In one of the more surreal moments of my life, this week I climbed atop a unicorn-shaped inflatable toy and floated, in a swimming pool at the back of a cruise ship, through a set of locks in the Panama Canal.
It was an interesting perspective.
Our ship, Le Bellot, was tethered to two train-like vehicles called mules that ran on tracks alongside the massive steel-gated chambers. Once we were in position, the water level in the chamber slowly dropped, and we proceeded to the next lock.
The entire 51-mile trip, from Atlantic to Pacific, took about eight hours and took us through six locks. And no, I didn’t ride the unicorn the entire time.
I’ve learned a lot since I boarded Le Bellot, which is carrying about 150 passengers on a week-long Smithsonian Journeys cruise round Panama and Costa Rica. We boarded in Colon, Panama. After a day in the San Blas Islands, we transited the canal. Now we’re motoring toward Costa Rica.
Ten interesting things I learned during a Panama Canal cruise:
- France began construction of the canal in 1881 but stopped due to high worker mortality and engineering problems. The United States took over in 1904 and the canal opened for business in 1914.
- American officials originally thought Nicaragua, not Panama, was the most feasible location for the canal.
- More than 25,000 people died during construction of the Panama Canal. Accidents like rockslides, plus mosquito-borne diseases like malaria and yellow fever all took a terrible toll.
- Ships pass through a series of six locks that lift them 85 feet up to Gatun Lake and then, on the other side, lower them back down.
- The U.S. controlled the canal until 1977, when it handed over partial control to Panama. In 1999, the Panamanian government took over full control and now operates the channel.
- The original locks are 110 feet wide and 42 feet deep. Newer, 180-foot wide and 60-foot-deep lanes opened in 2016 to allow larger ships to pass through.
- Some ships were built to what is called “Panamax” size – the maximum size that fit through the original locks. Now we’ve got Post Panamax ships.
- Annual traffic on the Panama Canal was about 1,000 vessels in 1914. Today, between 30 and 40 ships transit the canal daily.
- The toll for a yacht less than 125 feet is a few thousand dollars. Cruise ships and cargo ships pay much (much!) more, based on boat type, size, and cargo.
- Explorer Richard Halliburton, who was born in Brownsville in 1900, paid 36 cents to swim through the canal in 1928.