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Transiting The Panama Canal – From East to West or West to East?

January 22, 2009

We Are Cunard

Posted in: Updates

It’s been quite a week for the history books with the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States, Barrack Obama. The historic nature of the day was not lost on guests aboard our ships as we broadcast the celebrations on the big screen. On Queen Victoria it was really great to see so many different nationalities watching the event together and the spontaneous applause at the moment of inauguration. Much as many our guests would have loved to have witnessed the event first hand, a few mentioned they were quite grateful to be able to go up on deck and sunbathe afterwards instead of the cold in Washington D.C.!

Thank you again for your posts and questions as I always enjoy hearing from readers. There was a question regarding Cunard and how we work with our parent company Carnival Corporation. As you know, Cunard has very proud traditions which are as evident on both Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria as they will be on the new Queen Elizabeth. Cunard will always retain its own unique personality which is distinct from anyone else, but one of the advantages of being part of the larger Carnival family is that we can team up with our sister companies for some of the behind the scenes aspects of our business and this often means we can deliver even better service to our guests. Cunard has offices in several locations around the world but is now mostly based in Southampton.

Meanwhile it has been quite a week for us on Queen Victoria, as we transitted the Panama Canal for the second time on the second leg of our World Cruise. But before I tell you about that amazing day, here’s “This week in Cunard’s History” for the week of the 16th to the 29th January.

January 16 2002

The first steel is cut to mark the start of construction of Queen Mary 2.

January 16 2008

Queen Victoria’s maiden call at Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

In answer to the title question of this blog relating to the direction the Panama Canal flows, the answer is neither! By the way this is always a great trivia question at a pub quiz, and the reason the answer is neither, is because of the S-shape of the Isthmus of Panama. So in fact the canal runs from south-east at the Pacific end to north-west at the Atlantic, meaning the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal is actually further west than the one on the Pacific side. To avoid confusion the canal authorities classify transits as northbound (Pacific to Atlantic) and southbound (Atlantic to Pacific).

For those of you unfamiliar with the Panama Canal, here’s the history bit! The construction of the canal was one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken. It has had an enormous impact on shipping, as ships no longer have to travel the long and treacherous route via the Drake Passage and Cape Horn at the southernmost tip of South America. As a result of ships being able to transit the Panama Canal the journey has been reduced by over 8,000 miles. Although the concept of a canal in Panama dates back to the early 16th century, the first attempt to construct a canal began in 1880 under French leadership. After this attempt collapsed, the work was finally completed by the United States, and the canal opened in 1914. Today the canal accommodates the passage of more than 14,000 ships a year, carrying more than 203 million tonnes of cargo.

The transit day for Queen Victoria started at 7:30am with the boarding of various officials including the Canal Pilots, Linesmen and a Lecturer who gave a commentary throughout the transit. Meanwhile we had gained permission for our on board photographers to go ashore and take pictures of the transit, so I have to thank Stefan (Chief Photographer) and his team for the pictures I couldn’t take! We then proceeded to the first set of three chambers which comprise the Gatun Locks. Our guests had armed themselves with binoculars and cameras and along with many of the crew, made their way to the outer decks to capture the excitement of the day, as we inched in to the first chamber.

Yes that is a road you see in front of the gates and it’s one of the few points where cars can cross the canal. Almost at the last minute it swung back in to the side of the chamber as we approached. The Panama Canal can accommodate vessels from small private yachts up to fairly large commercial ships. It has also become one of the “must do’s” of travel, so many passenger ships now make the Panama Canal part of their itineraries. In fact the day we arrived we were joined by two sister ships from the Princess Cruises fleet, so it was perfect that the Queen had two Princesses as her escorts! This is Queen Victoria with the Tahitian Princess in the other Lock.

As you can see Queen Victoria is quite a bit larger and was indeed designed specifically to fit through the canal locks and ships of this size are known as a Panamax vessels. It’s a bit of a squeeze, as they just fit in the locks with literally inches to spare on each side of the ship, as you can see from these photos.

