Man-made wonder awes passengers

Panama Canal locks openingCanal transit takes 10 hours.
Ocean to ocean it measures 80 kms.

ABOARD THE CRYSTAL SERENITY – “Good morning, I am speaking to you from the bridge,” greeted Captain Glenn Edvardsen the day following the Crystal Serenity’s inaugural passage through the Panama Canal.

“Yesterday’s transit was successful – no scratches on our new ship,” he proudly reported.

The preceding day was one of firsts – the vessel’s initial canal passage, as well as my own. We were negotiating one of the world’s greatest modern engineering feats – some say the Earth’s eighth wonder. It promised to be a memorable voyage from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The day began with an air of excitement – the kind of frenzy reserved for once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Accompanied by my husband Kent, it was early morning when we headed to the 13th deck and to the ship’s bow (translated as front in non-sailor lingo). We were not alone. Rows of like-minded passengers lined this uppermost level’s perimeter and each deck below.

As we slowly approached the first lock, all jockeyed for the best viewing position. Sunscreen had been applied. Cameras were poised and at the ready. And friendly wagers were placed:

“Let’s bet how the lock opens,” I overheard.

“Do you think it moves backward or lifts straight up?” (The answer is that it opens like a French door and tucks into the wall, maximizing the lock’s width.)

We were armed with facts: The Panama Canal runs 80 kilometers from ocean to ocean. A typical canal transit is eight to 10 hours (as opposed to a two-week trek around the tip of South America). During the passage, six locks and three artificial lakes are negotiated (including Gatun Lake at 26 meters above sea level).

The lock’s depth is comparable to the height of a six-story building – its length is 304.8 meters, its width 33.53 meters. In comparison, the Crystal’s Serenity measures 250 meters long by 32.2 meters wide, leaving little margin for error.

But the Serenity’s maiden voyage was flawless, a milestone for the fleet’s newest ship (christened by Dame Julie Andrews in 2003).

“Did you personally use the tape measure to calculate the ship’s beam (width) or did you delegate the task?” my husband playfully quizzed the Captain Edvardsen.

Without missing a beat, the youthful Norwegian skipper responded, “I delegated.”

When asked the span between the ship’s hull and the lock chamber he said: “At times, only this much. His fingers were spread 15 centimeters apart.

I prepped myself for this venture as one prepares for a final exam. I read The Path Between the Seas, a 600-plus-page tome by David McCullough. It detailed the canal’s unprecedented problems: deadly tropical diseases, impenetrable jungle, continual landslides, harsh weather and the difficulty of excavating such massive volumes of earth.

Although my experience aboard a luxury liner was vastly different, the mammoth challenges were never far from mind. From the solitude of our stateroom’s veranda, I pondered the man-made marvel. It rained intermittently, showering five times during our passage (annual rainfall in Panama City is 190 cm), and the sun was warm. Both served as reminders of the trials encountered by canal workers throughout its construction.

The scene was surreal as we progressed from the eastern to the western side of the continent. A lone alligator sunned on the nearby shore. A freighter bound for the Atlantic passed – its deck hands waved.

A small tour boat edged close to our 68,000-ton vessel. The engineer of the Panama Railroad blasted his horn and waived as his train forged in the opposite direction.

But despite all the activity, it was eerily quiet – almost spiritual – as we navigated the waterway. At times, it seemed we were the first vessel to do so, even though the initial passage was in 1914.

After exiting the final lock at Miraflores, we traveled a few kilometers before sailing beneath the span of the Bridge of the Americas. Panama City’s skyscrapers were visible in the distance as we headed into the Pacific.

I tried to articulate the canal experience, but words failed me.

Days later as we sailed from our final port and Louis Armstrong’s lyrics to “What a Wonderful World” played over the sound system, it crystallized. There are no words – it’s a sentiment.

“I see skies of blue, and clouds of white

The bright blessed day, dark sacred night

And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”

* For reservations and information, contact Crystal Cruises’ travel agent referral line 1-800-804-1500 or visit www.crystalcruises.com.

* Serenity’s next 15-day Panama Canal cruise leaves Fort Lauderdale Dec. 7. The cruise only, not including airfare, ranges from $4,495 per person for the promenade deck, double occupancy, to $8,595 for the penthouse cabins.

Ships passing in locks