The passage to Balboa from Puerto Limon takes in the transit through the Panama Canal, for many a highlight of the world cruise. After several versions of our canal schedule were received, the last one at 22:00 the night before our arrival on the 24th, finally providing us with an ETA to work to.
Having weaved through the numerous vessels at anchor we passed through the breakwater at 07:30 and shortly afterward the Pilot boarded with a Panama Canal Authority Inspector. We commenced our transit shortly afterwards and arrived at the first set of locks, the Gatun Locks, just under an hour later.
The Gatun locks are triple flight locks that lift a vessel 25.9 m (85ft) from sea level on the Caribbean side up to the Gatun Lake and there is negligible tide to take into account. The lock chambers are 33.53 meters (110 ft) wide by 320.0 meters (1050 ft) long, with a usable length of 304.8 metres (1000 ft). These dimensions determine the maximum size of ships which can use the canal; this size is known as Panamax.
One subject people always appear fascinated with when it comes to the Panama Canal is how much it costs. Toll’s are calculated using a variety of factors but in our case, as a passenger vessel of less than 30,000 PC/UMS tons, it is charged per ton, in a similar fashion to freighters. The least expensive toll recorded was 36 cents to American adventurer Richard Halilburton, who swam the canal in 1928, whilst the most expensive was US$331,200 to the cruise ship, Disney Magic. We were somewhere in the middle with the Saga Ruby’s toll fee this year coming to US$87,615.02. However costs don’t stop there; there are costs for locomotive wires, wire handling, towage, transit booking fees, security fees, Inspection & Survey’s etcetera, etcetera, etcetera! In fact the total estimated cost for our passage came to a princely sum of US$147,143.37.
In order to ascend and later descend safely, the canal uses locomotives, or mules, to guide ships through. These mules are used for side-to-side and braking control in the rather narrow locks (narrow relative to modern-day ships). Forward motion into and through the locks is actually provided by the ship's engines and not the mules'. A ship approaching the locks first pulls up to the guide wall, which is an extension of the centre wall of the locks, where she is taken under control by the mules on the wall before proceeding into the lock. As she moves forward, additional lines are taken to mules on the other wall. We used two mules on each side at the bow, and one each side at the stern, six in total, allowing for precise control of the ship. Larger ships use an additional two on the stern
The mules themselves run on rack tracks, to which they are geared. Each mule has a powerful winch, operated by the driver; these are used to take two cables in or pay them out, to keep the ship centred in the lock while moving it from chamber to chamber.
Once we’d ascended into the Gatun Lake the last of the mules was cast off and we’d cleared the locks at 10:36, two hours after entering. Created in 1913 by the damming of the Charges River, Gatun Lake is an essential part of the Panama Canal which forms a water passage between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, permitting ship transit in both directions. At the time it was formed Gatun Lake was the largest man-made lake in the world.
Unfortunately transiting the lake was not much faster than that of the locks due to traffic congestion. Though we didn’t have to anchor, we did have to wait for a Panamax container vessel to weigh anchor and proceed ahead of us before we could continue, and it was 16:40 before we arrived at the Pedro Miguel locks.
Pedro Miguel locks are only a single flight with a drop of 9.5 m (31ft), so the Saga Ruby only took 40 minutes to clear them and proceed the short distance to the final set of locks, the two-step Miraflores locks. The descent on the final set of locks varies due to the tide, but lies between 13.1m (43ft) at extreme high tide and 19.7m (64.5ft) at extreme low tide.
It was 19:00 by the time we were clear of the last of the locks and 30 minutes later we passed under the Bridge of the Americas before disembarking the pilot, 12 hours after entering the breakwaters on the Atlantic side.
Our first objective on entering the waters of the Pacific Ocean was to proceed to the “explosives anchorage” to the southwest of Flamenco Island and the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal. This anchorage is designated for vessels requesting fuel oil bunkers, which was our intention. Opportunities to refuel crossing the Pacific are few and far between, particularly on the more “scenic” route we were taking so Balboa represented our best opportunity to top up until we got to New Zealand. It also meant that it was going to be a long night for the Chief Engineer.
The Bunker Barge was relatively prompt once we’d anchored, and refueling the ship commenced around half past eleven. By 4 am everything had been completed and we’d weighed our anchor and got back “underway” once more. We had two hours to pick our way through the anchorage and cross to the east of Flamenco Island where we re-anchored ready to run tender operations into the Yacht Club and Marina area for Balboa.
The town of Balboa, founded by the United States during the construction of the Panama Canal, was named after Vasco Núñez de Balboa, the Spanish conquistador credited with discovering the Pacific Ocean. The name was suggested to the Canal Zone authorities by the Peruvian ambassador to Panama. Prior to being drained, filled and leveled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the hilly area north of Panama City was home to a few subsistence ranches and unused marshlands.
The town of Balboa, like most towns in the Canal Zone, was served by Canal Zone. Until 1979, when the Canal Zone as a solely United States territory was abolished under the terms of the Panama Canal Treaties, the town of Balboa was the administrative center of the Canal Zone (and remained so until mid-day of December 31, 1999, by which time, according to the Torrijos-Carter Treaties, the Panama Canal and all its assets, territories, etc., would be fully turned over to Panama and the Panamanian government to be run however the Panamanian government see and deems fit). Balboa is now considered part of Panama City's township of Ancón. Since its incorporation into the Republic of Panama and has been redeveloped to enhance the port.