Playing Leapfrog through the Panama Canal

Day 6, Grand World Voyage

Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023; Panama Canal.

For all my cruising, I’ve never sailed through the Panama Canal. So today’s transit is one of the highlights of this voyage.

After passing the pre-dawn lights of Colón, we started into the first of three chambers of the Gatún Locks before 7 this morning, raising us about 85 feet from the Caribbean Sea into Gatún Lake.

Immediately ahead of us was the Volendam, which had moored with us yesterday in Costa Rica. It was fun making the transit together, at first watching it rise up ahead of us.

We passed far larger ships of all kinds, with interesting names, as we went through the Gatún Locks with their two-way traffic.

Later in the day we transited side-by-side through locks with the Volendam, catching up with the smaller ship, but falling behind again when her lock opened before ours. In an eerie way it reminded me of watching on a vessel monitoring app the Zaandam and previous Rotterdam race through the canal in 2020, heading to Florida at the start of the pandemic shutdown. Our captain asked the hotel manager, with 15+ world cruises under his belt, whether he had ever seen two Holland America ships pass through together. The reply: “Yes … in the brochure.”

We captured social media photos from friends on the other ship and even from the Panama Canal webcams. I was even thrilled to see the Windstar, with its four masts, follow behind us. I crossed the Atlantic five times on the Windstar or her sister ship in the 1990s.

The Volendam and the Zuiderdam will moor in Fuerte Amador near Panama City tonight. From there the Volendam will head south to Ecuador for its Grand South America and Antarctica voyage as we head southwest toward French Polynesia and our Grand World Voyage.

The Crow’s Nest on the front of the ship wasn’t as crowded as I expected for our early morning transit, even with the serving of the delicious Panama Buns. I would guess that at least two-thirds of my fellow passengers have crossed through the canal before.

Holland America (and most other cruise lines) has full-transit cruises between the U.S. west and east coasts, as well as Caribbean cruises that pass through the first locks before turning around in Gatún Lake and returning to the Caribbean. Holland America pays between $400,000 and $450,000 for each passage and schedules each one months in advance so we can transit during daytime.

We spent much of the day sailing through the lake and the Calebra Cut, an 8-mile gorge through the Continental Divide.

Next, we lowered through the Pedro Miguel locks, next to the slightly smaller Volendam. There was lots of waving and cheering across the perhaps 50 feet between the two ships.

Finally, we transited the Mira Flores locks and eventually sailed under the Bridge of the Americas and into the Pacific Ocean.

If you want to know more about the history of the canal, use the Google machine or, even better, read David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas.

My lasting memories of the transit will be the eerie sense of rising higher in the sky as each lock fills with water, as well as the narrow foot or two of clearance on each side of the ship.

This certainly was a different experience than transiting the sea-level Suez Canal. I described that one in 2013 and again in my 2021 Cruise Flashback of that passage.

After a day in Panama City tomorrow, we will be off for eight days at sea, arriving on Wednesday, Jan. 18, in Nuku Hiva, French Polynesia. Word is that we’ll be traveling through something of a “dead” satellite Internet zone. I won’t be posting every day anyway (not much to report on sea days), but if there is something you would like to know or me to write about, put it in the comments.