Panama Canal

Our Panama Canal transit is scheduled for Saturday, April 23, from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. The map shows the location of the navigational route through the canal. Click on the “View Larger Map” to see the location of the locks and other features.

Our Transit of the Canal

The day prior to our canal transit is spent in Colón at either the Colón 2000 or Home Port pier.  I am guessing we will spend the night anchored inside the breakwater in Limon Bay. But I obviously don’t know for sure.

Celebrity Millennium eastbound (north) through Miraflores, Oct. 6 2010

Most westbound Celebrity transits (Atlantic to Pacific) are scheduled the same as ours: 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. So when do we really go through the canal? I suppose that depends on where our ship ends up in the day’s locking schedule. To get an idea of what to expect, I looked at a web site that lists Panama Canal transits by cruise ships. This web site shows screen captures from the Panama Canal Webcams. The screen captures have time stamps, so it’s easy to know when the ship went through the Gatun and Miraflores locks.

Looking at Spring of 2010 westbound transits of Celebrity ships, the earliest arrival at Gatun locks was 6:26 a.m. by Mercury on April 25. She arrived at Miraflores at 2:00 p.m. for a total transit time of about 7.5 hours. Here is a summary of some westbound transits by Celebrity ships in the Spring of 2010:

  • Mercury: April 25, Gatun 6:26 a.m., Miraflores 2:00 p.m. (total 7.5 hours)
  • Millennium: April 20, Gatun 7:49 a.m.
  • Infinity: April 2, Gatun 9:14 a.m.
  • Infinity: April 30, Gatun 8:32 a.m., Centennial Bridge 1:54 p.m, Miraflores 3:55 p.m. (total 7.5 hours)

The total length of the Canal transit from the Limon Bay breakwaters to the last set of red/green channel buoys in the Pacific is 51.8 miles. Here is a mileage chart showing the length of each segment and the cumulative distance traveled (in parenthesis).

  • Limon Bay Breakwater to Gatun Locks 8 miles
  • To Gamboa  23.4 miles (31.4)
  • To Pedro Miguel Locks 9.3 miles (40.7)
  • To Miraflores Locks 2 miles (42.7)
  • To Pacific entrance 9.1 miles. (51.8)

Going 52 miles in 7.5 hours averages to a slow 7 mph – unless you compare it to the alternative: going the extra 8,867 miles around Cape Horn (South America).

Canal Ship Traffic and Tolls

According to Panama Canal Traffic by Type of Vessel, 237 passenger ships transited the Canal in 2009, paying an average toll of  $165,148. For ships of all types, there were 12,855 transits paying total tolls of $1.436 billion dollars, an average toll of $111,771.

According to New Tolls in 2011, passenger ship tolls will be $134 per occupied berth plus $108 per empty berth. I understand this to mean they charge per paying passenger, not for crew members. With a full load of 1,950 passengers, Celebrity Millennium will pay a toll of about $261,300.

Books and Videos About Panama

I have listed these books in order of shortest to longest, because not everyone wants to read a 698-page documentary.

Portrait of the Panama Canal, William Friar – If you want an easy, quick overview with lots of pictures, this is your book. This 80-page,  large-format book has lots of full-page pictures and not a lot of text. It gives a nice overview of the building of the canal and its present operation. Used copies are available for under $2 at Amazon. I bought a used 1999 copy instead of the newer 2003 because it was cheaper. I figured that not much had changed in those four years.

The Building of the Panama Canal in Historic Photographs, Ulrich Keller – This 176-page photo book covers the time periods roughly between 1880 and 1930 with emphasis on canal construction photos. Some of the photographs are the same as in McCullough’s book, but they are much easier too see in Keller’s large-format book. So even if you get The Path Between the Seas, I’d still suggest getting this book to go with it. Used copies are available for under $5.

Your Day in the Panama Canal, Richard Detrich – Mr. Detrich is an American expat living in Panama who spends a good part of the year on cruise ships working as a port lecturer. The first half of this book provides a mile-by-mile guided tour though the canal – just as if Richard was providing the bridge commentary during a Panama Canal transit.  These chapters can be read ahead of time. But, you will want to bring the book with you on the cruise to read as your ship passes through the areas described in each chapter. The second part of the book provides planning, historical, and current events information. For more information, see my book review here.

