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Panama Channel

Leg details

October 7, 2005
Panama Channel (PA)

Gatun Lock - Lago de Gatun and Corte Gaillard - Pedro Miguel Lock - Miraflores Lock


Leg map (click to enlarge in separate window)

Friday, October 7, 2005

Panama Channel, Panama

Today an early rise is required.
Even though it is another glorious sunrise there are already small clouds around, not too promising for the rest of the day.

At 6 AM Susi goes to the bridge to enquire if the time schedule still applies.
As she stands on the bridge the radio calls "CMA CGM Matisse".
Adrian, the officer on duty, replies and is informed the "Matisse" is now scheduled for pilot-boarding at 8 AM, 30 minutes later than planned.
This gives enough time for breakfast ....

Today's route will include ascending through the Gatun locks on the Atlantic side, passing the lake and the channel, then descending through the Pedro Miguel locks and then the Miraflores locks.
The captain expects us to be at the Miraflores locks no later than 5 PM and out on the open sea by 8 PM.

Roger, the forth passenger on board, will take detailed notes of the crossing of the channel.
Thanks Roger, for providing them to us.

At 6:55 the machine is started. The "Matisse" starts to vibrate and the excitement grows on board.
There are a few that will do this crossing for the first time.
All cameras are ready.

At 7:00 the captain and the required officers have arrived on the bridge.
We must be at the special entry to the channel no later than 8 AM to pick up the pilot.

At 7:05 the captain give instructions to lift the anchor cable. The "Matisse" still has 3 links (1 link = 27,5 meters!) in the water.
The crew in the bow announce "2 links", then "1 link". At 7:15 the anchor has been completely lifted and we set course heading 256.

At 7:18 the "Matisse" the rudder is turned by 20 degrees starboard and the heading changed to 260, towards the entry of the passage.
The "Matisse" sails with 4,5 knots, just enough to be manoeuvrable.

The "MSC Matilde" is already on its way towards the entry.
Next in line is the "Cherokee Bridge".
She has been assigned the slot before the "Matisse" and will be the ship in front of us during the whole day.
There is aprox. 30 minutes of time between the ships.

There are many ships waiting for their turn. They will be let through the locks in groups, always a few up then a few down.
But how does the official leaflet of the Panama Canal authorities say:

"Transit reservations:
This service is available to a limited number of vessels and allows reservation of transit slots, up to a year in advance, by paying a preferential fee."

This is normal business for the people at Colón / Manzanillo.
The fishermen (and obviously the fishes too ...) don's seem to get over-excited over the activity in the entry.

It will take a few more changes in course and speed to bring us to the correct position.

Punctually at 8 o'clock the "Matisse" reaches the entry.

Behind the "Matisse" the next ship has already lined up.

The pilot arrives on board.
He has some problems with his alimentative and the commands.
The tower needs to repeat his route a few times until all is clear.

While waiting for the order to proceed the pilot uses the time for a detailed check of steering, engines stopping and starting, etc.
At 8:45 we get the "ok" to proceed with the entry.

The onlookers (passengers and crew) get into position with their binoculars and cameras.

With only 5,5 knots the "Matisse" slowly proceeds into "Bahia Limon", a bay forming the first part of the channel.
It is 6,5 miles long (= 12 km) from the entry breakwater to the first lock.
The water is so shallow that every so often it turns brown under the ship's propeller.

Before the locks the pilots are exchanged. Two new ones arrive.
They seem to have divided the channel into parts and different pilots are assigned to each of the parts.

Also the authorities come on board to check the paperwork and define the passage price.
For this reason we have to identify us as "guest of the company" and not "paying passenger".

We glide along the swampy border of the channel.
According to the 2nd captain he already has been able to sight a small crocodile.
No luck for us this time.

The channel gets narrower.
On the left hand side some new locks are being built. The entry is already finished. No finishing date is known though ......

The "Cap Ortegal" follows at some distance.

After a bend the "Gatun" lock appears.

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Gatun Lock

At 9:50 we arrive at the "Gatun" lock.
The "Gatun" lock has a set of 2 parallel groups of 3 locks each.
Each set of locks covers a difference in altitude from the Lake to the Atlantic Ocean of 85 feet or 26 meters.
Each lock is 33,5 m wide and 305 m long.
Maximum dimensions of ships allowed through the channel are:
Length: 294,13 meters (965 feet)
Beam: 32, 31 meters (106 feet)
Draft: 12,04 meters (39,5 feet)

The "Cherokee Bridge" is being manoeuvred into the first lock by some tugs.
The "MSC Matilde" already is moving into the second lock.
In front of the "MSC Matilde" already in the third lock a green tanker can be seen.

