostile elements.  Malaria, yellow fever and the savage force of the Chagras River all had to be tamed.  The French, having successfully completed the building of the Suez Canal in 1869, attempted in vain to overcome these natural obstacles.  But where the French failed the Americans succeeded.  To rid the area of the mosquitoes which were transmitting these fatal diseases, they came up with the inspired solution of spraying crude oil onto the stagnant waters, destroying the surface tension and causing the eggs laid on the water’s surface to sink.  Thus 1904 saw the go-ahead for the building of the Panama Canal.  This was building on an unprecedented scale, and the statistics are staggering – a workforce of up to 45,000; 4,000 railway carriages used to remove material excavated from just one section of the Canal’s path; a total cost of 375 million dollars; a death toll of 25,000; and a tonnage of concrete for the locks which would break all records.  Ten years later, and one of mankind’s greatest ever constructions was realised.

Entering the Canal from the Pacific side at sunrise, we first noticed through the mist the faint outline of the magnificent skyscrapers of Panama City – now one of the world’s most popular retirement spots.  After passing under the Bridge of the Americas, which, for fifty years following the building of the Canal provided the only road link between North and South America, the ship negotiated the double lock of Milaflores and the single lock of Pedro Miguel, which together raise the ship to its high level.  Each stage in the lifting process took only 8 minutes.  Traversing the narrow Gaillard Cut and sailing under the recently completed Centennial Bridge we arrived at Lake Gatún, the world’s largest artificial lake at the time of the Canal’s construction.  After lunch, we passed the entrance to the now-tamed Chagras River and embarked on the descent to sea level via a final triplet of locks – the Gatún locks – and into the calm waters of the Caribbean Sea.  The transit through the Canal was enhanced by an audio guide using the ship’s PA system given by a local pilot, who treated us to such nuggets of information as Richard Halliburton having swum the full length of the canal in 1928 for a toll of 36 cents, and ships attracting tolls in excess of 300,000 dollars.

The size of the locks restricts the dimensions of ships which can be accommodated by the Canal to what is known as the Panamax standard.  The vessels are carefully guided through the locks by mules on either side.  For ships of the full Panamax size, the role of the mules is critical, since there is a mere 2 feet between the ship’s sides and the walls of the lock.  The mules aren’t the familiar donkey-horse hybrids, but rather massive Japanese high-power traction engines which are driven by rack and pinion along steeply inclined tracks which run parallel to the sides of the lock.

The arrangement for transporting ships along the Canal is curious.  All ships entering the Canal each day must arrive at the high point of Lake Gatún before the first ship is allowed to leave.  The reason is simple – the Gaillard Cut is too narrow for ships to pass.  So at midday Lake Gatún is witness to the full spectrum of water-borne vessels which have entered the Canal that day, from small private yachts to grand ocean-going liners.  The direction of travel from the Pacific to the Caribbean is also surprising.  The Canal’s path runs south-east to north-west, which reflects the orientation of the South American isthmus at its narrowest.

That day spent transiting the Panama Canal was a day in our life which we’ll remember as one of our finest.  The spectacular views and the fact that the experience was made possible by an almost superhuman achievement a century ago were truly inspirational.