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Cunard Queen Victoria's Exotic Voyage 2018
Discovering South America Part 11
Map Introduction to the Cruise and The Azores Port Canaveral, USA Grand Turk Martinique Bridgetown, Barbados Fortaleza, Brazil Salvador, Brazil Buzios, Brazil Rio de Janeiro, Brazil Montevideo, Ureguay Buenos Aires, Argentina Puerto Madryn, Argentina Ushuaia, Argentina Cape Horn Beagle Channel Punta Arenas, Chile Amalia Glacier, Chile Pio XI Glacier and Fiords, Chile Puerto Montt, Chile Valparaiso for Santiago, Chile Conquimbo, Chile Arica, Chile Lima, Peru Manta, Ecuador Panama Canal Jamaica Belize Costa Maya,Mexico Charleson, USA The Azores
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All the pictures on the pages provide details of where they were taken if you hover a cursor over them and they can all be clicked to open a larger version in an Overlay (Lightbox)

Panama Canal Transit - Tuesday 2 March 2018

Introduction

This transit of the Panama Canal was special because it was also a birthday celebration. The Panama Canal short-cut greatly reduced the amount of time taken for ships to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, enabling them to avoid the lengthy, hazardous Cape Horn route around the southernmost tip of South America. A ship sailing from New York to San Francisco via the canal travels 6,000 miles, well under half the distance of the 14,000 mile route around Cape Horn.

We have been through parts of the Panama Canal three times in the past: Our first experience of the canal was on the QE2 in 1999 when we had a partial transit up through the Gatun staircase of locks rising 85 feet to Lake Gatun. We had also  moored at Christobal with QE2 in 2006 and took a shore excursion to visit the Gatun locks and explore the rainforest where the French canal had been dug. Some of the pictures on this page are from earlier transits. We subsequently did full transits from the Caribbean to the Pacific in 2008 on the Queen Victoria in 2008 and on the Queen Elizabeth in 2011. This was our first transit from the Pacific to the Caribbean and our first since the new locks have been open so although we used the old set of locks we could se and watch operations at a distance in the new locks and canal cuts. First we will give a brief introduction to the Canal history.  

Following the California Gold Rush of 1849, a rail route had been built across the isthmus between Colon on the Atlantic side and Balboa near Panama City on the Pacific. Building a canal was much more difficult. This is in contrast to the UK where the canals were built first and the railways followed. The whole canal is a marvel of engineering and had a whole run of engineering firsts when it was finally completed. The French tried first and failed whilst attempting a sea level canal - it cost them over 20,000 lives mostly to disease. The Americans then took up the challenge in 1904 and after clearing out the swamps and eradicating yellow fever eventually completed the canal in 1914 with 3 pairs of locks each side of the largest ever manmade lake - Lake Gatun. It remained the largest project completed by man prior to the Lunar program. Even now it holds a few firsts including the largest lock gates ever made and most of the structures are original after 100 years.

Each lock chamber holds about 8,800,000 cubic feet of water, or about 65,800,000 gallons. Every time a ship makes a complete transit, some 52 million gallons of fresh water are spilled into the sea. It is estimated that the amount of water consumed in the operation of the Panama Canal in one day would keep the city of Boston supplied for two weeks. No pumps are used in filling the lock chambers. The principle involved is simply that of letting the water run downhill. Since Gatun Lake is 85 feet above sea level, the water flows from one level to another through 18 foot culverts located in the centre and the side walls of the locks. From these, the water flows through smaller culverts which open the floor of the look Chambers. The lock gates at each end of the chambers are steel structures 65 feet wide 7 feet thick which vary in height from 47 to 82 feet and weigh from 390 to 780 tons; they are covered with a sheathing of steel plates.

The costs of a transit are high - The Queen Victoria is a Panamax sized ship which was designed to just fit the locks and so she has to pay one of the highest tolls of any ship through the old locks - last visit in 2011 it was roughly $360,000 for our passage and we have no update but it was unlikely to be less. The lowest was 36 cents by a swimmer early last century. Sailboats are allowed provided they have the mandatory Panama Canal Pilot and a yacht of 50-80 ft pays $500. Container ships pay a surcharge of $48 per container, a small price to save a trip of 8000 miles round Cape Horn. Although expensive, it is still only half the price of transiting the Suez Canal, and that has no locks. The money has to be paid in advance, before the ship enters the Canal. There are a number of very profitable banks in the local area. Booking a timed passage is more expense and a number of ships who had paid the cheaper passage were waiting at anchor. When queues are long they auction places.

The one million transit took place in in 2010. It took a workforce of 8000 to maintain the structures, dredge the canal and carry out routine operations prior to the extension with additional locks and cuts to enable much larger ships to pass and double the canal capacity.

