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The Gatun Locks and the Panama Canal Crossing! Part 2
Panama Cruise January 2011 - Last Trans-canal trip planned for the Disney Wonder at this time.
The Panama canal was first put into service in 1914 by the US Government and operated by the US military. Originally this was to be forever but, like anything, times change and at midnight, December 31, 1999 the control of the canal was turned over to the people of Panama.
The development of the locks and canal is very interesting as a culmination of thousands of years of history. Canals were used in times BC and the gates used to this day were actually designed by Leonardo Divinci himself. The traditions of the pilots that take over navigational control of ships traversing the canal go back around 5,000 years, too! A rich history deserving of the grandeur of this wonder of the world!
The canal zone stretches from the north coast of Panama on the shores of the Caribbean in a southeasterly direction 26 miles to the Pacific side in the Gulf of Panama. If you know your geography, it all seems a little backwards but the continental divide does a little backtrack in Panama causing the Atlantic to Pacific passage to be West to East a bit. This zone cuts a ten mile wide path through Panama as reserved space for the canal, support and maintenance and the planned expansion which is currently under way.
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Both sides, the ship on the left is moving from the first to the second lock, getting ready for the next step up.
The canal operates in an extremely orderly pattern in one direction then the other, a few ships at a time. Only a few dozen ships traverse each day. It is a slow and careful process that is handled with amazing efficiency. The three locks entering Gatun from the Caribbean raise and lower quickly allowing up to three ships in at one time; two on one side and one on the other. As the first ship enters one side (right in our case) a second ship prepares to enter the left side. By the time the first ship is in the second lock, the second ship is in the first lock on the left side. Once the first ship is in the third lock the third ship enters the first lock on the right side creating a checkerboard pattern through the locks.
Approaching the locks, each ship waits it's turn to enter a lock. A large arrow in the center gives signals as to time of approach and entry of the proper lock.
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The electric Mules used to hold ships in place while going through the locks of the Panama Canal
By the time the ship leaves the waiting place for the lock entrance, a number of pilots and line men trained specifically for the Panama Canal procedures board and prepare to take the ship through the canal. On our trip the Disney Wonder took on five pilots and 52 linemen, 26 at each end of the ship.
Once the approach begins, a small row boat comes out with a thin but strong line and connects to a similar line provided from the line crew on the ship. This allows the ship to pull aboard the end of a large cable connected to the electric mule that will hold the ship in place. If you did not know, you might think the mule pulls the ship into the lock, but the ship actually uses it's own power to enter. The cables form the mules are only there to hold the ship in place.
The Disney Wonder was large enough it needed a total of eight mules capable of holding 50,000 tons to hold her in place. Two on each side on the front and two on each side on the back. Even with eight Mitsubishi built mules, we still hit the side of the first lock. Standing on deck ten we felt the whole ship jiggle and saw cables jumping with the massive vibration. Three windows in the Cadillac lounge were damaged on the outside along with a couple port holes on cabins below. Paint was scuffed and probably some minor scraping on the metal of the port holes. Some said we bumped a few more times, but wood and rubber bumpers eased those events. One person referred to our new decor as racing stripes, I like to think of them as cool flame decals.
The mules themselves are large, heavy vehicles that ride a rail like a train. There is a hot rail on the back side that powers the vehicle and an intermittent cog track in the middle providing additional traction along the track. The vehicle is also sheeted in what appears to be stainless steel to withstand the corrosive environment common in coastal areas.
Before the gates of the first lock open, watch the base of the gates. They rise about 30 feet from the surface of the water, but in front of them at the lowest level of the water there is a bridge for vehicles to cross the canal while the gate is closed. The cars, vans and even trucks and buses line up on either side awaiting the passage of the boat, then as the gate closes, the vehicle bridge swings into place and road traffic continues until the next ship is ready to enter the locks.
As the ship enters the locks there is a tremendous amount of communication form the pilot to tugs and the mules. The pilot carries two radios for each line if communication. One interesting point is that the mule drivers are unable to respond by radio. As commands are given, the mule rings a bell twice to signal confirmation of the command. Listen for the bell to ring.
As the Disney ships enter the lock, there is only two feet of clearance to the sides. For a width of 96 feet fitting in the 100 foot lock it was an amazing thread of the needle. To make matters worse, tides and drainage water from the lock above make the ship jostle a bit. The main propeller is used to push not only the ship into the lock, but also the head of water that builds ahead of the ship that slowly seeps through the relatively tight spaces to the sides and below the ships hull. Think of an oversized plunger in a syringe.
There was a spare 35 feet for the front and back of the ship, but some of that was occupied when the lower gate needed to swing closed.
When the level of water in the lower lock starts to fall, there is a discharge of 26,000 gallons water on the sides of the gate. Entering the locks to raise the boats you can watch for this from the front of the ship, but it is much more dramatic when you descend the far side (Pacific) of the canal. The level of the water is changed in around eight minutes. It is a smooth raising that is almost unperceivable. Watch the shadow of your ship as it moves across the fence lines or rails on the ground adjacent to your ship to see if there is still movement.
Once complete, the next gate will open and allow the ship to pass. These miter gates were actually designed by Leonardo Davinci himself. They sit on the bottom of the lock in a slot. When it is time to move them, water is pumped out of the gate's empty core to make it float a little. Then hydraulic pistons open and close the gate from the higher side.
Upon entering and leaving the gate, each ship is accompanied by at least one tug. Some ships that lack the maneuverability of the Disney Wonder and Disney Magic will require two or more tugs to maneuver into position. There was only one on standby for our ship because they are designed with a full complement of thrusters to move the ship in any direction needed.
2011 Disney Wonder Panama Canal Cruise Index
Daily Navigator/Iwa Published Schedule