It does not happen very often but we made it all the way through the Canal at roughly the times we had on the published schedule. In the past it was sometimes earlier but often later. Often caused by things outside the control of the Panama Canal Authorities (PCA) as ships have a mind of their own and even if they are willing then the people around it might cause a change in the routine. But today we just sailed through as planned following nicely in the convoy that had gathered in the early morning. There were still lots of ships at anchor and those not on a preferential schedule (such as cargo ships) might have to wait up to 40 hrs. The Panama Canal is going through a dry period and thus the Canal is watching its water consumption carefully. Thus the convoy system is rigorously enforced and that means that no water is wasted by having ships go through without re-using the water for a ship right behind.
When arriving, both at the Atlantic or the Pacific side, there are a lot more ships at anchor than there are waiting for a transit. The Panama Canal with its large and safe anchorage areas is also an important bunker location. Ships come to Panama after a crossing, re-fuel and then start their voyage along the coast of North / South America. I do not know the exact amount of money that a ship can save that way but it must be worthwhile as it takes time and man hours to deviate from your route and then you have to catch up the extra miles again which also costs fuel. But it must be advantageous as numerous ships were here today and if there is anybody who will try to save a nickel it is a ship’s owner.
Going through the Canal from North to South (what we are doing today) or from South to North does not matter that much for the scenic views. The only marginal difference is that coming from the Pacific side you have a better view of the new locks. The lock on the Atlantic side is dug in much deeper between the rocks. When sailing in, you can just see where the lock starts, but while passing the only thing you see is the top of a ship in that lock. On the Pacific side the land area around the new and old locks is much flatter so you can see the approaches to the new locks, all the facilities around it, part of the lock itself and then the whole fairway leading from the locks to where it merges again with the main part of the canal.
In the early morning it was mainly over cast so it was very good to see the locks without the glare of the sun. The new locks are still only used for the real big boys and thus they are not that busy yet. Once the ships owners are building according to the new Panama Canal – MAX sizes, that will start to change. As far as I have heard that is already in progress and in 12 months or so we might see an increase in traffic here. Also here the PCA is careful about not wasting water so it tries to get a little convoy set up so that all locks will be full with ships using the same water before it flows away to the sea. I have never thought about it before but with the water there must be some fish making the lock transit as well; and they must be really startled to suddenly end up in salt water. And unfortunately there is no way back.
I was once in the Canal when an alligator ended up in the Locks and was seen swimming between two smaller ships that were sharing the same lock. Everybody on the bridge was expecting that the Panama Canal had a procedure for that, and maybe they have now, but then they had nothing unless you call “instant panic” a procedure. Everybody who had access to a walkie talkie or other means of communication was on it and my captain at the time offered the opinion that maybe a 100 Panamanians on a VHF at the same time might indeed be able to talk an alligator out of the locks. But the VHF channel of the alligator must have been on another channel as he/she did not pay any attention to the commotion all around. In the end the communal wisdom was just to open the Lock Gate and hope the alligator would flush out with the water. We were in the lock next to the pandemonium and we saw a single (police?) canal boat waiting, with on the bow a lonely figure with a boat hook. He also had a hand gun so maybe he was going to pull the animal on deck and then arrest it. We never saw the end of the happening but I will never forget the amount of noise that erupted on all the VHF channels the moment the alligator was spotted.
From Cristobal we are going full speed on a north Easterly course, hugging the coast of Panama and will then arrive in Cartagena Colombia for an afternoon call.
Weather: partly cloudy temperatures 30o C / 92oF no rain and a warm breeze in the afternoon. It is going to be a warm exercise exploring Cartagena. I was hoping that I could have hopped on the Hop on Hop off bus for a tour but we are having drills and that is my territory.