My Day in The Panama Canal

In what may be a classic case of over-reaction, Carnival Corp following the Costa tragedy has now decided that nobody is allowed on the bridge of its ships except the bridge team and the pilots. You will recall that the captain of the COSTA CONCORDIA was entertaining his dancer-girlfriend on the bridge when the ship veered to close to the island and slashed open the hull.

Always in the past I gave my “Bridge Commentary” while passing through the Panama Canal, well, from the bridge! Not anymore. So I was somewhat pissed yesterday to have to give the “Bridge Commentary” from the Horizon Court surrounded by passengers chomping away on breakfast and with, for me, a very limited visibility plus the need to describe the play-by-play without being there.

I was to start at 5 am. I was there, but as so often happens on ships, the right hand didn’t have a clue what the left hand was doing. It was almost 7 am before I managed to get the right people awakened, and get a mic in hand and begin my commentary.

While our normal “Pilot on Board” is scheduled for 5 am, yesterday was not a normal day in the Canal. The pilot was scheduled to come on board at 5:45 am, something nobody thought to tell me about. Normally I check everything out with the Bridge the day before to confirm the schedule … Of course every ship is different and operates differently.

For me it’s a long day … 5 am until about 3 pm when we get through the final locks, with me talking much of the day. So, with both me and Princess looking disorganized, we managed to get things going at 7 am.

I learned that sometimes changing things, even in ways you don’t want, actually works out for the better. I loved doing the commentary from the Horizon Lounge with all the guests right there asking questions. If one person asks a question, or really didn’t “get” how something works or why, the likelihood is a score of other folks have the same question or misunderstanding. And I had stewards filling my coffee and all the food was right there. So eventually it worked out great!

So why wasn’t it a normal day on the Canal? First they were doing a lot of dredging in Culebra Cut. [Culebra Cut was renamed Gaillard Cut by the Americans to honor David Gaillard who was the American engineer who was largely responsible for the success the US had in digging through the Continental Divide. Since the Turnover, Panama has been returning to using the original Panamanian names, so it’s now usually called Culebra.] the dredging forced one-way traffic through the cut. And, the big news, in more ways than one, they were moving one of the giant new gates for the Pacific Locks through the Canal.

The rolling-type gates that will be used in the new locks are made in Italy, then brought across on specially designed barges. The gates for the new Atlantic locks have all been delivered and are sitting beside the Canal near the present Gatun Locks, awaiting installation. The gates for the new Pacific locks have to be brought through the Canal over to the Pacific side. So we got to see the process when we passed one of these gigantic gates, not the largest by the way, in the Canal making the transit. The largest of the new Pacific gates is 11 stories high!! On the picture you can see the centipede-like method of specially constructed vehicles that moves the lock gates.

While we were going through the Canal, with me accessible in the Horizon Court, people were coming up not only just asking questions, but wanting pictures (pity their friends who need to watch them, but I guess it’s easier to watch friends’ vacation pictures on iPad than a full-scale “come over for drinks and see my vacation ‘slides’” presentation), express appreciation for my lectures (Princess take note!), or get me to sign copies of my PANAMA CANAL DAY books. Incidentally, we sold out the books I brought on board and I’m hoping to have more to pick up when we get to Ft. Lauderdale.

Panama Canal Day Gates 1Panama Canal Day New Lock GAteNew Pacific Lock Gate in the Canal



Things Change

If there were a mantra for living in Panama it would be “things change!”  In fact, if there were a mantra for life it would be “THINGS CHANGE!”  Living in Panama I’ve learned that you always have to be expecting change and to have a “Plan B” in mind.  In Panama, also  Plans C, D, E, F, etc.  But here, as everywhere else, the secret is to keep plugging and respond as positively as possible to the changes life throws at you, whether they are the gigantic life-altering changes, or the little “that’s interesting” changes.

