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Panama Canal

Panama Canal

A ship traverses the newly completed Panama Canal in 1915. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia / Creative Commons.

This amazing 48-mile long channel connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans has been a dream for far longer than it has been a reality. Numerous attempts were made to find a way to link the two oceans, via the Caribbean Sea, without success. That all changed in 1904, when the United States entered the fray, buying up the remnants of a failed French attempt at constructing the canal for a whopping $40 million dollars, and began work on the canal on May 4th of that year.

Over the course of the next decade, thousands of workers would toil endlessly in the construction of the canal and its locks, which raise and lower ships to allow them to pass from one ocean to another. In total, over 5,600 workers would lose their lives in the process of building this remarkable feat of engineering.

This engineering marvel is best savored from the comfort of a cruise ship.  Only certain cruise ships – known as “Panamax” ships – can pass through the Canal. These vessels can’t be wider than 106 feet across, or longer than 965 feet. While most of the world’s cruise fleet can use the canal to quickly transit from the Caribbean to the West Coast of the United States, larger cruise ships like Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 or Royal Caribbean’s Mariner of the Seas have to sail around the horn of South America in order to pass from the Atlantic to the Pacific. These are known as “Post-Panamax” ships.

When Mariner of the Seas was repositioned – then later removed – from the Mexican Riviera, her size prevented her from transiting the Panama Canal. The only option? A circumnavigation of South America. Photo © Aaron Saunders

For many shipping companies, today’s economies of scale demand bigger ships capable of carrying more cargo and passengers. Because of that, plans are afoot to build a new set of larger locks to complement the existing ones at Miraflores and Gatun. Channels are to be widened to support the increase in traffic, and current plans call for Gatun Lake to be deepened and its overall water height raised.

With the locks set to be operational in 2016, the Panama Canal cruise experience as it exists today is bound to change radically.

Today, many cruise lines typically offer two types of Panama Canal voyages: full transits and short exploration voyages.

The full transits are, as the name suggests, complete journeys from one coast to the other. Typically, these are offered in the so-called “shoulder seasons” of April, May, September and October. This allows many ships that winter in the warmth of the Caribbean to reposition to Alaska and the West Coast for the summer months. Typically, these voyages tend to last around 14 days and can take passengers from Miami to Los Angeles, to highlight one example.

Norwegian Pearl holds the record for highest-toll paid to transit the Canal: $375,600 in 2010. Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line

During the winter months, many cruise lines offer shorter, 10-day “Explorer” voyages that depart roundtrip from typical winter homeports like Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

The reason they’re often called explorer voyages lies in the fact that these sailings only include a partial transit of the Canal: entering the first set of locks before turning around in Gatun Lake and exiting the canal. Usually, these sailings are supplemented by a number of ports in the Western and Southern Caribbean, and can even include excursions within the Canal area itself.

While Panama Canal cruises will continue to exist for the foreseeable future, their time as we know them now is limited. If you’ve never done this remarkable voyage, do so before the new locks open in 2016. Right now, part of the allure and mystique of this Avid Cruiser Voyage lies in the fact that many cruise ships just barely fit inside the locks.

And that is truly a sight to behold. The Panama Canal isn’t just the quickest link between the Atlantic and the Pacific. It’s also among the most beautiful trips you can make anywhere.

Check out our video: Time-lapse crossing the Panama Canal on Crystal Serenity

Avid Cruiser Posts, Photographs and Videos Featuring the Panama Canal.
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