Zaandam Cruise Review by Thomas A. Crane
- Sail Date: September 2003
- Destination: British Columbia
- Cabin Type: Vista Suite with Verandah
There are differing reports as to where to watch the transit of the Canal. Some people like to see the inner workings of the process and the machinery as close as possible; the lower promenade deck is great for this. You can walk around the entire ship and go out to the very front of the bow if you would like. You can stay on the sunny or shady side of the ship and watch the process from a deck chair; people tend to get in the way of your viewing with this option. Staying outside can be extremely hot, humid, and sunny. The weather can be stifling, and you must wear sunblock and drink plenty of fluids. You can also sit inside at one of the several bars and watch through the "windows". After much thought and discussion, we chose to sit in the Crow's Nest of the Zaandam.
The Crow's Nest is a bar and nightclub on the ninth deck of the ship on the bow. It has wrap around windows, reclining chairs, a well-stocked bar, and plenty of room, tables and chairs. You can see everything starboard to port albeit not up close. We decided, if we could, that we would sit at the front of the Crow's Nest on the port side in two chairs with table that was right by the windows. The reclining chairs looked really inviting, but when you sit in them, the view is lower than a regular chair, and you see a little less. We were scheduled to begin our transit through the locks around 7:00 am, so we thought that we should claim our chairs and table early.
On our day of transit we woke up at 4:15 am, dressed with sweaters (people sometimes forget to tell you that it gets cold in some areas of the ship), and proceeded to the Crow's Nest. We got there at around 4:50 am, and it was open; however, we were not the first people there. There was another couple in the reclining chairs in the middle of the room and another man towards the back. Our table was waiting for us, and we sat down, pulled the table and chairs all the way to the bulkhead, and waited for the trip to begin.
We approached the entrance through part of the Bay of Panama; our trip was to take us from south to north. It was still dark out, but you could see the lights of many ships anchored in the bay waiting for their turn to transit. Passenger ships and critical cargo ships pay a special fee not to wait; our fee was between $150,000 and $175,000. Lights of the skyscrapers of Panama City could be seen in the distance, and you could just make out the shape of the Bridge of the Americas which goes over the Canal and connects one side of Panama to the other. The sky lightened somewhat as the sun was coming up; it was overcast with several threatening clouds towards the north. At around 5:30 am, a pilot boat met us, and we took our pilot on board. This is the person who actually guides the ship through the process. There were two pilot boats that met us, and we think that several people boarded the Zaandam. On our starboard side a huge container ship was allowed to go in front of us as we met our tugboats. As we looked to the port side we saw several buildings and an airfield that was used by the United States when we controlled the Canal Zone.
The sun rose and the Bridge of the Americas was right in front of us. It was really a neat experience to go under this structure, and we took several pictures of the process. Once under the bridge, we entered the Bay of Balboa; this is a port town and you could see the container ships that are too large to go through the Canal unloading their cargo to railway cars for the overland transit to the Atlantic side. On the port side is the former Rodman U.S. naval base that Panama has taken over and uses for a port. I ran down to the Lido deck to see if I could get any breakfast. Fortunately, they had opened the continental breakfast area early, and I was able to bring muffins, tea, and juice back to the Crow's Nest.
Our two tugs approached us as we proceeded to the first set of locks. One tug went to the starboard side, and one went to our stern. This is done to insure that our entrance into the locks is done correctly and safely. As we approached the two locks there were two ships already in the first of the two-step Miraflores Locks. At this time of day, ships can use both the starboard and port locks to go to the Atlantic side; later on in the day only one side is used because of the two-way traffic. You could actually see the big container ship that had passed us up rise as the water was allowed to flow into the first lock from the lake system above. Between the locks there is an area that has most of the controls and the mule tracks. There is also an arrow that indicates which way your ship is to go. This is a holdover from the days when two-way radios were not used. As we waited, the arrow was straight up. On the entire transit, the Captain of the Zaandam gave a running commentary of what was transpiring.
