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My Panama Canal Cruise: Notes on an Engineering Feat

Even on the day when we’re crossing the Panama Canal, I find it hard to give up my routine on Volendam. So here I am in the ship’s well-appointed gym on the Lido deck, after helping myself to more than my fair share of fluffy, perfect-for-the-occasion Panama rolls on the forward deck.

Panama rolls.

But after I do a set or two, the panoramic vista draws me forward to the gym’s floor-to-ceiling windows. I love how there is no one place to experience the crossing — you can witness this happening all over the ship. Earlier, when I asked Glenn-Michael, the gregarious Aussie who is the cruise’s Lead EXC Guide, about the best place to be, he told me basically anywhere outside, and he was right. But I’m also tickled to notice more than a few people admiring the great view from right here from the air-conditioned gym.

Glenn-Michael also tipped me off to the fact that Volendam was designed to feature a small deck on either side of the gym. “It’s really private to stand on one of those decks with just a few people to watch the crossing,” he told me. I take his advice, joining a half-dozen or so others as, inch by inch, we move through the Miraflores Locks. Down below, locomotives — known affectionately as the “mules” — grind over special tracks, moving parallel to the ship at exactly our speed, pacing us.

Glenn-Michael told me there are six mules, three on each side of the ship. The Panama Canal’s original locomotives were built by General Electric in 1914; it was Mitsubishi that delivered the latest models in 1999, at a cost of $2.3 million each. When I head down to the Promenade deck to get closer to the action, I see how near to the engineers we really are, close enough for me to note the orange mirrored sunglasses on one watchful canal worker.

Volendam plows ahead under its own power, but the mules are needed to guide us through the narrow opening between the continents. It’s really quite a feat of engineering. The movement is slow and deliberate, yet thrilling. Pure power is making all this happen. To our right, the balconies of the Miraflores Visitor Center are filled with onlookers waving at us and cheering our journey. I do some quick research on my phone and learn that, inside the facility, the visitors have likely watched movies and seen exhibitions on the Panama Canal’s history, but clearly there’s nothing like being out in the air, watching our ship pass by and making eye contact with us, Volendam guests.

A view of the locks from the Miraflores Visitor Center.

A view of the locks from the Miraflores Visitor Center.

One might assume that gravity will make a global waterline even and balanced — there’s even that old saying, “Water seeks its own level.” Except gravity doesn’t really do the trick. The Panama Canal was created for easier passage between two great oceans, but Glenn-Michael explained to me that the Atlantic and the Pacific are not in harmony.

“On the Pacific side, the tide can rise 20-odd feet,” Glenn-Michael told me. “The Atlantic side rises four or five feet. Both are sea level.” Therefore, the water has to be managed to make the passage feasible and safe, so a lock system is required. With the water drawn from the artificial Gatun Lake, the locks are filled and flushed. Because I boarded in Costa Rica on the Pacific side, I experience the Miraflores Locks first, on the morning of the crossing day. Then come the Pedro Miguel Locks soon after.

On the long stretch between these morning and afternoon performances, Volendam sails through lush, tropical Central American scenery. In contrast to the high-stakes engineering of the locks, this part of the itinerary is serene. We share the winding waterway with uninhabited islands fringed with narrow beaches.

Lush jungle vegetation Panama Canal

Finally, on the Atlantic side, the Gatun Locks are the afternoon event. Each time we pass through a lock system — when the water achieves the proper level — two paired, massive gates separate and swing open, allowing us to pass. It’s always mesmerizing.

Crossing achieved, I leave the deck and I see some guests who have spent a least part of the day inside. They’re in comfy chairs, positioned right beside the ample windows on both the port and starboard lounges. Cups of coffee and cocktails in hand, they haven’t missed a thing, either. There’s no wrong place to be.

THAT MOMENT ON VOLENDAM WHEN…
… Holland America Line guests swim across the Panama Canal, sort of.

Cruise director Justin Southard is fit and energetic as a gymnast (he actually used to be a wrestler), and when he grabs the mic to encourage people to sign up to “swim across the canal,” he has a lot of takers. The event is heavily metaphorical, of course: No one is actually jumping into the Canal. It goes like this: Guests are invited to swim across the pool on the aft-deck just as the ship is cruising through the Canal. One by one, each very game guest happily dedicates their swim to a loved one, and then executes some creative jump or slide into the pool. The lap follows, and then Justin awards each participant a certificate to mark the achievement. It’s a great, goofy icebreaker guaranteed to make a memory. The last one into the pool is Justin. The veteran of 10 Panama Canal crossings executes a perfect backflip, but it is too sudden for me to document it. I ask him to do it again, and he quickly obliges. This time, I catch the feat on my camera phone.

Drew LimskyDrew Limsky is the founding editor-in-chief of Holland America Line’s award-winning Mariner magazine and currently is a contributor to the publication, making him an ideal writer for Holland America Blog. As a travel journalist for outlets including The New York Times, Drew quickly realized that destination writing not only was a way of experiencing beautiful places, but also a way of meeting people from all over the world and hearing their stories. Drew broke into journalism as a book reviewer for The Washington Post and an op-ed writer for The Los Angeles Times.

1 Comment
  • William J. Ash

    Thank you Holland America. I have visited the Panama Canal aboard one of your wonderful ships. This advertisement has given me the opportunity to see it once again. I recommend readers take a voyage through this engineering marvel topped off with jungle scenery second to none.

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