Trip Date 05/14/2018
Posted On 06/23/2018 21:07:20
Destinations | Cruises | Norwegian Bliss Inaugural Panama Canal Cruise | Westbound Panama Canal Cruise | Biggest Cruise Ship in Panama Canal
Our first transit through the Panama Canal was nearly ten years ago. The combination of a new cruise ship, a new lock, a history making event (and a great price) enticed us to join the first ever Norwegian Bliss sailing through the canal.
If you've never sailed through the Panama Canal, or have only sailed through the original set of locks, continue reading for more about transiting through the canal by cruise ship as well as some of the differences between the older locks and the new locks.
Brief History of the Panama Canal
Dave Roberts, Ph.D. aka Dr. Dave was the Guest Lecturer aboard the inaugural Panama Canal sailing of the Norwegian Bliss. While I don't typically join Scott at history lectures while cruising, this one felt a little different to me and I was glad that I attended. Prior to the day of our transit through the canal, Dr. Dave hosted three lectures:
- The Panama Canal: The First 400 Years
- The Panama Canal: The French Effort
- The Panama Canal: The American Effort
Some of the facts that I found interesting and memorable included:
- After successfully building the Suez Canal, the French attempted to use a similar design for the Central American canal. A canal at sea level, however, was impossible due to the rocky, mountainous land between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
- The building of the canal was taken over by the Americans who paid the French $40 million dollars for their previous contributions including excavation work and equipment.
- The canal does not run east/west as is commonly believed. Ships beginning in the Pacific actually travel northwest to get to the Atlantic, and those moving from the Atlantic to the Pacific travel in a southeast direction.
- The original two sets of locks opened in 1914, and the third set of locks which are 70 feet wider and 18 feet deeper to accommodate ships with 300% more cargo opened for business in 2016.
- The Panama Canal Authority, an agency of the Government of Panama, is responsible for management and operations of the canal.
Our Panama Canal TransitPer our Freestyle Daily, we were to approach Cristobal, Panama at 4:00 AM (no, we didn't set an alarm to confirm that we were on time!). Representatives of the Panama Canal Authority joined our ship, and the actual transit was to begin at 6:00 AM. At some point in the morning, tugboats were also connected to our ship to provide assistance as we made our journey.
Trying to determine where we had the best view, we moved around the ship during our morning transit. After starting on our balcony, we checked out the view from Deck 8 forward, the Waterfront (also Deck 8), the Observation Lounge (Deck 15), the outer decks on 16 and 17, as well as Spice H2O (Deck 17, aft). We must have been the last two people to wake up as it seemed that every deck we tried had several rows deep of people trying to get the best view.
We passed under the Atlantic Bridge, the third road bridge over the Panama Canal. Once construction is complete, the bridge will be the first to span over the canal on the Atlantic side.
Shortly after passing under the bridge we began our transit through the Agua Clara Locks, the three stage set of locks on the Atlantic side. We lucked out when someone moved away from the Spice H2O railing and we had a good view of one of the tugboats.
At first blush it is hard to comprehend why a huge passenger ship like the Norwegian Bliss would need help from a small (but very powerful) tugboat. Tugboats provide a wide variety of assistance to ships. It was especially critical to ensure that we were perfectly aligned as we traveled into, through and out of the locks - after all, there is not a lot of wiggle room on each side of the ship.
Once inside the lock with both gates closed, the chamber was filled with water which thereby raised the level of our ship. Upon reaching the water level of the upcoming chamber, the exit gate was opened and we could then move forward. We traveled to the second and third locks where identical steps were followed which finally brought us up to the level of Gatun Lake, the high point between the Atlantic and Pacific locks.
Throughout much of the journey, live narration was provided in public areas as well as on stateroom televisions by one of the representatives onboard from the Panama Canal Authority. We were also lucky to have a Panamanian lady dressed in local attire join our transit. She willingly posed for photos with passengers on the Sun Deck.
We spent several hours in the early afternoon sitting on our balcony as we traveled through Gatun Lake heading toward the next set of locks which would lead us to the Pacific Ocean. The man made lake significantly reduced the excavation work that was required to build the canal in this very mountainous region. It's really quite amazing that this lock and lake technology originally put in place over a hundred years ago is still in use by about 40 ships each day and has remained virtually unchanged.
Although the official christening of the Norwegian Bliss won't happen until later this month in Seattle, it was fun to be a part of the celebratory spraying as the ship made her way through the canal for the first time.
When we were in the channel on our approach to the Cocoli Locks, from our balcony we could see cruise ships passing through the older and smaller Pedro Miguel Locks leading to Miraflores Lake and the Miraflores Locks. Although we were traveling in the opposite direction ten years ago, we enjoyed the opportunity to see a cruise ship going through those same locks - this time from the outside, albeit from a distance.
