Transiting the Panama Canal from (Balbao) Panama City on Pacific Ocean

#PanamaCanal  #TransitPanamaCanal  #WindstarsPanamaCanalTransit



There was a light fog when I arose before sunrise on our day of transit; we were informed about the operation the day prior to transiting as our ship visited Balboa, where we took a tour to Panama City’s Visitor Center to view the Mira Flores locks.


View from Mira Flores Visitor’s Center

My husband and I had cruised to the canal on a former small Celebrity ship, the Mv Horizon in 2003. This current cruise in March 2018, on the last transit prior to its transatlantic crossing for the summer to Europe, we were sailing on the Windstar’s Star Breeze after sailing south in the Pacific Ocean along the Costa Rican and Panamanian western coastMuch larger ships 4,000 or more passengers, fill the entire lock chamber, and new locks recently opened for even larger Post-Panamax ships.   Our small ship (of 208 guests) cruise line had paid for a private transit and we were provided spacious viewing areas at the bow on various deck levels — spots that got more crowded as people rose early to witness and video the vessel passing under the Bridge of the Americas and entering the first set of locks (the Mira Flores Locks, on the Pacific side) to the canal. It was a visually stunning transit, especially for my first time through the Panama Canal. (It was helpful that, the night before, I’d seen a documentary about the building of the canal, as well as there being an expert from Panama on board to give a running commentary about what was happening during the entire transit.)


Mira Flores Lock

We were to rise a total of 85 feet to Gatun Lake through two sets of locks (the lift of the two-step chambers at Mira Flores is 54 feet, and the single step process at Pedro Miguel lifts the ship 31 feet. The two locks are relatively nearby each other.


(As per Wikipedia), from the outset, it was considered an important safety feature that ships be guided, not pulled, through the lock chambers by electric locomotives, known as mulas (mules, named after the animals traditionally used to cross the isthmus of Panama), running along the top of the lock walls. These mules are used for side-to-side and braking control in the locks, which are narrow relative to modern-day ships. Forward motion into and through the locks is actually provided by the ship’s engines and not the mules. A ship approaching the locks first pulls up to the guide wall, which is an extension of the center wall of the locks, where it is taken under control by the mules on the wall before proceeding into the lock. As it moves forward, additional lines are taken to mules on the other wall. With large ships, there are two mules on each side at the bow, and two each side at the stern—eight in total, allowing for precise control of the ship.

The mules themselves run on rack tracks with broad gauge, 5 ft,  to which they are geared. Traction is by electric power, supplied through a third rail laid below surface level on the land side. Each mule has a powerful winch, operated by the driver; these are used to take two cables in or pay them out in order to keep the ship centerd in the lock while moving it from chamber to chamber. With as little as 2 ft (60 cm) of clearance on each side of a ship, considerable skill is required on the part of the operators.

For detailed information about the lock system and how it works, please see more at  Wikipedia.



Gatun Lake

After completing the transit through Gatun Lake which look less than three hours, we reached the last locks where there is a triple flight at Gatun locks which lowers ships the full 85 feet to the Atlantic side. There are twelve locks in total.



Following Hafnia Lupus through Gatun Locks to the Atlantic Ocean


Sailing completed through the Panama Canal (notice the mules at right)  Colon a few miles away


First-Timers Guide — Study the canal’s history to better appreciate the journey. A couple of good books are The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 by David McCullough and Panama Fever by Matthew Parker. You might also watch PBS’ A Man, a Plan, a Canal, Panama, available as a DVD narrated by McCullough which we viewed aboard the ship.

Photos by Mimi Auchter


We at Getaway Dreams Come True Travel Agency will assist you in choosing a cruise through the Panama Canal or other travel to the area where you can view the locks from either of the Visitor’s Centers.

You may also wish to view published blogs as follows:

Advantages of Small Ship Cruising

Wondering Which Cruise Line Is Right for You?

Eastern vs. Western Caribbean Cruises

Advantages of Small Ship Cruising

Recommended Cruise Planning Steps to Consider

How to Enlarge a Ship – Cut it in Two and Add a New Section?

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