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Grand cruise canals: long or short, these marvelous manmade waterways add wonder to any cruise itinerary.

Canal digging dates back to the Ancient World, providing the means to move crops, building stones, and people. Wheeled transport, where it existed, was hobbled by poor road surfaces, and loads carried could not approach what a canal barge transported. One of the earliest canals, connecting the River Nile to the Gulf of Suez, dates to the reign of Ramses II in the 13th century B.C.

By the 18th century, Europe was heavily investing in canal building, substantially lowering the costs of moving heavy bulk items such as coal for making iron and clay for manufacturing bricks. England's fine china industry took off when smooth canal transport almost eliminated the breakage previously prevalent on the rough roads. Canals joined navigable rivers, creating thousands of miles of interconnecting inland waterways, still used today by commercial traffic and large fleets of cruising riverboats, hotel, and charter barges.

In the United States, early 19th century canal construction in the East and Midwest linked the Hudson River, Great Lakes, and the Mississippi River system into thousands of miles of continuous water highways. When the railway era arrived, passenger traffic withered away; but by continually enlarging and deepening the principle canals, commercial traffic prospered. Today's inland cruise lines, such as the Delta Queen Steamboat Company, RiverBarge Excursion Lines, American Canadian Caribbean Line, and Clipper Cruise Line, make significant use of these waterways.

Saltwater canals for ocean-going sailing ships were considered long before the technology existed to make them a reality. Then in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the fast steamships sailing on regular schedules

prompted numerous canal-building projects to expedite passenger and freight traffic. While the Cape Cod Canal might cut 135 miles off a trip from New York to Boston, the Panama and Suez canals could cut weeks off a long inter-ocean voyage.

The cruise industry uses saltwater canals for economy, convenience, and creative itineraries. In the case of the Panama Canal, a daytime transit may be the lure to choose to that cruise in the first place, while passing through the Kiel, Corinth, or Suez canals will provide a bonus on any itinerary.

Although a canal across the Isthmus of Panama had been contemplated long before its actual completion in 1914, it was the opening of the Suez Canal on November 17, 1869--a French construction project followed by British financial control--that revolutionized trade routes and passenger travel between Europe, Asia, and Australasia. Sea journeys from England to India previously made via South Africa's often stormy Cape of Good Hope were shortened by nearly two weeks.

The 100-mile Suez Canal was dug through the Isthmus of Suez to connect the Mediterranean and Red seas: no locks were required, thus lowering the costs of construction and operation, and greatly reducing transit times. The Suez was nationalized by Egypt in November 1956 and closed for six months during a failed Anglo-French intervention. During the nasty Six-Day War between Egypt and Israel, the canal was blocked by sunken ships and closed to traffic from 1967 to 1975. Today, canal tolls form a highly lucrative source of revenue for Egypt, while for cruise lines the waterway provides many attractive port options.

Travelers find the scenery mostly arid desert, but the landscape does take on a lovely glow at both sunrise and sunset. But it's the area's fascinating geography, history, politics, and strife that come to mind during a Suez sailing. The southbound transit usually begins with a call at Port Said, the headquarters for the Suez Canal Authority. Egyptian canal pilots join here, and in the early morning the ship takes a place in a long convoy.

Most tonnage will be container vessels, bulk carriers, and generally empty tankers heading to the Persian Gulf to take on oil. A permissible draft of 62 feet and 210,000 dead-weight tons are the maximums, so the largest loaded supertankers from the Persian Gulf still must sail via South Africa. However, in terms of tonnage, the Suez still handles the largest volume of traffic of any canal, as 25,000 ships pass through annually, with transit times ranging between 11 and 16 hours. Lake Timsah and the Great Bitter Lake form the widest sections, and sometimes convoys will anchor here for a few hours before proceeding, as some stretches handle only one-way traffic. Then at Suez (Port Tewfik), the pilots debark, and the ship resumes normal cruising speeds into the Gulf of Suez and the Red Sea.

In Germany, the 61-mile Kiel Canal (officially Nord-Ostsee Kanal) slices through Schleswig-Holstein just south of the Danish border from the mouth of the River Elbe to the city of Kiel, shortening the distance between the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. Locks at each end minimize tidal variations. First completed in 1895 to allow the German navy to move between its strategic northern ports, the canal was further enlarged by 1914 to permit increasingly bigger ships to avoid the longer passage via the tip of Denmark and the Great Belt Route. At the post-World War I Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the canal was internationalized, though administered by Germany. In 1936 Hitler canceled the agreement; free navigation was reintroduced after World War ii. Today the Kiel Canal carries more ships than any other--41,682 in 2004.

