Crystal Serenity Canal Cruise-Day 10

Sincerest apologies for the next installment taking soooo long. There have been major internet issues for a couple of days. Probably my fault because of the amount of bandwidth I was consuming trying to upload massive amounts of photos. I wanted to post more photos than I have here; but I had to abandon the idea because of the amount of internet time it was eating up. Additional photos can be seen on FB....

Crystal Serenity-12/8/09
Transiting the Panama Canal

Around 6:15am I became aware that we were no longer moving. I went to the window to see twinkling lights; & I assumed that we were stopped awaiting the local pilots to board Serenity. I went back to sleep only to be awakened about 7:30 when I heard the PA announcements start (a running commentary by a Canal Historian). I knew he would be pointing out things of interest as we started through the Gatun Channel. I willed myself back to sleep until about 8:15, when I knew I had to get up or else I’d miss something. I could tell from the bridge camera view on TV that we were approaching the Gatun Locks about 8:30. I thought since I’d done this two other times (as recently as last Dec.), I wasn’t going to glue myself to a railing somewhere. But I got caught up in the excitement. I am more grateful than ever that my cabin is on deck 7. I can sit in my cabin; & when I see something of interest coming up on the TV, I can quickly step out on the promenade deck & take a photo. [It took me a couple of days to get used to the fact that I can see everyone outside my window; but they can’t see me. You can sit around the cabin in all states of (un)dress; & no one is the wiser.]

It was pretty cloudy this morning; but that kept it from being unmercifully hot on deck. I went to the Lido buffet & got some strawberry yogurt & granola; a few pieces of bacon, some fruit & cheese. I started telling the Lido guys that I wanted to assemble the “cool guys” for a group photo after the lunch service. They were going to spread the word. I told them they were like “rock stars” on Cruise Critic; & that I was going to post their photo. Then I visited the Bistro for my morning capp.

On deck, I took a seat on a bench right outside my window; & watched the scenery pass by as we transited the Gatun Locks (8:45am). The process starts when a guy in a rowboat (the panga-man) meets our ship just before it reaches the outer gates of the lock. They bring the cables to attach to our ship so that it can then be pulled through the tight squeeze of the lock’s chambers (each of which is 1,000’ long by 110’ wide & a total of 81’ deep). These “lines” are attached to several separate locomotive cars (“electric mules”) that slowly pull us into the chamber. The Gatun Locks are a series of 3 chambers which raises our ship about 28’ in each chamber (raising us a total of 85’, higher than the sea level of the Atlantic Ocean which we just left). Through gravity (no pumps are used), water flushes into the chamber: & the ship slowly rises w/ it. This takes about an hr. It requires 52 million gallons of fresh water to “flush” a ship through the canal. This fresh water is from summer rains; & is harnessed by a series of locks & dams located throughout the canal zone. All this fresh water eventually gets flushed into the Atlantic & Pacific Ocean. During the entire transit time (approx. 9 hrs), our Capt. turns control of the ship over to a series of local pilots. They know these waters intimately; & they coordinate the movement of the shoreside support via radio & phone.

Once you’ve been “raised” through the 3 individual chambers, you then steer out into the massive Gatun Lake. Gatun Lake covers an area of 163 sq. miles; is 23 miles in length; & it takes about 2 hrs. to get from one end to the other.

A series of tug boats surround us at all times during the entire length of the canal (50 miles). As you exit Gatun Lake you enter a narrow passage called Gaillard Cut (aka Culebra Cut). It is at this point in the journey when you become aware of just how daring this operation was. They blasted & dug their way through solid rock (400’ high) to create this 300’ wide, 9 mile long channel. (Canal trivia: the total amount of dirt & rock removed from the canal area during construction, if made into a wall 8’ high, would circle the earth at the equator 4 times!) This part of the canal sits right on the “continental divide” (the Rocky Mountain range as it runs from north to south through Panama).

Almost halfway through the canal, we passed the town of Gamboa, located at the mouth of the Chagres River (at about 11:45am). Gamboa, because of its centralized location, became the base of operations during canal construction. The massive Madden Lake feeds into the narrow Chagres River; & historically caused catastrophic flooding. Engineers built the Madden Dam to harness the lake waters, which eventually gets used to “flush” those ships in & out of the locks. Pretty smart system, huh?

