A day’s passage through the Panama Canal

Departing Miami on November 17th, 2014, on-board the Norwegian Star for a 13 day Panama Canal cruise was a vacation we had been anxiously awaiting for over a year and was finally getting underway. In good company with my mother, great friends and their family, the three day journey south on the Atlantic Ocean and into the Caribbean Sea lead us to our first day visit in Cartagena (Colombia) before setting sail in the late afternoon for the Panama Canal.  Transiting the Panama Canal was clearly an anticipated highlight of our cruise and, for many, a once in a life time opportunity.

The French in 1880 initiated the first firm effort at building an all-water route through Panama, but financial troubles, engineering difficulties, and diseases made the initiative fail. Panama obtained its independence in 1903 and later negotiated with the United States for the construction and management of the Canal, which was completed on August 15, 1914. Through treaties, Panama took over full operation of the Canal from the United States on December 31st, 1999 

The Panama Canal is an 80 km waterway that links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in one of the narrowest section of land of Panama. This interoceanic waterway uses a system of three locks, the Gatun Locks on the Atlantic Ocean side, followed by the Pedro Miguel Locks and the Miraflores Locks (not far from Panama City) on the Pacific Ocean side. In between these locks, the canal is comprised of man made water bodies; Gatun Lake, and the Culebra Cut. The Culebra Cut is 12.7 km long and is the Canal’s narrowest part. 

We were informed at sea by our cruise director that arrangements had been made with the Panama Canal Authority (PAC) for our ship to enter the Gatun Locks the next morning at 0730 hrs.   We had a big day ahead of us, so no late partying that night… okay, just a little then 🙂

Gatun Locks, Pacific Ocean

It was an early day for all of us; we were up at 0530 hrs to check things out.  A tour guide from Panama embarked our ship – the captain must have given him full access to the ship’s intercom for the full 8 hours of our Canal transit as he hammed it up and shared a wealth of information while the days journey unfolded.  A pilot also embarked approximately a mile or so away from the approach wall and initiated a series of tests with the captain to ensure we were in ship shape for a canal transit. There’s very little room for error; the ship is 32.6 m wide (the beam, but less wide at sea level) and must squeeze through the 33 m width of the Gatun locks.  Initially the Gatun Locks had been designed as 28.5 m wide. In 1908 the United States Navy requested that the locks be increased to a width of at least 36 m in order to allow for the passage of US naval ships. Eventually a compromise was made and the locks were constructed to a width of 33 m.

To navigate the Canal’s lock system, the pilot has the captain’s crew maneuver the ship into the open lock, where a ship’s line is tossed down to the Canal workers who then attach a steel cable for pulling on-board and attaching to a secure anchoring point.  The steel cable is attached to the locomotive below and eventually tightened to stabilize the ship as the pilot continues calling out maneuvers to the captain, and the ship advances (and with its own power) forward with the tug pushing from the stern.  Once completely in the first chamber, the miter gates close behind the ship’s stern to lock it into the chamber.  The water from the second chamber flows into the first chamber thereby lifting the ship until it reaches water level of the second chamber.  The miter gates at the ship’s bow open up and the ship moves forward into the second chamber with the aid of the locomotives and under its own power.  The process repeats for the second chamber and in the last chamber the ship is finally lifted to the level of Gatun Lake.  Raising a ship from each chamber lock takes about 15 minutes and each lock transit takes from 45 to 60 minutes.  The water in Gatun Lake pushes ships through the chambers of the lock, using 201 million liters of water for each ship’s transit. [1]

The sunrise from Gatun locks was beautiful that morning; we were pleased that we had not encountered rain.  The climate along the Panama Canal is tropical, always warm with high humidity and likelihood of showers. From May till December heavy rain is common on the Panama Canal, which leads to limited visibility.

