Cruising Through the Panama Canal

Panama Canal, Pacific end

Bridge of the Americas dominates the view on approach to the Panama Canal

Celebrity Infinity fit through the Panama Canal, but only just, being pretty much a Panamax ship, or as big as a ship can be and still fit through the canal’s original locks. In June of 2016 the canal expansion finally completed and and the new locks opened allowing ships 1 1/2 times larger to pass through the new third lane. These bigger ships called New Panamax that are too large for the original locks, but not too big for the new ones will have their size limited by the height of bridges and depth of the water as well as the size of the new locks. Panamax for the original locks was 965 feet long, 106 wide, draft less than 37 feet and height above the water line at 190 feet. Dredging of channels and raising of a bridge added a bit to these numbers, but some of the bigger ships will have to watch the tides. New Panamax is 1200 feet long, 161 feet wide, and draft of 50 feet.

cruising under a bridge

sailing under the Bridge of the Americas

On our first visit to the Panama Canal the ship docked on the Caribbean side and we took an excursion with a partial transit, but we still wanted to take a cruise through the entire canal. Happily we found a good deal for a Panama Canal cruise on the Celebrity Infinity at Vacations to Go, which we booked about a year in advance.

Panama Canal

they were still working on the new locks when we went through

Cruise lines have to plan their Panama Canal cruises well in advance too. They have to book passage a year before actually traveling through the canal. It cost the cruise line $135 per person on board plus fees for each line hooking to the trains that guide the ships through each lock, so all totaled it cost over $370,000 to bring the Infinity through. The charge for the new larger lane is $145 per person. Tugboats rather than land-based locomotive engines guide the ships through the new locks.

tug boat

Panama Canal Tug

The new locks are 40% wider and 60% longer than the original locks. These new locks  feature rolling gates rather than hinged and water reutilization basins that allow for recovery of 60% of the water used to raise and lower ships in each chamber so they can use it again for the next ship rather than all of it going out to sea. The original locks are quite a marvel considering they were completed in 1914 by the USA after an earlier attempt by France failed in 1880. While the USA barely broke even in their 85 years of administering the canal, Panama clears over a billion dollars a year from the canal after expenses.

Panama Canal

Centennial Bridge from Pedro Miguel Locks

Currently two large bridges cross the canal, the Bridge of the Americas built by the USA on the Pacific side and the Centennial Bridge built by France at the continental divide. At Miraflores and Gatun Locks cars can also cross on bridges that open and close with the gates of the locks, a slow process allowing only a single lane of cars to cross when the gates are closed while the ships wait for the water level to raise or lower them. A new bridge under construction by France in a similar manner as the Centennial Bridge has several years to go before the Caribbean side will have a big bridge.

Panama Canal crossing

canal watching from the Infinity’s Constellation Lounge

Crossing the canal’s 50 miles by ship takes about 10 hours to complete the full transit. Our ship entered from the Pacific side. The ship’s daily program gave the crossing time as 6am – 6pm. Before canal day passengers scouted the ship for their idea of the best place to view the canal during the crossing. We scoped out a few places outside, but decided that we would not really want to stay outside all day getting sunburned. We opted to go to the Constellation Lounge instead. Floor to ceiling windows across the front and one side of the room offered sweeping views with indoor comfort and cushioned chairs. The canal employee who came onboard to do narration from the ship’s bridge during the crossing came to that lounge for a Q&A session while the ship went through Gatun Lake.

smallest locks

Pedro Miguel Locks

Knowing we would not be the only ones with this idea, we went there at 4:20 am choosing the chairs by the window at the center of the ship. A crew person vacuuming was the only sign of life as we entered, but about 10 minutes later other people began to show up and look sadly at us in the very middle and then stake out their chairs as close to center as they could get. At first we had a table with a set of 4 chairs, but after the crewman finished cleaning he began turning the chairs closest to the window around, skipping ours. As more people arrived everyone decided to push the chairs as close to the windows as possible knowing that otherwise once we got to the canal late arrivals would just run up to the window and stand there blocking the view.

new Panama Canal

The higher new channel bypasses Pedro Miguel Locks

The ship’s crew also opened up the helipad at the bow as a place for people to canal watch. It filled as the ship passed through locks and emptied between them. Nobody wanted to spend the entire day standing out there. Other people found viewing spots on deck chairs about the ship, some sheltered and some not. The ship also has lots of seating areas near windows for other canal viewing options.

Panama Canal

where the new and old channels join past Pedro Miguel

Someone from each group in our lounge always stayed with their chairs while others might wander off to fetch food or find a restroom. Not everyone on the ship wanted to view the entire canal crossing, but for those who did that lounge was the best place. So if you plan a Panama Canal cruise and want the best seats in the house, be prepared to find your seats very early or someone else will get there first. Not everyone stayed in the lounge all day so some lucky late-comers got front row seats when others left. People on the outer rail of the heli-pad probably had the best views, but they also stood in wind and weather, which is why nobody stayed there long.