All along the narrow passage, you see huge signs embedded in the rocky walls. These signs have large black cross marks or straight vertical lines. The historian explains that the local pilots use these crosses as a focal point on which to line up the bow of the ship when making the many serpentine twists & turns. This assures that you remain in the deepest part of the channel; & therefore, stay “on course”. (More Canal trivia: the Isthmus of Panama is like a lazy “s”. We actually entered the canal from the northwest & travel SOUTHEAST to come out on the Pacific side. There are places in Panama where the sun actually rises over the Pacific & sets over the Atlantic!)

Today was obviously a very busy day for westbound traffic. The canal locks are 2 lanes, with traffic normally moving in opposite directions. Today, everything was moving 1-way. This sped up the process; & that is why we were going through the locks a little earlier than was previously announced. Shortly after passing Gamboa, darker clouds started to roll in; & it began to drizzle rain. I was trying to stand under the spot where the gangway is stored on deck 7 (when not in use). I could avoid some of it; but then it began to blow rain. I thought it would pass quickly; but it was looking pretty ferocious up ahead at the Centennial Bridge. My clothes were already wet; & the wig was feeling a little “strange”. (Never got it wet before.) But I was determined to wait it out. The Centennial Bridge is quite pretty; built in 2002. I believe they said it carried 6 lanes of traffic. Vehicles were buzzing along as we sailed under it. It looked like we barely cleared the ship’s funnel; but I’m sure it wasn’t as close as it appeared from below. This was another one of those spots that had to be blasted through rock; & it is apparent on either side of the bridge. A “mountain” of rock has been cut in a terraced-fashion (almost like going up steep steps). They have bored holes in the rock & attached supports in order to prevent “rockslides”. You’re literally surrounded by rocky cliffs & jungle; & right in the middle of it all, is the bridge.

Just past the bridge, you immediately come upon the Pedro Miguel Locks. It was now about 12:30pm; & that’s when the bottom fell out of the skies. Raining buckets; sideways & you could hear a little thunder off in the distance. Had I been napping (instead of trying to take photos), I would have thought this was fantastic! I continued to huddle under the gangway since it would provide me easy access to the railing should I want to take a photo. This lock is a single chamber that lowers the ship 31’. I grabbed a few quick photos; & decided it was time to break for lunch. My clothes were soggy; so I quickly ran into the cabin to change. I thought, what the hell, I’m puttin’ on the muumuu. Let ‘um stare!

Almost 1:15, I went to the Lido buffet & sampled several pretty good things. As usual, “the guys” were scrambling right & left. One getting me water; one taking my camera to a table; one wanting to carry my tray (where are these people when I need them at home?). I had a cup of simply divine cream of roasted garlic soup. The pasta guy made a tiny serving of spaghetti carbonara. I had tiny (tapas sized) portions of a vegetable burrito, grilled pork medallion wrapped w/ applewood bacon & Armagnac sauce, & seared meat patty w/ creamy forest mushroom sauce. Yum, bum! The lunch service was winding down; & it was the perfect opportunity to get the guys together for the photo op. Benjamin had done a wonderful job of spreading the word. And w/ practically no disturbance to service, the 10 “Lido Rock Stars” assembled at the back of the Lido Restaurant. It was a priceless moment for me because these guys are probably 75% of what’s perfect about Crystal. I’ll cherish this photo forever.

I went to Scoops & got some lychee sherbet; & went back out on deck for the last set of locks. [One last bit of canal trivia: At the entrance to each lock there is a big arrow on a pole that lights up when you approach it. It’s like a traffic sign, if you will. The arrow points either to the right of the “center median” or to the left. And this is a signal to our ship which “lane” to get in. Since the traffic is usually 2-way; this would be non-essential. But on days like today, where everybody is going in the same direction, this helps direct the ships (2 at a time) into their proper lanes.]

