View with no room

Negotiating the Panama Canal is not for the faint-hearted mariner, writes Louise Goldsbury.

The day before the Zuiderdam reaches the Panama Canal, everyone is hatching their viewing plans. For some, the ship's bow is the most obvious choice; from pre-dawn tomorrow, as the ship passes through the canal, will be the only time the bow is open to passengers.

Others believe that a higher vantage point is better and they opt for the ship's Crows Nest Lounge, even though it's enclosed. Its comfortable chairs are an added attraction.

Anyone who has used the ship's gym has noticed there is access to the upper deck overlooked by the treadmills, so they know where they're going. But according to my sources, there is a secret place and it is revealed in near-whispers at a lunch for solo travellers. A woman from Florida leans into the circle of women (no single men have turned up, so we are keen to glean something useful out of the hour). "Most people go to the observation deck and stop there but a hidden staircase leads to a better area," she says. "Don't tell too many people about it."

Holland America Line organises official talks about the history of the canal and how to score the best view from the ship. Nobody mentions the secret stairs. Yet, despite the preparations, when the time comes, by 6am, passengers are wandering around the ship, asking one another for directions.

As we approach the two-lane canal, passengers take up a spot in one section, then move to another - bow, stern, port, starboard, upper, lower. Some people prioritise breakfast and let the scenery pass by the restaurant window.

Passengers with cabins on deck three - not usually a highly sought-after category - have a hot spot. From this level, you can see just how close to the canal walls the ship cruises. Sitting on their balconies in bathrobes, passengers enjoy an up-close encounter of the third-deck kind.

There is ample time to watch the transit from all angles as passage through the two-lane Panama Canal can take several hours, depending on the number of other vessels in line. Known as the world's greatest shortcut, the canal slices the

North and South American continents to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Carved out a century ago, the waterway meant ships could skip taking the long way round Cape Horn, saving time and money - a practice that continues today.

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In one lane, heading to the Pacific, might be a massive freighter next to a dredger; and in the other lane, sailing to the Atlantic, a yacht and a tanker. When our 2000-passenger ship arrives at the canal's first lock, we are the only holidaymakers. Behind, in front and beside us are queues of cargo ships laden with containers; it's a traffic jam at sea.

After days of not sighting another vessel, the spectacle of this super-size convoy is fascinating. Everyone is transfixed by the slick procedure used to take each ship through the canal's three locks, with both lanes moving in opposite directions.

Larger ships, including ours, are assisted by locomotives that trundle along the top of the canal's walls like slow-motion roller-coaster carriages. Operated by a driver but not actually tugging the ships, these million-dollar "mules" guide the ships, helping captains avoid scraping the canal's sides.

Our manoeuvre is the trickiest. The Zuiderdam is 32.3 metres wide. The canal is 33.5 metres wide, leaving just 60 centimetres on each side. The ship has to be perfectly centred for the process to work: as the ship enters a lock, massive steel gates are closed around it and water gushes through an opening until it reaches the same level as the next lock, so that the ship can proceed to the next step. When the Zuiderdam is elevated to the same level as the human-made Gatun Lake, it is then lowered to sea level on the opposite side of the isthmus.

That's when you start pondering whether we had to go through this procedure because the sea levels of the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean are different. According to the experts, although there is a slight difference between the two sides, locks are needed because the canal climbs hills and uses mountain lakes. However it works, it feels light and easy, almost as though the ship is levitating as it floats slowly up and, half an hour later, down.

Even if engineering marvels are not your thing, passing though the canal is a highlight of this cruise and provides a break from visiting Caribbean ports, if beaches are not so enthralling. Such diverse combinations makes this voyage the perfect his 'n' hers holiday. It's also the only day that most passengers are on deck early enough to see a sunrise at sea, an event to be experienced at least once in a lifetime.

Trip notes

Getting There

United Airlines, V Australia, Qantas and Delta fly daily from Sydney to Los Angeles or San Francisco, with connections to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. 13 31 33, flightcentre.com.au.

Cruising there

The Zuiderdam's 10-day Panama Canal Sunfarer is a partial transit, book-ended by ports of call in the Caribbean, the Bahamas and Costa Rica. Departing from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the cruise visits Holland America Line's private island Half Moon Cay, as well as Aruba, Curacao and Port Limon. Fares start at $1499 a person, twin share. 1300 766 566, hollandamerica.com.au.

More information

www.pancanal.com.

The price of a short cut

Construction is under way to build a set of locks to accommodate more and larger ships, such as US Navy aircraft carriers. The $US5.5 billion project is expected to be completed in 2014.

In its first full year of operation, the Panama Canal recorded 1058 transits; last year, the figure was 14,721. The average toll for vessels is $US45,000; a big ship like the Zuiderdam costs $US250,000 a transit, including toll and use of locomotives. The cheapest toll charged was 36¢ for a man who swam across in 10 days.

The canal is open 24 hours, every day, except for one day in December 2010, when flooding forced its first closure since 1989.

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