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Sea Stories
Panama - the Canal & the Capital

There are so many interesting things to see in Panama. One could stay two months and still not take it all in. In December of 2007 we visited three areas - Panama City & the Canal; the San Blas Islands & the Kuna Indians; and the Gamboan Rain Forest & Resort.

The pictures on this page are cropped from a full size picture which gives a better perspective to what is being shown. To see a picture full size, simply click on the picture and it will appear full size in a new browser.


Click on picture to see an enlargement. The view from the hotel was breath taking. The Bridge of the Americas is the largest bridge over the canal linking North and South America. It is the Pacific entrance to the Canal, the South entrance as the Canal makes its minimum distance across land by running North and South.

We are departing Flamingo Island to make a transit of the Canal. The skyline of the City of Panama was quite a surprise. It reminded me more of New York City than a third world country. There is obviously a lot of money in the very small Central American country Panama.

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Click on picture to see an enlargement. All vessels transiting the Canal are required to have a Panama Canal Pilot on board. These guys earn their living. They are totally responsible for the navigation of the ship through the locks and waterways, which is very difficult considering a Panamax ship is 107 ft wide by 1000 ft long and cannot touch the 100 year old concrete sides which are 110 ft wide. The ship is propelled under its own power but guided laterally by land tugs.

Flamingo Island houses the communication tower for controlling all transits of the Canal. It is like the VTS of the Panama Canal. The other side of the island houses a large recreational yacht marina. There were some magnificent yachts moored waiting their turn.

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Click on picture to see an enlargement. I was able to spend most of my time on board on the bridge chatting with the Captain and the Pilot. The Captain was in his mid 20's but handled the old German twin engine variable pitch vessel quite well. His AB helmsman was in his teens but was very good as well.

The Pilot, Capt. David Jimenez, was delightful. He had so many interesting stories of the transits he had performed over the past 18 years. They do an all day transit, and then have off one or two days.

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Click on picture to see an enlargement. We are about to proceed into the first chamber of the first lock as it opens up. There are three chambers to give us an 85 ft. increase in elevation on the Pacific side, then three chambers of the Caribbean side to bring us down 85 ft. This is the view from the bridge of our 135 ft. vessel. Land tugs are not required for vessels less than 150 ft. LOA.

This old native Panamanian dress costs about $45,000 US. I believe most of the value is in the large chunks of gold hanging around her neck. It is very reminiscent of the Southern Belle dresses of the old Louisiana plantations, without all the hoops.

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Click on picture to see an enlargement. Blasting through and deepening the Continental Divide presented one of the greatest engineering challenges. Rain drains to the Pacific or the Caribbean, depending on which side of the divide it falls.

When the United States ran the Canal, this was one of their medium security federal prisons. It must have been unpleasant in the middle of the Panama jungle without air conditioning - what a horrible sentence! It is now a Panamanian jail.

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Click on picture to see an enlargement. This is a Nassau flag Panamax Ro-RO, a roll-on, roll-off ship, a vehicle carrier. You will then see two sets of range markers. If you line up the markers with the cross on them, you are in the center of the channel. If you line up the markers with a single line you will be in the right side of the channel. Pretty ingenious.

Approximately 13,000 ships transit the Canal each year. 676 billion gallons of water are required to move these ships through the canal each year. That's a lot of rainfall. Closing the Canal costs the world economy millions of dollars per day. This is another Nassau flag Ro-Ro Panamax named Taipan.

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Click on picture to see an enlargement. APL Vietnam is a US flag vessel owned by American President Line (APL). She is a Panamax Container Ship.

Tritonia is a bulk carrier. There are all types of vessels transiting the Canal.

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Click on picture to see an enlargement. The north part of the Canal is actually a large lake, Lake Gatun. It serves as a large storage container for the water required to operate the canal. It takes 52 million gallons of water lost from the canal for one vessel to transit the Canal. The lake was formed by a series of dams which help control the level during wet and dry seasons. These vessels are anchored in the lake waiting their turn for the transit.

The north locks are lowering us 85 ft. to the Caribbean side of the canal. We are behind a Monrovian flag container ship named Zim Livorno. We are alongside a Japanese flag container ship named Kitano.

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Click on picture to see an enlargement. You can see from the prop wash that the Zim Livorno is under her own power passing through the lock.

The lock gate is closing on the last chamber of the Gatun locks.

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Click on picture to see an enlargement. Double gates are used in several locations to insure that precious water is not lost. Notice how the gates "bulge" out towards the higher side of the lock. The hydrostatic pressure of the water acts to make a more secure water tight seal on the gate.

We shared our Gatun lockage with CS Star, a bulk carrier much less than 1000 ft. They tend to pack in as many vessels into a lockage as possible to conserve water.

