Cruise review: Trying out the Panama Canal
Apr 23 2010 By Tony Collins
Enjoyable as it must be, I have never personally seen the attraction of trawling the canals and waterways that occupy the Midlands region.
But when the boat in question is a 92,000 ton luxury cruise liner, and the actual canal connects the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, well that's another story!
So, move over the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal and say a big hola (that's Spanish for hello) to the Panama Canal in all its majestic glory.
Incredibly, this feat of engineering, which will soon celebrate its centenary, can even lift vessels the size of our ship, The Coral Princess, the 85 feet needed to navigate through Central America by means of a series of locks.
Being able to do it on a luxurious cruise liner the equivalent of 16 storeys, while passing fully-laden container ships coming the other way, makes the day-long passage all the more remarkable.
The 50-mile canal was undoubtedly the highlight of our memorable Princess Cruises holiday.
Setting off from Los Angeles, our vessel one of 17 ships now in the Princess fleet passed alongside the coastlines of Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, and the Caribbean island of Aruba, before finally docking at Fort Lauderdale in Florida, USA, after 15 magical days.
Without question, it gave us, and the other 1,900 or so passengers on board, the unique opportunity to experience the varying delights of these central and south American countries in one holiday.
But, back to the Panama Canal, where the facts speak for themselves.
Although such an ocean-connecting waterway was first proposed by King Charles I of England as long ago as the 17th century, the first real attempt was made by the French in the 1880s, only to be called off due to large numbers of deaths from malaria.
But, then in came the USA, which began work on the canal in 1904, and took nine years to complete the mammoth task.
Not surprisingly, given the huge sums of money charged for going through the canal the fee for the Coral Princess was $330,000 for one transit the Americans held control over the waterway until 31 December 1999 following Panama's independence.
Given that nearly a million vessels of all shapes and sizes have gone through the canal, accounting for 93 per cent of the worlds shipping, it is not too difficult to see why Washington held on to such an asset for so long.
If you like technical details, the canal has three sets of locks at either end, each of which has two lanes. The locks operate as water lifts to elevate ships 85 feet above sea level to that of Gatun Lake, which is roughly half-way through the canal.
Nearly 200 million litres of fresh water drawn from the lake are used in each lock to raise even the heaviest ship. The operation is so delicate, with only a few inches leeway for some vessels, that electric locomotives known as pilots are used to tow the ships through the locks.
Its a bit like valet parking, with the ship's captain temporarily handing over control.