I saw something done today that was new to me; maybe unique to Crystal. When it wasn’t raining, the ship’s photographers got off the ship at the locks & were walking alongside the ship taking photos of the passengers looking over the railings. How cool is that? Just before each lock, they would climb down “jacob’s ladder” onto a tugboat; & then up onto the concrete “median” where the “electronic mules” run on tracks pulling the ships through the locks. Then they’d get back on the tug; climb back up on our ship until the next set of locks. When I saw them at the Miraflores Locks, it was 2 lady photographers & they had a Panamanian “guard” walking along w/ them. I don’t know if it was for the girl’s protection or Panama’s. Can’t wait to see these photos. And I bet they sell a bunch of them because that’s certainly not a shot you get a friend to take w/ your own camera.

It’s a very short distance to the Miraflores Locks (the final set of locks on the Pacific side). This is where the official Visitor’s Center & museum is located. People come & spend the day. There’s shopping & several restaurants. Here the Serenity was lowered a total of 51’ in 2 lock chambers. For those of you doing the math, that puts us back down to sea level (85’ lower than Gatun Lake). There was car ferry that had been alongside us most of the day. Watching that thing squeeze between the chamber walls was a sight. That's got to be the widest "panamax" ship that can make it through.

Directly ahead lies the Bridge of the Americas. A very large steel structure w/ an arched “hump” smack dab in the center. This is another extremely busy roadway that reaches all the way to Alaska. At the base of the bridge on the south side is the busy port city of Balboa (container ship heaven). Humongous cranes were loading thousands of shipping containers onto freighters; carrying God knows what to all parts of the world. Off in the distance you can see a “sea of skyscrapers”. That is Panama City, Panama; a stone’s throw from Balboa. As we cleared the breakwater & headed northwest, you could see more of the city’s skyline. It appeared that the buildings were crammed so close together that you would think you were looking at Manhattan or Singapore. The sun was starting to come out over the Pacific; & there were long lines of freighters in a holding pattern, waiting their turn to head eastward through the canal. Cruise ships get to use the “carpool lane”. Everyone else, idles!

After a quick stop at the compt. ctr. to transfer the pictures to my laptop, I knew I was heading “home” for the night. I felt sticky, wet & wanted to relax. Or come as close to relaxing as one can w/ over 224 photos to edit & (a very, very long) blog entry to compose. You all can breathe easier knowing that I will not give the Canal any coverage on the way back through this weekend. I personally won’t be watching.

I studied the dinner menu; & it took me a long while to find Catherine to tell her what I wanted to order. Since I’ve had the “do not disturb” sign on the door all day & she hasn’t had to touch a towel, sheet or trash in my cabin all day……she doesn’t mind serving me dinner. While I waited I went online to post some photos on facebook; but the internet kept shutting down.

About 8:30 she arrived w/ lots of beautiful dishes from the D.R. I had an appetizer of 2 sauteed sea scallops sitting in a pool of green pea puree. It was very good. I also had to try another one; 2 “roll ups” made out of grilled eggplant that was stuffed w/ pimentos & garlic flavored Boursin cheese. It came w/ a tiny crostini w/ a pureed avocado. Oh Lordy, was that fabulous. Gorgeously plated too. I must be trying to OD on lamb chops…..tonight there were 2 chops w/ cabernet sauvignon gravy that came w/ a serving of mashed potatoes that were topped by white beans, topped w/ sautéed onions, cherry tomatoes & olives. The combination may sound weird; but it was divine. (I seem to say “divine” a lot, don’t I?).

I knew I would sleep so much better if I showered, shaved & wash this filthy (wig-squashed) hair. By 11:30, I finally sat down & had my dessert. It was w/o a doubt THE best French vanilla crème brulee I’ve ever tasted. Perfectly crunchy on top & garnished w/ 3 raspberries. Stuffed & feeling like I could go right to sleep. We get to run our clocks back an hour tonight. So, it’s really only 10:30. I’m going to forego the internet; & try to get to sleep. Maybe take some Advil PM as an extra measure. Who knows, I may not be able to go to sleep this early & be right back up on the computer later. The photos will just have to wait til tomorrow. Tomorrow’s the last sea day for most. And lucky me……my journey is not quite halfway over.

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