On board of the "Matisse" all doors on all decks and the gates between floor B and floor A are closed and locked.
This precaution needs to be taken to prevent theft as a local group of aprox. 18 people will be boarding soon and staying on board over the whole journey.
The task of these people is to tighten and release the steal ropes from the trains onto the ship.
This explains the 18 people:
- 3 locomotives on each side with two ropes each (= 12 ropes = 12 people)
- one supervisors for the bow and the stern on each side (= 4 people)
- 2 pilots
All are wearing neat uniforms and safety helmets.

The pilot passes instruction to the captain regarding the speed and the direction of the motion of the "Matisse".

Our tugs arrive and take up their positions.
The "Matisse" is now moving so slow that it is not manoeuvrable anymore.
The tugs start pushing the "Matisse" towards the miter gates.
Shortly before the locks the "Matisse" will be stopped and pressed against the pier.

The tugs have finished their job with the "Cherokee Bridge".
She is now safely attached to the little trains and moving into the lock.
It is now our turn to move closer.

The arrow at the pier indicates on which side the "Matisse" is supposed to use the lock.

At 9:50 we arrive at the first gate lock.
On each side of the "Matisse" 3 electrical rack railway locomotives are waiting.
These locomotives are not really used for towing but to keep the ships in position while going through the locks.
The forward speed is provided with the ship's engine and propeller.

At the end of the pier a turntable is available so the locomotives can be moved from one to the other side depending on the place where they are required.
After being turned the locomotives need to be lifted into the rack again with a gear mechanism.

The steel cables required for keeping the ship in his position are attached and tightened by the local group on board of the "Matisse".
They are attached to the ship at the entry of the first lock and released at the end of the last lock.

The commands are given by the locomotive driver with lights and also whistle blows.
The local group members on board of the ships reply by also blowing with whistles.

For Roger and Ruedi it is the first time that they pass the Panama Channel.
They are very busy watching and discussing all.

The "Cherokee Bridge" has entered the lock and the gate is closed.
The swivel bridge is turned into position and the traffic allowed to get to the other side of the lock again.

At 10:14 the captain orders the machines of the "Matisse" to be set to "slow forward".
The "Matisse" starts moving into the lock with aprox. 4 kmh.
To ensure that the ship stays in the middle of the lock that the locomotive and the ship must move in the same speed.

The "Matisse" has 12 containers across and is 30, 6 m wide.
The distance between the walls of the lock and the "Matisse" are aprox. 0,5 m on one side and aprox. 2,5 m on the other side
(lock widths of 33,5 m minus beam of "Matisse of 30,6 m = 2, 9 m).

The ships in front of the "Matisse" both have 13 containers across, 1 container more than the "Matisse".
This leaves very little space on both sides.
In one case we were able to watch and listen to the "MSC Matilde" being more dragged then sailed out of a lock.
Smoke was coming up between the lock walls and the ships side walls and loud screeching could be heard.

On the other side of the pier somebody is waiting for the "Cap Ortegal" ....

At 10:16 the pilot and captain command "machine stop". The "Matisse" continues to glide into the lock unaided.
Shortly after the command is "forward slowly" and at 10:25 the "Matisse" has reached the desired position. The captain commands "machine stop".
The speed of the ship entering into the lock is felt as rather fast as the ship needs to be stopped at a precise spot so it does not run into the next gate lock.

As the "Matisse" is the second last ship to be moved upwards through the locks this morning the two tugs "Trinidad" and "Grula" previously used to push the "Matisse" follow into the lock.
They will be required later on on the lake to assist the ships going downwards.

The miter gate start closing slowly.

To overcome the difference in height at the miter gates slopes need to be overcome by the locomotives during the process of changing form one lock to the next one.
As one locomotive climbs the slope the other ones hold the ship in position.
The last locomotive stabilising at the stern of the ship only climbs the slope after the ship has moved through the miter gate.

Click here to view the movie.

The "Cherokee Bridge" has moved on to the next lock and the miter gate has been closed behind her.
The water is released from the neighbouring lock to be ready for the next ship.

The "Cap Ortegal" is the next ship being guided into the lock by the locomotives.
The local group of people are all present in the bow doing their job ...

The "Cap Ortegal" is the last ship going up this morning.
Their tugs also follow into the locks as they will required at the end of the lock system to push the ships going downwards into the locks.

At 10:37 the miter gates are closed and the water starts entering the lock.
Slowly the "Matisse" starts rising in the lock.

The water to fill the locks is taken from the "Lago de Gatun" that is used as watershed.
The lake is fed with fresh water by the surrounding rivers.
Aprox. 197 million liters of water are used for each lockage.
When the channel was built it was decided not to use saltwater to operate the lock because of the corrugation of the equipment.

Once the lock chamber is full the gate to the next lock is opened and at 10:48 the "Matisse" slowly propels itself into the 2nd lock.
Again the tugs follow.

Each set of locks features a Control House on the centre wall of its higher chamber, from which the entire operation is directed.

