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Panama Canal's marvels deliver the ride of a lifetime

There are two sets of locks on the canal -- one set going up and one set coming down. There are two sets of locks on the canal -- one set going up and one set coming down. (KEVIN SPRAGG FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
Email|Print| Text size + By Randall Shirley
Globe Correspondent / January 21, 2007

PANAMA CITY -- There aren't many things you can reach out and touch over the side of a cruise ship. If you have cruised, you know that even from the lower decks, the water is a long way down.

So it is with disbelief that I lean over the edge of my massive ship and touch the concrete side of the Panama Canal.

A few minutes later, all I can feel is hot, humid air as the ship rises into the sky and once again towers above the water; the canal walls are dozens of feet below.

Everything about the Panama Canal surprises me. I remember learning about the canal in junior high history. The teacher said it was one of the great engineering achievements of all time, was built by the United States (the French had given up), and changed shipping forever.

Eventually, luxury cruises took high-ticket passengers through the canal. The trip became accessible to anyone with a block of vacation time and a modest vacation budget. But it's still not a common trip. If you go, you'll feel you're among a relatively elite few.

Eastbound or west, the transit is phenomenal. However, I'm a purist: I don't believe you can claim to have been through the Panama Canal if you only do a "partial transit," as many cruises do (often round trip from Puerto Rico or Texas). Even if you take a full-transit day trip on a ferry, it isn't the same.

You understand the magnitude of what the canal does only when you begin on one coast of North America and end on the other. My trip started in San Diego and ended 14 nights later in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Today, the largest ships that can fit are called "Panamax," a contraction of "Panama" and "maximum." And my ship, Royal Caribbean's Legend of the Seas , fits that category. Each lock chamber is 1,000 feet long and 110 feet wide . The Legend is 867 feet long ( some Panamax ships are a bit longer ) and 105 feet wide. That's right, only 2 1/2 feet separates each side of the ship from concrete walls.

Before entering the first locks, the helm of the vessel is handed off to a professional pilot who controls the ship from sea to sea. While in the locks, the ship is tied to small railroad locomotives on all four corners -- each of which moves along with the ship, ensuring it doesn't hit the sides of the canal. The ship moves forward under its own power; the locomotives are purely for side-to-side safety. When the ship is ready to change locks, it's fascinating to look down from the stern. With only 60 feet between propellers and lock gates, the screws create quite a churn in the water.

As it approaches the canal from the Pacific, the Legend's passengers are on deck at a surprisingly early hour, coffee in hand. While we've had a grand time exploring Cabo San Lucas, Acapulco, Huatulco, and Costa Rica, this is the pièce de résistance. Cruise liners pay a premium for daylight canal passages. Freighters pay less and often go at night.

To the south, the skyscrapers of Panama City are impressive. Dozens of cargo ships dot the ocean. Soon, clearance is given, and we sail under the arch of the Bridge of the Americas, one of only two road connections between the continents.

There are two sets of locks on the canal -- one set going up, and one set coming down. The Miraflores Locks are on the Pacific side , the Gatun Locks on the Atlantic. Both are twinned, meaning there are parallel sets, both in use at all times. This is a treat, as there is a Panamax container ship transiting the locks right next to us. While it's not as pretty as a cruise ship, watching it rise through the locks gives us a better understanding of what our ship is doing.

Once we're through the upward locks, the bulk of the day is spent cruising slowly through the 50-mile waterway -- much of which is actually a lake. A specialist gives regular updates on what we're seeing and explains how the canal works. It's stunning to learn that the whole thing is powered by rainwater. The region's rivers and lakes are dammed, and, along with the locks, control the release of 52 million gallons of freshwater per passing ship. In a rare show of modern science meeting environmentalism, engineers discovered that the jungle ecosystem creates the rain, so the jungle surrounding the Canal Zone remains wonderfully untouched.

After the locks, the highlight of the transit is crossing the Continental Divide. At 85 feet, it's the lowest Divide crossing you'll ever make -- sailing through the 8 1/2 miles of the dramatic Gaillard Cut, where the mountain is literally sliced open.

During the day many passengers grab lunch or relax on deck chairs, watching the jungle pass. Eventually the ship sails across Gatun Lake, passing many waiting freighters. A handful of passengers disembark by tender here, and go off into Panama for shore excursions; they'll rejoin us a few hours later in the Atlantic. Soon it's our turn to enter the Gatun Locks. It's dramatic watching the huge ship sail toward what appears to be a cliff. Looking ahead and down, we can see the Caribbean. The lock doors close, and we transit three locks down to sea level. I've found a great spot on Deck 4 where I can touch the sides of the canal during the lowering.

I realize that the canal may not be as beautiful as other wonders I've touched, but from the deck of a huge ship it ranks among the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, and the Sydney Opera House for the overall experience. It's experience to the max. The Panamax.

Contact Randall Shirley, a freelance writer in Vancouver, at randall@creative2go.com.

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