There are now an increasing number of modern ships which exceed the Panamax limit, and these are known as post-Panamax vessels. Queen Mary 2 is an example of this, which is why she has to take the longer route around Cape Horn. The authorities have embarked on a massive project to build new locks which will enable much larger ships, including Queen Mary 2, to transit the canal once the locks are completed in 2014.

Now for some more statistics. 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. No pumps are used in filling the lock chambers. The principle involved is simply that of letting the water run downhill.The man made Gatun Lake is 85 feet above sea level, so 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 lock chambers.The lock gates, at each end of the chambers steel structures, are believe it or not, the original gates. These gates, which are regularly serviced and checked, are 65 feet wide 7 feet thick and vary in height from 47 to 82 feet, and weigh from 390 to 730 tons; they are covered with a sheathing of steel plates riveted to girder framework in a way similar to that used in ship construction.

Special Canal Pilots are on the bridge throughout the transit and they communicate continuously with a control centre as well as the linesmen, the towing “mule” drivers and the lock engineers. They work very closely with the ship’s Master and Bridge team and I was able to get a picture of Captain Paul Wright and Staff Captain Andrew Hall with one of the pilots as we waited for one of the chambers to fill with water.

The lines at the bow and stern are handled by Panama Canal linesmen who have to attach lines to the ship and to the towing “mules” at the locks. Once on our way, the transit through the first set of locks took just over ninety minutes and it wasn’t long before we could enjoy the beauty of the Gatun Lake. Four hours later we approached the Pedro Miguel locks on our transit, and here you can see the width of the canal and the constant undertaking by the authorities, to dredge and widen the canal.

During a ship’s first passage through the Canal, an Admeasurer boards, and it is his job to measure the ship, define its Panama Canal tonnage, and from that calculate the toll for each transit. Fortunately payment is all arranged by our Head Office in advance, so we don’t have to worry about throwing money in to a toll booth basket! Just as well really, as Queen Victoria’s approximate toll fee for the transit of the Panama Canal was in excess of a few hundred thousand dollars! Mind you if that sounds a lot, the Suez Canal costs are double that and we’ll be going through there at the beginning of April!!!

Meanwhile, only the Miraflores set of locks remained between Queen Victoria and the Pacific Ocean, and we transitted them just a couple of hours after entering the Pedro Miguel locks. In the distance you could just make out Panama City as we passed under the magnificent Bridge of the Americas.

Well that was our special day and it’s about it from me for now, but we’ll have more next week from our World Cruise, and hopefully some pictures of Queen Mary 2 going around Cape Horn. Don’t forget that in the meantime you can keep an eye on both ships on their webcams by clicking on the links below.

Queen Mary 2 Bridge Cam


Queen Victoria Bridge Cam


Cheers for now, Alastair

  1. Chris says:

    Cool pictures! It will be interseting to see Queen Victoria in the suez canal. Thanks for the pictures!

  2. Another great report Alastair and certainly most informative. Have a great time and if you’re still aboard for the Baltic in May/June then I hope to catch up with you!

  3. Mr Derek says:

    Great and interesting Blog.

    I am a travel agent and I have some gay clients sailing on QV in July. They will be celebrating their wedding anniversary on board and have heard that there is a anniversary celebration that is given to couples sailing within 2 months of their anniversary. This is supposed to include a bottle of champagne, a signed note from the Captian and a photo, all gratis!
    If this is correct, is there something that I need to do to get this for my clients. It would mean a lot to them. I have a copy of their marriage certificate.

    Thanks for your help and keep up the good work.

  4. Elisabeth Charles says:

    Thank you for the great blog. I have had the honor of sailing on the QM2 twice and can’t wait for my next voyage. We were in Panama on the QM2 this past November and did the Panama Canal excursion. This brought back many wonderful memories of our trip with Cunard! Thank you again.

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