A Kiel Canal transit is unique in its largely rural nature. On a Radisson Diamond cruise a few years ago, I could smell the manure from the bordering farms. Railway and highway bridges span the waterway, and several ferry crossings fill in the gaps between. An unusual transporter bridge (1913) uses a ferry-like gondola connected by cables to an overhead railway span to carry cars across the waterway so not to interrupt canal traffic.

The port of Amsterdam is accessed via the 15-mile North Sea Canal (or Amsterdam Ship Canal) providing a mildly interesting transit from the North Sea port of Ijmuiden through the Dutch countryside. When completed in 1876, the North Sea Canal made Amsterdam one of Europe's great ports. While still important, the rival city of Rotterdam has long surpassed it in maritime traffic, although many cruise lines still prefer Amsterdam.

Locking operations include the Northern Lock, one of the largest chambers in the world at 1,312 feet by 492 feet. That explains why the locking operation takes so long, as pleasure craft and barges pass by using smaller, easier to fill/empty parallel locks. The arrival in Amsterdam is a treat as the ship passes the city center, river cruise and ferry docks, and the massive Central Station railway.

In Greece, as far back as 602 B.C., a Corinthian tyrant named Periander considered digging a canal to link the Adriatic and the Eastern Mediterranean, but it is said that the high priestess of the Delphic oracle dissuaded him. Roman emperor Nero tried and failed due to troubles at home. Finally the modern Greek state started construction in 1882, finishing the four-mile sea-level waterway nine years later, creating a most dramatic cut through the isthmus's often solid rock. In the past, slides caused intermittent blockages, including a two-year closure in 1923 and then for five years when the retreating Germans dynamited the canal walls in 1944.

With a width of just 69 feet at a depth of 26 feet, only relatively small cruise ships can make the transit, which reduces the voyage from Piraeus to Venice by 130 nautical miles. Ships greater than 800 net tons must be towed, and the largest often have tugs tied to the bow and stern to avoid scrapping the uneven rock walls that rise as high as 259 feet. When approaching the eastern entrance though the Saronic Gulf, the view ahead looks impossibly narrow. The ship passes over sinking bridges and under 170-foot-high vehicular and railway spans linking mainland Greece with the Peloponnese. Tiny figures lining the road bridge look down from above. In the height of summer, the rock walls reflect a lot of heat, and it's a huge relief to exit into the cooler Gulf of Corinth.

In North America, the seven-mile Cape Cod Canal connects New England's Buzzards Bay and Cape Cod Bay, making the Cape Cod Peninsula an island of sorts and saving 135 miles for ships sailing up the East Coast bound for Boston. The idea for a canal here began as far back as in the 17th century with Miles Standish of the Plymouth Colony and was revived during the Revolutionary War to give American ships a safer passage, but nothing came of it. August Belmont, a New York financier, backed the canal, which opened July 29, 1914, but largely because of high tolls and restricted clearances, it soon became a money-losing venture. The government purchased the waterway in 1928 and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers enlarged it for deep-sea ship transits by 1940.

The Cape Cod Canal is one of the world's widest at 480 feet, with a depth of 32 fee[ at mean low water, and currents can run to 5.2 miles per hour. Ships up to 825 feet in length may pass, and clearance under the Sagamore and Bourne highway bridges and one railroad lift span is a standard 135 feet. Today about 20,000 ships and boats use the waterway, skewed very much toward pleasure craft. The few cruise ships that use the canal are generally on New England/Canada itineraries. At the Buzzards Bay entrance, the ship will pass the Massachusetts Maritime Academy and slide under the 1935-built vertical lift railroad bridge with its dramatic 271-foot steel towers and 544-foot horizontal span.

The 14-mile Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, slicing through the states of Delaware and Maryland, is aptly named as it connects the Delaware River to the Chesapeake Bay. Besides pleasure craft and coastal cruise ships traveling the Intracoastal Waterway, 40 percent of all deep-sea ships using the Port of Baltimore transit the canal as it provides a short cut from New York and Philadelphia.

Digging started in 1804, but the C&D was not completed until 1829. The original canal had locks and a 10-foot depth; eventually it was greatly enlarged to handle modern steamships. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers eliminated the locks and expanded the waterway to a width of 450 feet and a depth of 35 feet by 1938. Lift bridges restricted traffic to one way, and after numerous collisions, high fixed spans replaced all but the railroad bridges. But as traffic has leveled off, major future investment other than maintenance is unlikely. The C&D Canal is a scenic waterway listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A canal museum is located in the old pumping station at Chesapeake City, the former coaling depot located at the western end. On weekends in summer, the grassy banks are alive with families enjoying an outdoor barbecue.

The Panama Canal is perhaps the only canal that is marketed as a distinct cruise destination--a sought-after one on many people's cruise check-list. While most ships make the long-day sail from ocean to ocean, some just climb the Gatun Locks, anchor in Gatun Lake for shoreside excursions, then return to the Caribbean the same way.

