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Cruise Diary: A Tale of Three Panama Canal Transits

Guest Sharon Johnson is on Prinsendam’s Grand South America & Antarctica Voyage, and guest Jan Yetke is on Amsterdam’s Grand World Voyage.

Both are regular blog contributors, and both recently transited the Panama Canal on their respective cruises. In December, guest John Hartig also transited the Panama Canal and made a video montage of his photographs. Sail through the locks and lakes along with them on their exciting adventures.

Today we had our transit through the Panama Canal. It was just before 8 a.m. when we approached the Gatun Locks which would lift us up in 3 stages to Gatun Lake. This would be the fourth time we have traveled through the Panama Canal. And we still marvel at the engineering that was done a century ago to enable ships to cross the Panamanian isthmus and thus shorten the journey that would have taken a month or more around South America.

Our “On Location” Guide Lisa presented a fantastic slide show of what we would see on our transit. Her talk was so comprehensive that we discovered a few things to see that we hadn’t spotted on our previous crossings. And we looked for them on this transit.

The temperature was in the low 90’s with high humidity so we had to be careful being out on deck without drinking water or other fluids. Prinsendam crew provided orange juice and Panama Rolls on the outer decks during our early morning crossing.

Gold Hill, Centennial Bridge and Contractors Hill.

Gold Hill, Centennial Bridge and Contractors Hill.

After reaching Gatun lake, we went to breakfast and took the opportunity to cool off before more intense viewing in the afternoon. Around 1 PM we past the town of Gamboa where one of the largest cranes in the world can be seen. We were told it will be used to lift the gates for the new locks which are suppose to be ready for ships to transit through in 2015.

Going through the Gatun Locks.

Going through the Gatun Locks.

All too soon we were at the Pedro Miguel Locks where we entered the lock chamber as one cruise ship was exiting and another ship was being lowered in the lock on the opposite side.

Going through the Pedro Miguel Locks.

Going through the Pedro Miguel Locks.

On the side of the a control building between the two sets of locks and there was a sign commemorating the 100 years of the Panama Canal’s existence. It was exciting to pass through the locks during this Centennial Year using the same locks that ships have used to transit the isthmus of Panama since April 1914.


We had a short trip cross Miraflores Lake where we entered another set of locks that would lower us in two stages down to the level of the Pacific Ocean.

Al and Sharon going through the Miraflores Locks.

Al and Sharon going through the Miraflores Locks.

We stayed on deck until we saw the skyline of Panama City and crossed under the Bridge of the Americas. All in all another lovely transit through the Panama Canal which took approximately 10 hours.

Today we transited the Panama Canal. We entered the Canal very early in the morning – about 6:30 am at the first set of locks, Gatun Locks. The system of locks with two lanes, three major sets called Gatun, Pedro Miguel, and Miraflores, raises ships up to the level of Gatun Lake (26 meters above sea level) which is where you cross the Continental Divide, and then lowers them again at the other side.

The ship in the Panama Canal.

The ship in the Panama Canal.

An electric mule.

An electric mule.

The Canal is being expanded to allow for transit of the mega supertankers. The expansion program began in September 2007. Its objective is to double the waterway’s capacity to satisfy the increasing demand of world maritime trade. The new Panama Canal locks will be 427 meters long and 55 meters wide, the size of four football fields.

We had a beautiful day for the transit – sunny, warm, but not blistering hot as usual. Very relaxing!!! After we exited the Gatun Locks, we had some time to waste (since the whole transit is time controlled) so the Captain gave us a really neat short sightseeing tour of a section of the new locks and viewing center under construction.

New lock and viewing center.

New lock and viewing center.

Suction dredge in the Panama Canal.

Suction dredge in the Panama Canal.

The sun was peeping over the horizon with a golden glow. Hordes of people were gathering on the front of Deck 7 as the Maasdam nosed its way into the Panama Canal shortly after 6:00 a.m. I left Marjorie alone in the cabin eager to snap a few pictures before breakfast.

The sunrise to the left of the ship beckoned me to snap a few golden pictures before they would disappear, so I edged in among the other elbows who were manoeuvering for a good shot. I got what I wanted and headed back towards the food station…

I was impressed by how the canal operated. Guide cables were hooked up to a ship on each side. so that it could be pulled by these mini-trains, called “mules.” These mini-engines guided these mammoth freighters into the locks! Amazing to watch. I photographed a freighter which according to its name, “Cosco Aqaba,” must have come from the Jordanian coastal city that is situated at the northeastern tip of the Red Sea. It was loaded with gigantic boxes, ready for transport by truck or train.



The Maasdam nosed its way slowly towards the three Locks that would take us into Gatun Lake. The Canal was huge, like a two lane watery highway for freighters and cruise liners. It was an 80 kilometer waterway that connected the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

John’s travel log of his entire 14-day Maasdam cruise can be seen here:

Have you transited the Panama Canal? What’s your favorite memory or the thing that surprised you the most about the journey? Tell us in the comments below!

  • PatriciaB

    Thanks to all 3 correspondents for these up-close-and-personal photos and great commentary.

    Our cruises on HAL through the canal have been sensational. Alligators on the sandbanks, a sudden downpour that had us running for cover, having the Rotterdam blow its whistle at our Ryndam as we passed close, Panama Rolls on deck, lunch at a window table in the elegant Dining Room watching the wilds of the rainforest pass by, the memories are endless.
    The one thing that gave us the most pleasure was sailing the Canal on three classes of HAL ships: the S class Ryndam, the R class Zaandam and the Vista Class Zuiderdam. A Signature class transit would be the icing on that Panama Roll for us!

  • Marjorie Shenkir

    Sailing on a Sunfarere cruise on St. Patrick’s Day and CAN NOT WAIT!!

  • Norah Lambkin

    This cruise is definitely on my ‘bucket list’! Thanks so much for the blogs.

  • Llewellyn Denny

    My wife and I took an 11 day sunfarer cruise in late 2012. Fondest memory was getting off at Gatun lake and being bussed to a smaller boat to transit to the pacific side. Got an outstanding view of the locks and operation that we really couldn’t from our ship, due to our size.

  • Claudette Dekoe

    Most magnificent cruise I ever experienced (April 2013). Can’t wait to book another with HAL. You know how to do or right. Superbr.

  • Judith Simmons

    went through on the Amsterdam when it was new, would like to do it again. Always ready to cruise and Holland America is our favorite.

  • Roger Barbier

    Can’t wait to be able to see it.

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