The recent Extensions to the Panama Canal

The extensions to the Panama Canal were made so ships of a much larger size to make use of it. The project is designed to allow for an anticipated growth in traffic of two fold by 2025. Tolls continue to be calculated based on vessel tonnage, and will not depend on the locks used. The expansion project was opened for shipping in June 2016

Two new flights of locks have been built parallel to, and operated in addition to, the old locks: one to the east of the existing Gatún locks, and one south west of Miraflores locks, each supported by approach channels. Each flight ascends from ocean level direct to the Gatún Lake level; the existing two-stage ascent at Miraflores / Pedro Miguel has not been not been replicated. The new lock chambers feature sliding gates, doubled for safety, and will be 1,400 ft long, 180 ft wide, and 60 ft deep; this will allow the transit of vessels with a beam of up to 160 ft, an overall length of up to 1,200 ft and a draft of up to 50 ft, equivalent to a container ship carrying around 12,000 twenty-foot long containers.

The new locks are supported by new approach channels, including a 3.8 mile channel at Miraflores from the locks to the Gaillard Cut, skirting around Miraflores Lake. Each of these channels is 715 ft wide, which will require Neo-Panamax vessels to navigate the channels in one direction at a time. The Gaillard Cut and the channel through Gatún Lake has been widened to no less than 918 ft on the straight portions and no less than 1,200 ft on the bends. The maximum level of Gatún Lake as been raised slightly from reference height 87.5 ft to 89 ft to act as an additional water supply.

Each flight of locks will be accompanied by nine water re-utilisation basins (three per lock chamber), each basin being approximately 230 ft wide, 1410 ft long and 18 ft deep. These gravity-fed basins allow 60% of the water used in each transit to be reused; the new locks consequently use 7% less water per transit than each of the existing lock lanes. The deepening of Gatún Lake, and the raising of its maximum water level, provide significant extra water storage capacity. These measures are intended to allow the expanded canal to operate without the construction of new reservoirs.

The design of the new locks is almost a carbon copy of the Berendrecht lock in the Port of Antwerp, which De Nul, the lead contractor helped build in the 1980s; the company still has engineers and specialists who were part of that project. Unlike the existing locks, mules are not used and the ships are entirely handled by a new breed of canal tugs.

The present locks which are now over 100 years old will have greater access for maintenance, and are projected to continue operating indefinitely.

Details of our Pacific to Caribbean Transit in 2018

The transit of the Panama Canal takes one through one of the largest scale engineering achievements of all time but one which is simple in concept. One climbs up what are basically three locks to a large artificial lake approximately 85 feet above sea level passes through some monumental cuts and then descends the far end through another three locks. During the passage one sees some stunning bridges and overall it is the sheer scale of everything which makes it so memorable. Much of the technology on the original routing however is still basic and easy to understand and is little changed from 100 years ago when it was completed. There are still original mechanical indicator arrows to direct ships into the correct side of the paired lock flights, the ropes are still brought by a man in a rowing boat. The basic design of the locks an be understood by anybody who has used the British canal network, it is just on a huge scale. The water flows through 18 foot culverts located in the centre and the side walls of the lock then through smaller culverts which open the floor of the look Chambers. The lock gates at each end of the chambers are steel structures 65 feet wide 7 feet thick which vary in height from 47 to 82 feet and weigh from 390 to 780 tons; they are covered with a sheathing of steel plates. The locks are mostly in flights with one lock opening into the next hence the great height of some of the gates - this arrangement minimises the number of operations and amount of water used and is used on British flights such as the famous Bingley 5 rise as well as a number of other flights. It is best for single way operation.

The navigation method now used is also very simple with a number of 'transits' marked out - these are pairs of markers which the ship lines up onto and follows until the ship reaches the next line from the next pair which it turns to follow. At night they have lights which are at different heights which one again keeps above each other. There is a new feature in parts of the canal where two smaller ships can pass and the 'transits' are in pairs one pair leading the ship down the centre and the other pair to the edges to allow smaller ships to pass safely. You can see the transits if you look closely on many of the pictures and there is at least one close-up picture. Transits have been used to bring ships in down narrow channels for hundreds of years and you will often see a couple of white towers at slightly different heights one behind the other ports.

The overall passage from ocean to ocean takes about 11 hours. All the flights of locks are paired and going up from the Pacific there is one double lock the Miraflores followed shortly after by a single lock the Pedro Miguel taking one to the summit height of 85 feet. The passage through each set of locks takes several hours as the ship has to first be manoeuvred alongside the entry wharf by tugs and attached to 'mules', heavy electric railway engines with double winches which keep ships central whilst they go through the locks. There were two each side at front and back for a ship our size which only just fits.