The Sack of Panama

The Sack of Panama and Empire of the Blue Water – Both of these books are about privateer Henry Morgan’s battles against the Spanish in Panama and other parts of the Caribbean. There are lots of Spanish forts on our Panama Canal cruise (San Juan, Cartagena, San Lorenzo, Portobelo, Panama Viejo, Acapulco) Reading either of these books ahead of time will make your visit to a fort much more interesting. Either are available as used hardbacks for under $1.

The Path Between the Seas, David McCullough – This 698-page historical account is a very popular and highly-rated book on the building of the Panama Canal. I have a copy but have not read it as yet.  This book is not light reading material. You will want to read this before the cruise. Any library will have a copy. If you want to buy it, used hardcover copies are available for under $1.

Update – March 16, 2011: I am extremely interested in the Canal and am reading everything I can on the subject. That having been said, I had a hard time getting through this book. It has relatively little material on the actual building of the Canal. Hundreds of pages are about all of the politics and powerful people who argued about if, how, or where to build it. My recommendation for any cruise passengers who don’t want to read the entire 617 pages is to just read “BOOK THREE”, comprised of the last 7 chapters. Book Three is about the building of the canal itself. Everything leading up to Book Three is back-story.

Videos listed from new to old.

American Experience: Panama Canal (2011) – This is the newest of the Panama Canal documentaries. American Experience is a PBS series on events of significance in U.S. history. This episode originally aired on 1/24/2011. You may be able to see a rerun on your PBS television station. You can also watch it for free (not in HD) on the PBS web site. The DVD is available for purchase from Amazon.

James Bond Quantum of Solace (2008) – The Haiti and Bolivia scenes were filmed in Panama. Filming locations include Casco Viejo, Isla Cabra,  and Colón. Colón served as a stand-in for Port-Au-Prince. (My son did some volunteer work in Haiti before the earthquake. He says the Colón scenes show buildings that are much nicer than the actual ones in Haiti. That could be Colón’s new city motto, “It’s not nearly as bad as Port-Au-Prince.”)

Extreme Engineering Collection 1Widening the Panama Canal –  This 2004 video is the only one I know of about the 3rd locks project.It is available from Netflix,  iTunes video, or Amazon Watch on Demand. I was able to check out the DVD from my local library. Here is a free 5-minute preview. Note: This series is now called “Build it Bigger” in the U.S.

Cruise Panama Canal (2004) – This video is part of the Questar More Ultimate Cruise Collection of DVDs highlighting various cruise destinations. This video is just okay, but not worth buying. If you have a Netflix account, you can borrow it from them.

The Tailor of Panama (2001) – This spy thriller movie was shot on location in Panama City, and the Panama Canal, including scenes at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort.

Super Structures of the World Season 1, Ep. 9 “Panama Canal” (1998) – The Super Structure Series orginally aired on the Science Channel. This 52-minute episode can be viewed for free on Hulu (with commercials) or you can pay $2 to watch in on Amazon Video on Demand. This video has lots of good archival film of the actual construction. If you are interested in heavy construction, this is the film to watch.

Panama DVD by David McCullough

Modern Marvels episode The Panama Canal (1993)A documentary of the building of the Panama Canal. This was the third episode of the very prolific Modern Marvels series. Available from Netflix.

A Man, a Plan, a Canal, Panama (1987) –  This PBS Nova episode was originally aired in November of 1987.  Much of the “modern” scenes in the video were shot aboard the Royal Viking Sea, now sailing as the MS Albatros. With just 536 passengers, the Royal Viking Sea is small compared to the Panamax size cruise ships that now transit the canal. This 60-minute video is narrated by the book author David McCullough. It is available from Netflix and Amazon.

Panama Canal Trivia

It takes 26 million gallons of fresh water to raise a ship from sea level to the Lake Gatun, and another 26 million gallons to lower back down to sea level. This is enough water to supply a large city for two days.

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