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All Locked Up While Cruising the Panama Canal

September 13, 1987|HARRY BOUGENO | Bougeno is a former Times employee.

It was the first day of the best time of our lives.

Retirement had finally come to us, and my wife and I were preparing for our first cruise.

Since the early '70s we had enjoyed guided tours to Europe and China. But now the idea of living out of a suitcase didn't appeal. Our choice was life aboard ship, transiting the Panama Canal.

We boarded in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. On our second morning we strolled out on deck and suddenly it struck me that we were beyond sight of land, cut off from all the familiar ties and places. We had left behind all the hurry-up-and-go routines.

Beginning of Retirement

I relaxed in a deck chair, leaned back, closed my eyes to the warm sunlight and with the sea breeze blowing across my face, I realized this was truly the beginning of retirement.

The magic continued the next day as we anchored off Plaza del Carmen and went ashore to visit the ancient walled city of Tulum in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. It was like visiting an old friend, because we had become acquainted with the Mayan and Toltec ruins at Chichen Itza and Uxmal on a previous trip to the Yucatan.

At Tulum, the pyramid-shaped El Castello rose atop a 40-foot cliff with a superb view of the Caribbean. Nearby, the Temple of the Descending God presented a study of a race that had reached great heights in art and science, only to vanish.

My diary tells me that on Tuesday and Wednesday--back on the ship--the weather had turned miserable.

The Panama Canal

We saw Grand Cayman and Jamaica from the sea and steamed toward the Panama Canal, our primary goal on this trip of a lifetime.

Our day of great adventure started early. It was dark and misty when I went topside at 4:40 a.m. to the most forward part of the ship, the observation deck directly over the bridge.

I learned that the water that operates the locks (52 million gallons per transit) is gravity-fed, not pumped, from the 168 square-mile, man-made Gatun Lake. The process is repeated with approximately 15,000 ships a year transiting the canal.

Each set of locks was a new experience. A different team of performers moved with skill and precise timing to ease our ship up to Gatun Lake.

Under the ship's own power we crossed the lake to Gaillard Cut, made through the Continental Divide. The blasting of this cut was a seven-year operation, and much of the 60 million pounds of dynamite used in the canal's construction was detonated at Gaillard.

Down to Miraflores

This eight-mile cut took us to Pedro Miguel Locks, where one lock lowered our ship 31 feet to Miraflores Lake. Two more locks awaited us at Miraflores Locks for our final descent to the Pacific.

One more sight awaited us: Puente de las Americas (America's Bridge). This steel arch, more than 5,000 feet long, spans the Pacific entrance of the canal and becomes an important link in the Inter-American Highway.

I felt a sense of pride, seeing firsthand what American determination and know-how had achieved where others failed. I saw the jungles reach to the waterline while we "sailed" above treetops in Gatun Lake and I tried to imagine the vision it took to create this engineering miracle.

We were reminded of the toll in lives as we crossed the Continental Divide and viewed a plaque depicting the removal of the last shovelful of earth to permit the joining of the two great oceans.

At the same time, I wondered about the future of this great waterway when control passes from our country in 1999. Already, under joint supervision of the United States and Panama, I saw signs of a lack of maintenance. Piles of broken concrete and old iron are everywhere.

Slums and High Rises

But this was a special adventure, this trip, and so after we docked in Balboa we hired a guide, who introduced us to both old and new Panama City, taking us from slums to high-rises, from ruins to beautiful residential sections, via pot-holed streets and broad boulevards.

Later, on a bus ride in Costa Rica, we were impressed by the coffee bushes and sugar cane and at one point were reminded of the Rhine Valley with its terraced vineyards: Every square foot of slope was planted, but with coffee beans rather than grapes.

Back aboard ship we sailed for Acapulco, the last port on our dream cruise, the adventure that had introduced us to the freedom of the open sea and a canal that made our world a bit smaller--but at the same time more exciting.

We're ready to go again.

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