We can again watch the locomotives overcome the slope.

At 11:01 the miter gate closes.
As the water starts rising lifting the "Matisse" the "MSC Matilde" has already completed this side of the locks and is moving onwards into the"Lago de Gatun".

The "Cap Ortegal" is rising in the first lock and the workers patiently wait for their time to come to perform their duty.

We have time to have a look at the pilots equipment.
They come fully equipped with their own GPS, and PC and software and are connected to the control tower via V-LAN.

At 11:14 the miter gates open to the third lock and the "Matisse" is moved over.
After the closure of the miter gates at 11:29 the lock is filled and at 11:40 we are ready to leave the last lock.
The "Matisse" is directed out of lock and picks up speed immediately.
One after the other the steel cables are released at the ship and pulled up by the locomotives.
Better not think about what would happen if one of those cables is not released on time ...
The locomotives are then parked at the end of the pier.
The third lock has double doors towards the lake as it needs to support the pressure of the lake.

Construction work and maintenance are ongoing at the whole Panama Channel.
Large facilities can be found along the locks.

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Lago de Gatun and Corte Gaillard

At the exit of the "Gatun" lock start we crossing the waiting ships.
Amongst them we find the "P&O Neddloyd Evita" that had left Manzanillo last night just before us.

They are now pushed towards the locks with the tugs and will soon be descending through the lock to the Atlantic Ocean.

The "Matisse" has now reached the "Lago de Gatun" and travels with 4 to 5 knots speed.

The lake was created by building the "Gatun" dam.
This is also the overflow of the "Lago de Gatun"and filling up the valley.

The "Lago de Gatun" has many islands. It is a very pretty lake. Its a shame that the weather is not good ....

On our way towards the "Corte Gaillard" channel we cross two cruise ships.
We are very happy not to be on them but to be on our "Matisse" where we have access to almost all locations including the bridge at almost any time.
Imagine travelling through this gorgeous setup and not being able to watch the officers and crew doing their job.
One would miss half of the fun!

The bridge with its two fly-bridge is the preferred spot for picture taking and sight-seeing.
If the One has to be careful not to disturb the pilot's and captain's work though ...

The border of the lake is more or less uninhabited.
There is the odd settlement to be found every so often.

Passing by the largest island "Barro Colorado Island" we travel towards the "Corte Gaillard" also called the "Corte Culebra".
Funny to talk about "island" if in fact is is the tip of a mountain that has artificially been surrounded by water ....

Solid jungle covers the mountains on both sides of the ship.
It is a shame that the engines make such a noise. No nature sounds can be heard this way.

Abundant bird-life can be found along the channel.
A flock of pelicans travelled with us for a while and and on various occasions some ospreys could be seen circling above in the sky.

It is interesting to watch the change in sceneries and also the different sediment layers, well visible on the banks of the channel.

Obviously with the jungle having been removed of the banks of the channel now there seems to be a problem with the rain eroding the banks.
Even the small creeks are forced into a concrete bed.

To navigate in the channel a guiding system similar to the ILS-system used in flight-navigaton has been installed.
Some of the panels used have lights in them, some even have a beam on top, that depending on the course varies in colour.
To much port-side (to the left) the light turns red, to much starboard (to the right) it turns green, on course it is white.
There is also a radio beam that can be follow with the same coordinates.

Nevertheless the course of the "Matisse" is closely monitored by Roger, our "note-taker" and Xavier, our splendid cook.

We pass some small settlements.
A rehabilitation station and also a supply and manitenance bay are located just a few km away from a constuction site.

The "Corte Gaillard" is being widenend, deepenend and also straightened.
Currently ships like the "Matisse" only have some 6 m of water under their keel.
The deepening and widening of this part of the channel will allow two-way traffic of "Panamax"-type vessels.

The whole channel is being dredged to increase the storage capacitiy of the "Lago Gatun" thus providing more water for the population of Panama as well as for commercial and industrial use.

After the last part of the guiding system has been passed at 14:50 we reach the "Puente del Centenario" bridge and shortly after the "Pedro Miguel" lock.

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Pedro Miguel Lock

At 14:58 the engines of the "Matisse" are stopped and the tugs start pushing us towards the pier.

As we wait for the locomotives we hear the whistle blow of a train on land and see a train roll past.
It is the "Panama Railroad Company" transporting container between the Atlantic and the Pacific from vessels that are too large for the channel.

Once again we can watch the jungle grow unhindered.
Imagine how nice the channel will look, once the jungle has moved back in and covered the now bare sides of the channel with its lush greens ....

The pilot is not the most capable pilot we have had so far .
He manages to give instructions that the "Matisse", even though the captain had already transmitted the command a bit "weaker" to the crew, managed to bang into the pier with quiet some speed.
Thanks to the broad rubber buffers on the side of the pier no damage was done to the ship, just a nice water fountain shut into the air between the ship and the pier ....