Click on photos to view larger sizes

Gatun Lake

Having left the first set of locks, our ship sailed through the tropical waters of Gatun Lake under its own power for 37.8 km to the Culebra Cut.  The lake is a vast artificial lake formed between 1907 and 1913 by the building of the Gatun Dam across the Chagres River. At the time it was created, Gatun was the largest man-made lake and dam in the world.   The natural layout of the area, namely the impassable rain forest around Gatun Lake, has proven invaluable in the defense of the Panama Canal. Today these areas have been relatively unscathed by human interference and are one of the few accessible areas on earth in which various native Central American animal and plant species can be observed undisturbed in their natural habitat. [2]

Culebra Cut

As we journeyed to the far reaches of Gatun Lake, the Canal was narrowing and navigational markers were clearly evident and numerous.  We entered Culebra Cut, which traverses 12.6 km through the Continental Divide of Panama at the highest point of the isthmus. Before construction of the canal, the Cut was more than 123 m above sea level and 91 m wide. One portion was widened to 152 m during the 1930s and 1940s, and the remaining portions were completed by 1971. Starting in the 1990s the Cut was widened to 192 m in the straight sections and 223 m at the curves to allow double passage of Panamax ships (the material excavated for the Cut was equivalent to 63 Egyptian pyramids).  Panamax ships were limited to single passage through the canal until the widening project was completed in June 1999. The widening of the Cut increased transit capacity by about 20 percent.[1]  Along the way we were witness to the El Renacer Prison, home of Manuel Noriega, who was an ex-dictator considered as running a “narco-kleptocracy” in Panama.  The end of the Cut neared as we sailed under the Centennial Bridge, which was built in 2004 to supplement the overcrowded Bridge of the Americas and to replace it as the carrier of the Pan American Highway. [3]

Pedro Miguel Locks

Not far after the Centennial Bridge we transited the Pedro Miguel Locks where we lowered 9.5 metres into Miraflores Lake.


Miraflores Locks

After a short sail along Miraflores Lake we transited the last locks of Panama Canal, the Miraflores Locks.  These locks are the tallest of the three (the others being Gatun and Pedro Miguel), which is due to the extreme tidal variation that takes place in the Pacific Ocean; the tidal variation in the Atlantic Ocean is significantly less. The Miraflores Locks are slightly over one mile long, from beginning to end, and due to their close proximity to Panama City and easy public access, is probably the most visited tourist site in all of Panama. [4]  We were greeted by a throng of waving hands and cheers from people out on the visitor center’s balconies, which faced the locks.  I thought this was a little awkward because we were hardly worthy of what seemed like celebrity status.  However, in the moment we politely waved back to the masses.  We thought it must have been a school field trip…thanks for the greetings 🙂


To the south of the Canal you can see the construction of a new set of locks that will allow the transit of larger ships with more cargo capacity.  The expansion broke ground on September 3, 2007 and is moving forward in its goal of doubling the capacity of the Canal.  The project components are comprised of [5]:

  • Deepening of the Pacific and Atlantic Canal entrances
  • Widening and deepening of the Gatun Lake navigational channel, and deepening of the Culebra Cut
  • Building of the new locks and water-reutilization basins on the Atlantic and the Pacific
  • Raising of Gatun Lake maximum operational level
  • A new 6.1 km Pacific Access Channel

Approach to Bay of Panama, Pacific Ocean

From the Miraflores Locks, our ship sailed toward the Pacific Ocean under the Bridge of the Americas and soon after the pilot returned the ship to the captain and disembarked for his pilot boat that had pulled-up alongside.  The topside view failed to disappoint as we sailed past the distant vista of Panama City, a destination not on our itinerary.  This pivot point would take us North to the remaining ports of call in Costa Rica and Mexico before arriving in Los Angeles, California, our final destination.



Technical and Historical References Cited

A diagram of the Panama Canal – By Johantheghost via Wikipedia Commons, the free media repository

[1] Globalsecurity.org – Panama Canal – Transit Procedures

[2] Wikipedia – Chagres River

[3] Wikipedia – Centennial Bridge, Panama

[4] Worldheadquarters.com – Miraflores Locks

[5] The Panama Canal (brochure) – Panama Canal Authority


5 thoughts on “A day’s passage through the Panama Canal

  1. Patricia Mossman

    A very interesting and scenic description of the trip through the canal.. Almost as good as being on the trip!!

  2. Phyllis Macintosh

    Photography was just great and descriptions very interesting!

  3. Robbie

    Thanks Patricia and Phyllis for your nice feedback 🙂

  4. Jeff and Tracey

    Awesome photos ~ we were with you on this cruise! Thanks for sharing!

    • Robbie

      Wow, what a coincidence! Thanks for dropping by 🙂

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