- Captain Albert's Blog -

Stories from the Sea, Past and Present

01 March 2020; Panama Canal.

We have a schedule, it starts off with the best intentions and then something un-expected happens.  We did arrive at 05.00 and in the end we approached the First locks, the Gatun locks at 07.00 hrs. but by the time we came out, there was a challenge in the works. Ahead of us was the Wind Star from Wind Star cruises which once in the past belonged to Holland America, until it was decided that sailing motor yachts for an incentive market were not really compatible with cruise ships in the premium markets and thus the company was sold off to an equity fund. (Or some similar sort of investor). But sailing ships have very high masts. And she only fits under the Bridge of the America’s at low tide. (That bridge is at the Pacific side and the Pan American Highway passes over it) Once the convoy starts going, then it cannot stop anymore and for some reason there was no option to put the Wind Star alongside somewhere until the tide was right. So we had to wait from some 30+ minutes. Apart from her, there was one other cruise ship in today, the Seven Seas Splendor, which was “one behind” meaning there was another ship in between, in this case a Car Carrier, or “Auto Boot” in the Dutch Language.

Entering the Gatun Locks at 07.00 hrs. Ahead of us with her masts towering above the locks the Windstar. The ms Rotterdam has just come to a standstill in the first of the three lock chambers and you can see the “mules” at rest on the top of the lock chamber.

That is nothing to worry about but it indicates that when you have ships in the equation, things tend to happen that are not planned for. We sailed together into Gatun Lake with a large Container ship from MSC (Mediterranean Shipping Company, the cargo arm of the large MSC which also operates Cruise ships). She came out of the new locks as she was too wide for the old ones. The new locks are used sparingly as they use a lot more water than the older locks due to the volume of the locks themselves.  Therefore the tariff of the new locks is higher than for the smaller locks. But they only take you through the new locks if needed. In the beginning a few “old lock” size cruise ships were allowed to go through the new locks but not any longer. We had hoped that once the new locks were in use, that we could do a set of old locks and a set of new locks so the guess could see both, but that did not happen.

Something nobody apart from the ships crew ever sees, is how the Panama Canal crew is handled. There are two crews, one for the bow and one for the stern. They board normally midships and are then escorted by the ships security to their stations and back again to the boat.

Panama canal crew leaving under the watchful eye of the Ships Security Officer Dennis Superable and two of this guards.

The Panama Canal Crew boards and leaves for each set of locks by Boat, although it also happens that they ride the ship between the Miraflores locks and the Pedro Miguel locks at the Pacific Side.

Security team needed for the escorting of the Panama Canal crew. Because of the NLV virus and the Corona virus being around us , the Panama Canal Crew now also have to fill out the health questionnaires, so we know where they have been before they boarded. Note the guard in the front, he is wearing a body camera. Strict company policy when on patrol in the ship. Cost is then calculated with a flat fee per guest bed (not how many guests you have on board), and a cost per tonnage, which goes up with every 10,000 tons.

I do not have the 2020 figures, but this is 2016:  (It has only gone up since then)

Old locks $ 138 per guest berth

New locks: $ 148 per guest berth

Ships tonnage: $ 4.75 for the first 10,000 tons, $ 4.65 for the next 10,000 tons and $ 4.58 for the rest

For the new locks it is about 30 cents more for the each ton.

And then there are some other surcharges that are added.

Our crossing price today is around $ 380,000, which brings it down to about $ 250 per guest. The highest price thus far was paid by an ultra large container ship and that was more than $ 1 mil. Those charges are getting higher and higher each year, but the PCA simply compares it with the cost of going around Cape Horn and then it is up to the shipping companies to decide what to do. But with the Container ships becoming bigger and bigger, 22,000 container Box Boats are already considered, there might be a moment that it is much cheaper to go around the world outside the Panama Canal and than use Feeder Services to get the containers to the ports which are not on the main route. But a lot of Panama’s income comes from the Canal Toll fees, so the Politicians keep pushing. The container companies are by far the biggest customers of the Canal, with Maersk Lines leading the way, so the PCA keeps a good eye on those, because if they move……………..

While on deck inspection with the Bo’sun I could not resist this one. This is the Continental Divide. In the old days very narrow and tight, now it is made wider and wider as the ships are getting bigger and bigger. It is terraced to avoid land slides into the Canal.

While I am writing this, we are just leaving the Pedro Miguel locks, which means we are back on schedule again. Ahead of us is the Wind Star which has just entered the Miraflores so she is on track for low tide for under the Bridge of the Americas. It all looks as if all is well in the world again.

Thus we are on schedule for being at the Balboa Sea buoy by 17.30 hrs. and then we will have one sea day sailing up the coast towards Costa Rica. The weather looks good for the moment, with low swells and not too much wind expected for the coming days. The only thing that will be difficult to predict are going to be the thunder storms which develop off Panama and Costa Rica during the night and sometimes come to open sea.

The Pedro Miguel Locks at 14.40 local time. Taken from the PCA webcam above the locks. the good ship ms Rotterdam (VI) is about to leave the locks. An “Auto boot” dutch for Pure Car Carrier from the Japanese K Lines is about to enter the West Locks. Just under the funnels of the Rotterdam you can see a very small passenger ship. This is a local sightseeing boat and it makes day cruises through the Canal.

1 Comment

  1. Marc Weijkamp

    March 2, 2020 at 7:10 am

    Dear Captain, thanks for sharing the information about the Panama Canal. Brings back good memories when my wife and I crossed the Canal in 2002 on the Amsterdam, only the other way around. When reading your blogs wants me to book any cruise with the HAL anytime, especially the Panama Canal cruise.

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