Panama Canal

Panama Canal scenery with new channel at Gatun end

Approaching the canal we saw many boats at anchor waiting to pass through. Each ship gets a number for their place in the order of passage. Ours at #21 for the morning’s group through Miraflores and Pedro Miguel Locks must have been assigned long before we got there since we passed by most of the waiting ships and went right in without much waiting. From the entrance to the canal you can see the tall buildings of Panama City and the Centennial Bridge. Not far into the canal we reached Miraflores Locks. This lock has 2 chambers with 2 lanes each. We could see two cargo ships in the locks and one ahead of us on its way there. As the ships in the locks rose up and they went on their way while the one just ahead entered one lane and we entered the other.

how ships get through the Panama Canal

rowboat attaches the lines from the locomotives to the ship

When a ship approaches the locks two men climb down the concrete structure into a tiny rowboat. One of these boatmen sits and rows while the other stands ready to hook up cables that connect the arriving ship to locomotives that run the length of the locks on each side. They perform this function the same way they have for over 100 years since the locks first opened. With Panamax sized ships like the cargo ships ahead of us and the cruise ship, just one ship fits into a chamber of the locks at a time. The ship has just a couple feet each side and not much more front or back once the gates shut. The paint job on the Infinity looked a bit worse for wear with a few scuffed up spots showing where it scraped along the sides of the locks somewhere during transit.

locks at Panama Canal

different water levels in different lock chambers

The locks fill by gravity with water flowing into the chambers through a culvert system. The locks, lakes, and river of the canal are all fresh water and the seas at either end salt water so any fresh water fish that wash into the salt water at the last lock on either end make easy prey for seabirds and crocodiles.

how Panama Canal works

dam and spillway at Mira Flores Locks

Each chamber raises the ship just under 30 feet. When the ship reaches the full height of the first chamber at Miraflores the gates open and it moves into the next chamber. At the full height of that one the ship moves on to Miraflores Lake. The new locks have 3 chambers and an access channel at the higher level taking ships all the way to the Culebra Cut beyond Pedro Miguel locks. The original system brings the ship up two levels. After crossing Miraflores Lake, Pedro Miguel Locks has just one chamber for the final lift to the highest level of the crossing. Just past Pedro Miguel Locks the ship passes under the Centennial Bridge, visible from the locks.

Panama Canal

line of sight navigational aids on the hillside help guide ships through the canal

Culebra cut is a manmade channel through rock and limestone mountains for 12.7 kilometers. The material excavated during construction could fill the space of 63 Egyptian pyramids. This channel connecting Miraflores Lake to the Chagres River is what allows ships to pass through this shortcut to the Caribbean and avoid circumnavigating the entire South American continent. The cut has navigational aids along the edges, line of sight symbols and sometimes lights showing the ship captains and pilots where to find safe passage through the narrow channel.

how the Panama Canal works

Train Bridge at the Chagres River

Near Gamboa the ship passes a railroad bridge where the Chagres River empties into the canal, bringing the water that allows the canal to exist and function. The river’s original path through Gatun Lake is marked with a series of red and green channel markers to let ships know where to stay for water deep enough for safe passage. Islands dot the lake.

Panama Canal Dredges

Dredges at work. They do maintenance to keep the canal passable, but also are making it deeper for bigger ships

When the water level is low enough forests of stumps poke through, the tops of trees flooded out by the creation of Gatun Lake. As the ship approached Gatun Locks it passed a fleet of anchored ships. They came through Gatun Locks that morning and waited to continue when traffic switched from northbound to southbound through the narrow part of the canal.

transiting the Panama Canal

ship coming the other way at Gatun Lake

Gatun Locks has 3 chambers in each of its two lanes so the ship makes the entire trip back down to sea level at one set of locks. They kept one empty chamber between each ship so while one side had ships in the first and third chambers the other had a ship in the second chamber. We didn’t wait long before loading into the first chamber while another ship moved from the second to the third, though the total time passing through all three chambers took about an hour.

back to sea level

ship leaving Gatun Locks

Once a ship leaves Gatun Locks it just has to travel to the breakwater at the entrance to the Caribbean Sea to complete its transit through the Canal. Just like the other end, many anchored ships await their turn to pass through.

long slow crossing

Car crossing a lock bridge. The green bit at the corner of the photo is astroturf on the Infinity.

The Infinity stopped for a port day at Colon, Panama on a stormy day. If you just came in to Panama without doing a canal transit on your cruise, the excursion that takes you halfway through the canal on a little ferry is a great way to get to see some of the locks and a good portion of the canal. The ship offers lots of excursions from Colon. You can watch ships go through locks at the canal or take a train across the Isthmus of Panama, which parallels the canal for a portion of the journey. Other options include visiting an Indian village, kayaking or a boat ride, an aerial tram in the rainforest or a city tour. Locals at the port offer taxi tours.

cruise ship dock

Cruise Port at Colon, Panama

Since we had just transited the canal we counted that as our excursion for Panama and just went into the shops at the port. Several cafes offer free internet if you buy something. We opted to sit at a cafe and catch up online rather than trying to explore the port in pouring rain.

Panama Canal

Gatun Locks

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2016
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About LBcruiseshipblogger

MyCruiseStories blog tells stories about adventures in cruising on ships big and small. Things to do onboard and in port. Anything connected to cruising. Also food, travel, recipes, towel animals, and the occasional random blog.
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6 Responses to Cruising Through the Panama Canal

  1. Mel & Suan says:

    This is a nice cruise!

  2. aFrankAngle says:

    Very interesting …especially because this is one our to-do list … and probably on Celebrity … but it probably won’t be for several years …. and we are thinking west to east.

    • I did it East to West and liked it because you gain hours during the cruise (you keep changing the time back so you get extra hours). Makes it feel like you get more time on the ship. 🙂

    • Crossing through the canal is a fun cruise, and Celebrity is a good choice for it. The Infinity had lots of options for places to view from. If you had a room with a balcony you could view part of it from there and then run out to the heliport if you wanted a full view for the locks. We had an inside room so we needed a public place to watch the entire transit, and the Constellation Lounge was perfect for that.

  3. Did you go past the visitor center and were there a lot of people watching the ship go by?

    • We did, and there were. When the ship stopped in Panama going to the visitor’s center to watch other ships go through the canal was one of the excursion options. It wouldn’t have been much fun that day in the pouring rain though, whereas luckily the day we went through had nicer weather.

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