One now goes through the Culebra Cut leading into the Gatun Lake after which one descends the triple flight forming the Gatun Locks. The Culebra Cut is the narrowest part of the Canal and its 12.7 kilometers represent almost one fifth of the total length of the waterway. This segment was excavated through rock and limestone from the Central Mountain Range of the isthmus of Panama. It has now been further deepened and widened and the banks stabilised. It is here that the Transit system is most essential and where landslips used to be a continual problem. We have seen huge changes since our first transit and the hillsides which used to slip have been raised to the ground or terraced and stabilised. Dredging is still a major activity and has also deepened the channel to 60 feet or more allowing passage of ships with 50 foot draught, almost twice that of the Queen Victoria.

We were particularly interested in seeing the new lock complexes for the Extended Canal and the new cuts. They were difficult to see in detail due to the distance and the lie of the land but we did get some pictures. One major new feature is the arrangement of side pounds beside the locks to save water by diverting it into ponds at intermediate heights rather than letting the water drop the entire depth of each lock. This is again an old trick used on many of the British canals where water was short but rarely used now due to the complexity for pleasure boaters. It has been extended to have multiple pounds for each lock, something I have no knowledge of being utilised on the British canal system. Conserving water is of crucial importance on any canal as every ship transiting takes two lockfulls from the summit level and that is nearly 9 million cubic feet for each of the older locks out of the Gatun lake which is filled by the mighty Chagras river.We could only get a glimpse of the side pounds as in general we were below the new locks when close enough to see. We understand that the design of the new locks is almost a carbon copy of the Berendrecht lock in the Port of Antwerp, which De Nul, the lead contractor helped build in the 1980s; the company still has engineers and specialists who were part of that project. Unlike the existing locks, mules are not used and the ships are entirely handled by a new breed of canal tugs which we could see manoeuvring the giant ships in and out of the new locks.

As well as the canal infrastructure there are a number of major bridges which need the height to allow ships to pass underneath. These include the Bridge of the Americas at the Port of Balboa and the magnificent new Centennial Bridge which carries the Pan American highway over the canal - it seems impossible that the towers on this suspension bridge are actually 600 feet high. There is another new bridge the Atlantic Bridge, under construction as one departs from Gatun Lock and through the Port of Colon under contract t to the French company Vinci Construction for an offer price of US$366 million to a Chinese design by the China Communication Construction Company .

We have not written a blow by blow description as pictures are said to be worth a thousand words and we have dozens of pictures! They are in chronological order (other than a couple added from earlier transits) and are all titled with enough information to follow progress and more (hover on a computer or click to open in a 'lightbox' which has a title on any machine and allows one to move to the next picture by clicking the right hand side)

Pictures from the Pacific to Caribbean Transit in 2018

In the evening we went to the Verandah Restaurant to celebrate Pete's birthday.

Montego Bay, Jamaica - Sunday 4 March 2018

Jamaica is the third largest island in the Caribbean measuring 159 miles from east to west and between 20 and 50 miles from north to south. The highest point is the Blue Mountains in the east, whose name is synonymous with expensive quality coffee. The national motto is "Out of Many, One People".

There had been much recent publicity about problems in Montego Bay and the extension of the State of Emergency to 2 May. Tours were mainly to the beaches and watersports, which is not our preference, although the spectacular waterfalls of Dunn's River Falls near the town of Ocho Rios would have been interesting to compare to those in New Zealand. They are over 60 miles away from the berth. Instead we stayed on board, only taking the short shuttle bus ride to the cruise terminal to the craft sheds to buy coffee and local spicey BBQ sauce. There were bottles of Appleton Estate Rum, distilled on the island, and we may buy some back in the UK. We already have rum from Martinique and Barbados and cannot carry any more. The mural inside the cruise terminal ccelebrated the local successful sportsmen and women of which Usain Bolt is most well-known in the UK.

Today was Sunday and others said there would not be much to do in town. The town was too far away to walk and the area between was industrial so a taxi was essential as there were no shuttle buses, we presume due to the dangers in Montego Bay. This makes Jamaica only a place for the rich, who can hide behind barriers of security in resort hotels, to visit. One can only wonder why Cunard did not change to a different destination once the security advisory was published. The town admittedly looked interesting from the water, with beaches and hotels, the catholic cathedral and some wooden colonial houses. The map showed a craft market and shopping centre near Sam Sharpe Square where there was a museum about slavery.

The next part will continue with Belize and Costa Maya in Mexico

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Content revised: 21st March, 2018