It’s been almost a year-and-a-half since I was at sea, so wanting to get back in the swing of things I agreed to do several “one-off” cruises this fall, one for Celebrity and four for Silversea. While in the Canary Islands on Celebrity I experienced loss of vision in my one eye several times.  Once when attempting to start a talk, while an inexperienced AV guy tried to figure out PowerPoint, I was stalling by telling jokes I’ve used many times and in the middle of the joke I forgot the punch lines.  I ended up in the medical center with the ship’s doctor sending me to an ophthalmologist.  When the eye doc said there was nothing wrong with my eyes, the ship doctor, fearing a stroke, sent me back home to Seattle for a whole string of tests.  Tests which proved … drum roll! … I’m normal, much to the surprise of some of my friends.  But in the meantime, not to leave Silversea hanging at the last minute, I had to cancel my four scheduled cruises.

The silver lining was getting to spend some time with my daughter and her family in Seattle.  I’m now with my other daughter in Sonoma County working my way back to Panama.  And the other day … Princess called.  They want me back at sea, doing my favorite run through the Panama Canal on ISLAND PRINCESS … starting mid-November!

Island Princess in locks

Since 2014 is the 100th Anniversary of the Panama Canal, and with all the expansion construction going on, this is an exciting time to do the Canal run and be able to introduce a shipload of folks [1,970 passengers, 900 crew] to Panama.  Plus, no long-haul flights!  I start with a Canal transit from Los Angeles to Ft Lauderdale in less than a month, and then do the partial transits round trip from Ft Lauderdale.

New Picture (3)



Along The Way of St James

In the movie THE WAY, Martin Sheen plays Tom, an irascible American doctor who comes to France to deal with the tragic loss of his son (played by Emilio Estevez). Rather than return home, Tom decides to embark on the historical pilgrimage “The Way of St. James” to honor his son’s desire to finish the journey. What Tom doesn’t plan on is the profound impact this trip will have on him. Today 100,000 pilgrims a year still follow “The Way of St. James” from France into Spain and one of the highlights of their pilgrimage is to visit the magnificent cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, about 1.5 hours from the port of Vigo, Spain.

 In the middle ages anywhere from 500,000 to 2,000,000 visitors a year poured into northwestern Spain. Many who came were guided en route by what is considered to be the world’s first travel guidebook written in 1130 by a French monk. Not everyone could make the almost impossible pilgrimage to the Holy Land so for many Europeans the trip to Santiago was a possible alternative. The distinctive pilgrim garb was a simple hat and a shell. Visit Santiago de Compostela today and you will see, in addition to the tourists, pilgrims by the scores with their hiking shoes and backpacks who are walking “The Way of St James”.

 So, what’s the fuss? According to tradition (that marvelous word that covers a multitude of religious tourism sites around the world, and perhaps a multitude of related sins as well) Apostle James brought Christianity to the Iberian Peninsula then was beheaded in Jerusalem in 44 AD. Here’s where the legend gets interesting, and perhaps a bit dubious. The legend that the remains of the Apostle James were brought to Galicia for burial in an anonymous field. In 813, guided by a bright star no less, a shepherd found the burial of St. James at Santiago de Compestela The shepherd took the story and the bones to the Bishop, who recognized opportunity when it came knocking. The declared the bones to be the remains of the Apostle James and built a church. Reportedly miraculous events started occurred as a result of people praying to the bones of St. James.

 Pilgrims, religious tourists with money, started flocking to Santiago de Compestela and as many as 2 MILLION people a year hiked across Europe (without benefit of tour buses) to make a pilgrimage to the town. The present church constructed 1075-1128. The mystical attraction is to climb up above the high altar where there is a quirky-looking silver statue of St. James, place your hands on his shoulders, and make a prayer or a wish. I made mine, but if it happens it will be God above, not St. James or a silly-looking statue that gets the credit. (I go direct!) But anyhow the church is still a big tourist attraction for everyone from pilgrims to popes.

The inside of the church is impressive without a doubt! And I got to attend a service – standing room only by the way – with the music of the giant organ thundering and rolling through the stone arches. So how does any church, even a church with the relics of St. James, get a standing room only crowd of tourists and locals? Well, as the early churchmen discovered (and fellows like Robert Schuller tried to copy in more recent years) you’ve got to add some zing. Some flash! Some pizzazz! And they found it in Santiago de Compestela in the form of a giant incense burner which at the end of each service, “representing the prayers of Santiago de Compestela”, is filled with incense, set afire, hosted and then swung from the top of the cathedral back and forth soaring of the heads of the awe-struck congregation! It is impressive and quite a show!