The "Pedro Miguel" lock only consists of one single lock.

The locomotives somehow do not arrive and the "Matisse" has to wait.
This gives us time to watch the process when a ship arrives as the "Cap Ortegal" gets closer to the pier ....

When a ship gets closer the lock a small boat with two people approaches it.
One is the rower the other is responsible to catch two ropes that are thrown from the ship.
Once he has caught the ropes the rower returns the boat to the pier.

Then the ropes are passed on to a group of people, two of them to hold the ropes and the third one to talk to them.
We guessed that he is the supervisor.
All three of them walk in front of the ship and it looks like if they are "taking the dog for a walk" but doing it with a ship ...
This group of people now slowly make it to the locomotive that will be the one holding the steel rope from the bow of the incoming ship.
There the steel rope of the locomotive is tightened to the thin rope brought by the group and the steel rope pulled up into the bow of the ship.

The job can also be done the other way round.
The small boat brings the heavy steel cables from the locomotive to the ship where they are then pulled up with thin ropes and fixed to the ship.
The small boat then returns to the pier where the group of 3 people are waiting for them.
Some very skilled rope-catcher do the whole round-trip while standing in the small boat....

Click here to view the movie.

Another job also caught our eye ... the rope-hauler ....
We saw him walking up and down the pier hauling some nicely bound ropes behind himself.
He is the one that, once the steel rope has been pulled to the ship's bow, will receive the thin rope back from the ship and roll it up nicely.
Then he needs to bring the ropes back to the beginning of the pier (or where ever they are required).

There is a single locomotive standing between the two tracks.
The driver is getting more and more nervous because no other locomotives arrive.
He starts getting ready to use the turnstiles and get the locomotive over to the "Matisse" and start getting her into to the lock.
Rain sets in ....

The local group of people on the "Matisse" waiting for their job to start, don't seem to be worried about the delay.
The supervisor even has time to pass his mobile phone on to a crew member of the "Matisse" for a call.

Finally at 15:45 the locomotives start arriving for the "Matisse" and the "Cap Ortegal".
Who will make it through the locks first?

We proceed with the entry into the lock and at 15:55 the lock is closed.
As the "Cap Ortegal" is guided into the lock the "Matisse" already has started going down.

At 16:10 we have reached the bottom of the lock and the gate opens.
The locomotives climb down the slop and we slide out of the "Pedro Miguel" lock.

As we move further out of the lock the locomotives one after the other get released on board of the "Matisse" and drive to the end of the pier.

We proceed towards the "Miraflores" locks.
We have made it before the "Cap Ortegal".

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Miraflores Lock

At 16:47 we reach the last lock.

Again the routine with little boat and the ropes is followed.
Now that we know all the details of the process we can virtually concentrate on one specific thing we want to see in detail.

The "Miraflores" lock has two locks.
It is the most famous lock as it has the tallest and heaviest miter gates towards the Pacific Ocean.
As they need to handle the extreme tidal fluctuations the gates are 25 m high and each have a weight of 730 tones.

Even a restaurant with a stand has been build to cater for visitors.
We know where we will have dinner if we ever make it to Panama City!

Even though we are at the locks at 17 o'clock we can only enter the first lock at 17:28.
Even though the "Cap Ortegal" has arrived after us she is moved into the locks before the "Matisse".
Somehow we get the impression that things are not so good organised at this lock or we might have just hit the change of shift ....

After the closure of the lock at 17:40 the "Matisse" starts sinking to the lower level.
At 17:55 we have reached the lower level of the lock and can proceed into the last lock.
At 18:04 the last set of gates closed behind the "Matisse" and she starts sinking to the level of the Pacific Ocean.

This time we stand on the lowest deck and can really watch the walls rising in front of our noses.
There is a arm length between the ship and the walls of the lock.

As we leave the lock at 18:15 and can have a close look at the massive gates as we pass through them.

The "Cap Ortegal" already is leaving the locks before the "Matisse" and has won the race.

On the way out we see a nice swivel bridge that was used while the Americans where in charge of the channel.
Today it just kept as a tourist attraction.

At the end of the pier the steel ropes are released on the "Matisse".
The group of local workmen has finished the job, gathers their gear and gets ready to leave the "Matisse".

As we travel past the port of "Balboa" a boat comes to pick up the pilots.
Later on the boat comes back to pick up the rest of the group. All leave the "Matisse" on a rope ladder while the boat keeps the same speed as the "Matisse" has .... and this in darkness.
This is definitely nothing for week nerves.

A great day finds his ending.

We leave the American continent through the "Bridge of the Americas" and take course in direction of Tahiti.



No liability for timeliness, integrity and correctness of this document is accepted.
Last updated: Wednesday, 06.02.2019 2:37 PM

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