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Click on picture to see an enlargement. The land tugs are quite a marvel of engineering. You can see one on the port side of the C S Starr helping to keep it centered in the lock. The cement is 100 years old and will not take the constant wear and tear of ships scraping their sides along the side of it.

The tugs cost 2 million dollars each. The tug has two cables going to the ship. There are 4 on the bow and four on the stern helping to control the lateral position of the ship. On larger ships they may use as many as 16 tugs to control the vessel.

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Click on picture to see an enlargement. San Jose Cathedral was built soon after the first Spanish settlement in the 16th century; this small church features the famous Golden Altar (Altar de Oro), which is made entirely of pure gold. Typical of Central and South America, the churches are quite ornate and expensive. You won't find an altar so ornate in the United States.

The purple cloths are used for advent (the 4 Sundays before Christmas) and for lent. It is hard to imagine participating in a liturgy in a church like this.

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Click on picture to see an enlargement. The cathedral at old Panama is larger, but less ornate. There was no air conditioning, but the temperature was perfect with all the windows and doors open.

A view of the same church from the town square. The bird was very helpful providing an image of the Holy Spirit over the church. The tent is for a health fare they were having. They were handing out medicines and medical advice for those that needed it, another phenomena you won't find in the United States.

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Click on picture to see an enlargement. The tidal range on the Pacific side is 18 ft. This is counter to all I've learned about tides. Usually, the higher latitudes have the higher tidal ranges with the tropics having very little. Not so here. Good idea to always check the tide tables.

Another view of the sky line of the City of Panama on a low tide from the old city. The tidal range in the Caribbean is less than one ft. Incidentally, the mean sea level of the Caribbean is 9 inches higher than the Pacific. Something about water piling up in the Caribbean Basin.

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Click on picture to see an enlargement. This is the tip of the peninsula at the Casco Viejo, the older part of the city (after they moved from where the pirates were firing on them).

This was a Sunday morning and there were a lot of street vendors, mostly Indians, selling their handmade crafts. The lady on the bench to the left is a Kuna Indian.

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Click on picture to see an enlargement. These are children from one of the inland tribes of Indians. They were doing a traditional dance in the square.

Kuna Indians are selling their Molas, intricate needlework. A delegation of Kunas went to Washington DC for a political meeting. There they found post cards for sale for $1 a piece. Now they expect to be paid a dollar for taking their picture. That is why the lady has covered her face. The leg and arm bracelets and the short hair indicate that both of these ladies are married.

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Click on picture to see an enlargement. Panama hats for sale on the square range from $10 to $200 depending on the quality and tightness of the weave. They are really a misnomer. Roosevelt bought one of these in Ecuador and had his picture taken many times in Panama. It became known as the Panama Hat. In reality, they are all made and imported from Ecuador. Go figure!

We were able to tour the Presidential Palace thanks to the father of Luis Zamora, one of my training mates. It turns out that he was the chauffeur to President of Panama. We were able to visit some unique locations because of him.

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Click on picture to see an enlargement. This is the ceremonial chair inside the Presidential Palace. The president usually signs legislation and other important documents seated at this desk. They were opening a new library this day.

This is one of two formal dining rooms in the Palace. The detail work was beautiful with high ceilings, carved wood and murals.

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Click on picture to see an enlargement. This is one of the many murals in one of the formal dining rooms in the Presidential Palace.

The first city, Panama La Vieja, was established in 1519 and burned to the ground by the pirate Henry Morgan in 1671. The new city, Casco Viejo, was established in 1673 in a new location, one that was easier to defend. Casco Viejo is now the "old quarter" of Panama City, also called Colonial Panama.

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Click on picture to see an enlargement. This five star restaurant is located in the Mira Flores tourist building built right on the lock. We had a wonderful champagne buffet there for $25 a person complete with whole pig and a variety of seafood dishes. It was very elegant and so interesting to watch the ships pass through the locks as you ate.

We watched many ships lock through as we ate. Here are a tanker and a container ship being lowered as they travel toward the Pacific Ocean. We also watched a Panamax Cruise Ship lock through.

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Click on picture to see an enlargement. The engineering built into these $2 million land tugs is incredible. They have to maintain tension on two wire cables to the ship as they proceed up and down hills. It is quite a fete.

Later that evening we visited several clubs, casinos and karaoke bars. You know you are in a bad part of town when the parking lot attendant carries a loaded 12 gauge shotgun and appears ready to use it for any reason at all. Now that's homeland security.

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Click on picture to see an enlargement. No, these aren't Panamanian women. They are Columbians. There are a lot of Columbian women in Panama in a variety of professions. Victoria worked in one of the local clubs.

This young lady joined our table in a local disco and was having quite a good time. She said she worked as a masseuse. Later she announced that she was a working girl. There seemed to be a lot of this in the Panama Clubs.

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