Bucket List: Panama Canal

Put me on a boat and dunk it in the water. And I’ll be a happy camper. This much is no secret.

Though I tend to favor cruises that involve sandy beaches and tropical drinks, there was one historical cruise on my bucket list. No- this isn’t one of those big adventure bucket list items. No skydiving for me—yet. But I’ve always wanted to see the Panama Canal before I die.

My father passed away in 2009. He had been on many cruises and would go on one every year if he could talk himself into spending the money. But he never got to Alaska—and he never sailed through the Panama Canal. Here is a photo of Dad and me, when I was a lot cuter!

I knew my Dad was with me when I woke up at 5 AM to see our ship, the Coral Princess slowly work it’s way past other vessels waiting their turn at the canal, to approach the Gatun Locks on the Atlantic side. In the early morning, being one of just a few folks wandering the ship and knowing how many souls were resting just a few miles away in the hills of Panama, was an eerie feeling.

As the sun slowly rose, the ship pulled alongside the first lock. I peered downward in shock at how very close the ship was to the sides of the canal—there was a foot of space on either side.  The “mules” were of great interest to me. On both sides of the ship, these vehicles pull on cables to keep the ship centered in the canal—with one foot of space on each side. The mules also serve as brakes for the ship while it is in the canal. They do not, however, pull the ship forward—ships still move forward through the canal on their own steam.

Before going on this trip, I read The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough. Learning about how long it took to create the Canal, from the miserable failure of the French to the stunning accomplishment of modern engineering with the Americans, made me respect this experience more than I anticipated.

There really is no great way to show the perspective of how large the Panama Canal is— until you see it for yourself. One item that can show the size are the large gates of the canal, that close behind the ship once it has entered a lock. These range in size from 47 to 82 feet tall—and they are 7 feet thick.  When closed, they must hold 26,700,000 gallons of water.  As the ship slowly rises while the chambers fill, you literally feel respect for nearly century-old work course through your veins.

Upon exiting the Gatun Locks, ships enter Gatun Lake—which, when it was created in 1907, was the largest man-made lake in the world. The lake was created to form a major part of the Panama Canal by building a dam across the Chagres River. Viewing the land that juts out from the lake, I couldn’t fathom the fact that where I was floating, underneath me was all jungle over 100 years ago. How man could create a lake and drown all of the foliage so that ships like the one I was standing upon could sail through it was yet another unbelievable fact that I had to wrap my head around.

Traversing the Culebra Cut was the highlight of the canal for me. This is where the workers had to do the majority of the physical excavation work, literally cutting through the continental divide. And this is where you could get the most dramatic photos of these giant ships sailing through a narrow canal built 100 years ago. This is also the place during the trip where I found myself reflecting on the approximately 25,000 lives that were lost during canal construction, to malaria, yellow fever, other diseases— and landslides, the majority of which took place right here at the Culebra Cut.

Now is a great time to visit the Canal. I was able to view a lot of the new digging and other work that is taking place in preparation for the new locks that will be opening in 2015. I’m so glad that I was able to see the Panama Canal now, in it’s original state—and you better believe I’ll be back after 2015 to see the completion.

On a final note, the most surprising and fun part of the day was the viewing stand. Yep, that’s right— just like at a parade—a viewing stand! Literally hundreds of Panamanians and tourists come out to watch ships come through the Miraflores locks, as ships drop down into the Pacific Ocean (or raise up on their way to the Atlantic). More people come out when cruise ships pass by, because seeing other people is a lot more fun than waving at cargo!

So, scratch that one off the bucket list. It may seem boring to some. But for me, who loves history and who was yearning to complete a dream of my father’s, sailing through the Panama Canal was an amazing day in my life.

Take Care,


PS– You’ll be making another Bucket List dream of mine come true by purchasing my first Children’s Book Pete the Popcorn on Amazon.com on February 29th! If all my readers buy it that day, I’ll impact the top 100 list! Join TEAM PETE at www.PeteThePopcorn.com to be reminded on LEAP DAY!


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