Then it was our turn, and the arrow swung to the starboard lock. Water poured out of the sides of the locks as the first area emptied its contents into the Bay of Balboa; it works on a gravitational system. As we approached our first lock, a rowboat brought out the cables that would connect the Zaandam to the locomotives that would help pull us through the Miraflores Locks. We didn't see it, but our crew took the cables and hooked them up to our ship with guidance from the Canal crew. The port side lock was mirroring what we were doing, and you could see the process from a different point of view. You could see the big lock doors open as our sister lock prepared to accept another container ship beside us.
Our lock was ready and we slowly proceeded into it. The locomotives pulled us, but we also used our own power and thrusters. Once in the lock, the doors behind us closed, and we began to rise from the water in the second lock. We were only about 4 feet from the both sides of the locks; some ships are even wider than we were. You could see the process happen, and we rose to the level of the second set of locks. It took around ½ hour to complete this part of the journey. The massive original 1914 doors opened, and we were taken into the second set of Miraflores Locks. The process was repeated, and we steamed into the little bay between the locks.
We noticed that there were several alligators floating by the beaches and several species of birds on the rain forests just on land. We approached the Pedro Miguel Locks and waited our turn and for the arrow to turn. We could see the container ship on the port side begin to leave its berth, and water leaked from the back doors of the lock as her propellers took hold. We then entered this one lock system, and went through the fascinating process again. The Crow's Nest was filling up by now, and the bar was open. People were getting a bit crabby because some were sitting in front of them. There was a shouting match that lasted about 5 minutes. The good guys eventually won out.
Once we had reached the farthest above sea level that that would be, our lock doors opened, and we were escorted into the Gaillard or Culebra Cut. This section of the Canal is what cuts through the Continental Divide. Many thousands of workers died attempting to build this section of the Canal. As we sailed on we were "tugless" but passed several dredging vessels that continually pull out sediment from the bottom of the Cut. We passed a new set of structures that will eventually be another bridge across the Canal. It seemed to be a massive undertaking. Panama is also attempting to finance a third set of locks that will allow the largest "post Panamax" ships to transit. The Cut winds through the rain forest, and we met our first ships going south here. A very large container ship passed us up on the port side; why she did this, we never found out since our transit paralleled her from then on.
As we came out of the Cut into Gatun Lake we could see the many lighthouses, signs, and lights along the way that have been installed for the pilots to guide the ships. The Gatun Lake is the source of the water that allows the vessels to be raised or lowered through the system of locks. The lake was formed by the damming of the Chagres River. There are many islands that still exist, and an exact channel must be followed around these islands. We spent several hours traversing this second largest manmade body of water. Many of the passengers on board the Zaandam left the deck and the Crow's Nest since there was "not much to see". We stayed but got lunch from the Lido Deck.
As we approached the final set of Gatun Locks we sailed past the Gatun Dam which was an earthen structure which formed the lake. Ships were again anchored around the area waiting their turn to go into the Locks. We had a short wait and watched the Princess Line "Coral Princess" transit the three locks in front of her. This passenger ship is the largest that has ever transited the Canal. There is only about two feet on either side of her when she enters each lock.
Twilight was approaching as we began to enter the Gatun Locks with the help of two new tugs. Once we were safely in, we began the trifold process of descending to the Atlantic side of the Canal. The lights of the area came on and gave a surreal effect to the process. The sun set and the lights of the ships docked waiting to sail south the next day could be seen; the Coral Princess was docked and had all of her lights burning; it was a neat sight. We left the third and final lock and sailed under our own power into Limon Bay, past the Port of Cristobal and Colon, and into the Caribbean Sea.
None the worse for wear after 13 ½ hours, we cleaned up our area, moved our chairs and table back, and went down to the Lido deck for a massive barbeque that the food service had for the passengers.
The transit of the Panama Canal was a great experience. There are so many things to see that you have to see them all; we did, and we hope that this review will help in your transit.
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