We were expected to transit through the new Cocoli Locks on the Pacific Ocean side of the canal between 2:00 PM and 6:00 PM. Rather than raising the water level once the ship was inside this lock, the water was drained thereby lowering the level of our ship. Just as in the Agua Clara Locks earlier in the day, when we reached the water level of the upcoming chamber, the exit gate was opened and we moved forward. The same steps were followed until we reached the level of the Pacific Ocean on which we would sail for the remainder of our cruise.
Our initial plan called for us to pass under the Bridge of the Americas at about 6:30 PM, however we seemed to be a bit behind schedule.
It takes somewhere between eight and twelve hours for most ships to pass through the Panama Canal. While that seems like an awfully long time to travel only a 48 mile distance, this engineering marvel actually saves up to two weeks in travel time and countless dollars of fuel cost by avoiding a journey around South America.
Panama Canal ExpansionThere are some differences in how the "third set of locks" operates as compared to the original locks including:
- "locomotives" (formerly "mules") move along a track guiding ships through the original locks; ships transiting through the third lane are instead guided by two tugboats - one in front and one traveling behind;
- recessed gates roll out of the chamber walls in the new locks rather than hinged gates that open and close similar to a double door in a home;
- all of the the water used for lock operations flows from the mountains into Gatun Lake from which it is fed by gravity (rather than pumps) into the lock chambers; while the water in the original locks eventually flows out to the ocean, 60% of the water fed into the new locks is fed into water reutilization basins adjacent to the locks; and
- although all six locks in the third lane are both wider and deeper, due to the water reutilization basins, the new locks actually use 7% less water than the original locks.
We Made History!World wide news agencies reported that May 14, 2018 is now another historic date as the Norwegian Bliss became the largest passenger ship to date to complete the transit through the Panama Canal:
- Panama Today: Huge cruise Norwegian Bliss will transit through the Panama Canal
- USA Today: New Norwegian Bliss becomes biggest cruise ship ever to transit Panama Canal
- Cruise Industry News: Norwegian Bliss Sets Panama Canal Record
- Time: This Massive Cruise Ship Just Became the Biggest Ever to Cross the Panama Canal
Tariffs for Panama Canal TransitAt Dr. Dave's suggestion during one of his lectures, I visited the website of the Panama Canal Authority as I was interested in the tariff calculations. Dr. Dave indicated that the tariff for passenger vessels included a fee for a daylight transit. In addition to fees based on the weight of the vessel plus a fee for transiting through the larger third lane, he mentioned a fee of $134.00 "per live birth". The Official Tariff Schedule lists the additional fee as $148.00 per berth. Either way, let's just say that with a ship weighing 168,000 tons, almost 4,000 passengers plus crew, it was by no means cheap - it was rumored that the tariff for our crossing was in the neighborhood of $1.3 million. That explains the high port fees for Panama Canal cruises!
Tips for a Panama Canal Transit on the Norwegian BlissHere's a few tips to keep in mind for an upcoming Panama Canal Cruise on the Norwegian Bliss:
- If you really want a great spot in either the Observation Lounge or on Deck 8 forward (normally a crew only area that was opened for passengers during our transit), plan to set an alarm for an early wake up. We heard stories of loud 4:30 AM arguments occurring between adults over who got to a seat first!
- It's a great idea to move around the ship to catch the view from different vantage points. (Although patience was definitely required during the wait for a space with a good view, we were glad that we walked around the ship during the morning to try to see the view from forward, aft and the sides of the ship. Our balcony near the ship's aft ended up being our favorite spot for the afternoon transit - there were no crowds to fight and the view was good.)
- It seemed like the crowds for the transit through the second set of locks in the afternoon were thinner, so if you find a crowded location in the morning that you think you might like, you may have an easier time finding space in the afternoon.
- While the three locks at each end of the transit are similar, it still feels different to have the water drained and the ship lowered. Plan to witness the lock operation while your ship is in at least one of the locks on each end of the canal so you can get a feel for both the raising and lowering of the ship.
- This journey through the canal felt different from our last journey in many ways - we were on a much larger ship, we were traveling in the opposite direction and we traveled through a different set of locks. I enjoyed our first cruise through the canal, I learned and understood more about the operation during our second, and I would definitely enjoy cruising through the Panama Canal again. So, if you've already done it once, take the opportunity to see and learn something new!
Adventures in Costa RicaIf you enjoy adventure and your Panama Canal Cruise includes a port day in Costa Rica, take a look at our Zipping Through The Costa Rican Rain Forest post for some ideas. You are almost guaranteed to enjoy a day full of fun and adventure.
Cruise ItinerariesOf the various cruise routes available, what itinerary is most interesting to you from a historical perspective and why?
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