2009

Traversing the Panama Canal:
Caribbean Sea to Gatun Lake

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Although the Pacific Ocean is West of the Caribbean, the passage through the canal to the Pacific is more of a southbound trip, or sou-sou-west. To get as many ships through the canal as possible, the ships are "pipelined": in the mornings, ships move inwards to Gatun Lake, following each other as closely as possible. Midday, they cross the lake and go through the Gaillard Cut. Afternoons/evenings, they move out from the lake to the Pacific or the Caribbean.

We were due to take on the Canal pilot at 6:22am, but I missed that. However, by 7am every outside deck rail was crowded with passengers watching the operations.
We docked at the long mole between the two sets of locks at Gatun. Looking ahead we could see the flight of locks that would take us up to Gatun Lake.
In the early days of the canal, ships were not allowed to move under their own power. Instead, they were towed by locomotives known as "mules". Nowadays, some ships may use their own propulsion systems to move, but the mules remain, acting to keep the ships centred in the lock chambers and particularly when going through the gates.

Here there are two mules for the port-side bow lines. The front mule can tow the ship forward, while the second one can act as a brake and assist in halting the ship.

Looking back, the stern lines have not yet been attached.
A close-up of a mule and its operator. The gong, or bell, mounted on the side is used to acknowledge receipt and understanding of instructions received.
There is a freighter in the left-hand flight of locks. It is a bit ahead of us: it will move into the next chamber while our basin is filling.
The freighter is almost into the next chamber. On the starboard side it has only one mule at the stern, to keep it centred and to act as emergency brake should it run forward towards the upper lock gates.



To our right, the mule at our stern climbs up to the next level as we move into the next chamber.



It gets to the next level, we are already in the next chamber, the gates close, and our chamber starts filling.

Behind the freighter, the Holland-America MS Zuiderdam comes to the dock, aided by tug boats, to have its towing lines hooked up to its mules.
Our ship is rising up, and the Zuiderdam is docked: all the outside decks are packed with sightseers.
We are moving into the third (highest) chamber, the Zuiderdam is advancing into the first chamber on the adjacent flight of locks, and behind us another ship is approaching the locks.
When the lock gates close, handrails rise up so that workers can cross from one side of the lock to the other.
We are moving out into Gatun Lake, and the lock gates close behind us, so that the chamber can be emptied ready for the ship that came up behind us.

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This page last updated on 16/05/2009 10:17:43.