The impetus for a canal joining the Atlantic and the Pacific came with the California Gold Rush and the opening of the West. A transit from New York via Cape Horn to San Francisco took a couple of months while a proposed canal would reduce the voyage to a couple of weeks. Actual distance saved for a ship carrying coal from the East Coast to Japan is 3,000 miles and for a banana boat from Ecuador to Europe, 5,000 miles. The French, who were largely responsible for building the Suez Canal, failed after 20 years to dig through the Isthmus of Panama because of disease and financing. It was not until August 15, 1914, with war raging in Europe, that the 50-mile (deep water to deep water) canal was finally completed. For the fascinating story of American imperialism, politics and entrepreneurial know-how, read David McCullough's The Path Between The Seas (Simon & Schuster).

While the daytime northeast to southwest passage is a hot, sticky affair that lasts between eight and 10 hours, it is well worth staying out ondeck as long as you can to enjoy the multi-faceted experience. The day starts early with ships slotted numerically into a convoy and two Panama Canal Company pilots coming aboard to take control of the ship. Approaching the three-step Gatun Locks, the French channel is evident to the right just after passing Cristobal-Colon. The ship slides into the first 1,000-ft. By 110-ft. lock, aided by "mules" (electric locomotives) that operate over parallel tracks. Some ships such as 1969's Queen Elizabeth 2 and many of today's new cruise liners are referred to as Panamax because they just fit the maximum dimensions allowed. Channel depth is maintained at 39.5 feet.

Once completely within the chamber, the rear gate closes and water by gravity flow begins to lift the ship to the level of the next lock. Ships alongside may be moving in the opposite direction and descending the flight, or if the Pacific-bound traffic is particularly heavy, they might be on a parallel course. Once through the third stage, the ship has climbed some 85 feet and the luxuriant rain-forest setting becomes readily evident.

Ships waiting their turn may be anchored in Gatun Lake, a huge water reservoir continually filled, primarily by the Chagres River, and held in place by a one-half-mile dam just off to the right. If making directly for the Pacific, your ship will begin the 23-mile passage through the lake and into the twisting channel to Gamboa, the canal's headquarters. Here there is likely to be a heavy lift crane tied up, and the tracks of the transcontinental Panama Railroad parallel the waterway. The channel narrows for the passage through Gaillard Cut over the continental divide, with 587-foot Gold Hill on the left and Contractor's Hill on the right. The latter's height and once-steep slopes have been considerably reduced to avoid landslides that once plagued this section. Gradually the canal is being widened here to handle two way traffic, but Panamax ships cannot pass here.

The stepping down to the Pacific involves the single Pedro Miguel Lock, then the two-chamber Miraflores Locks, offering a popular viewing stand for visitors. Soon the ship will pass the port of Balboa with high-rise Panama City in the distance, then slide beneath the Bridge of the Americas carrying the Pan-American Highway south from Alaska to its abrupt end in the thick Darien jungle near the border with Colombia.

Clearing the canal and dropping the pilots, there's a sense of freedom and relief along with fresher, drier air as the ship sails out into the Pacific. For the captain and his officers, it's time to take back control of their ship.

With treaties signed in 1977 and 1979, the U.S.-owned Canal Zone and Panama Canal were handed over to the Republic of Panama with the final stage taking place on December 31, 1999. Since its opening in 1914, 910,000 ships have passed through, and the highest toll ($226,194.25) was paid by the Coral Princess on September 25, 2003. Panama is planning to hold a national referendum in 2006 regarding a plan to build a third set of locks to measure 1,401 feet by 216.5 feet with a water depth of 60 feet. While the primary reason is to handle the huge new 10,000-unit capacity container ships, the very largest cruise ships, including Carnival's 200,000-grt "Pinnacle Project," would also be able to transit, but completion is a good 10 years away. Currently Panama operates at 93 percent of capacity, hence considerable delays occur at peak times for container ships and bulk carriers.

While Panama Canal transits will be readily evident in any Caribbean to Pacific Ocean itinerary, the inclusion of the other canals may be just footnoted. However, each has its own interesting features as well as a friendly reception from those watching from ashore.
Grand Cruise Canals At A Glance

Most canals have been improved expanded over time
but only those with significant rebuilding are
noted as enlarged.

                                     First                  Locks or
Canal Name           Location      Completed    Length      Sea Level

Cape Cod Canal    Massachusetts     1914 (A)    7 miles     Sea level

Chesapeake &        Maryland &      1829 (B)   14 miles     Sea level
Delaware Canal       Delaware

Corinth Canal         Greece          1893      4 miles     Sea level

Kiel Canal           Northern       1895 (C)   61 miles     Locks at
                     Germany                                each end

North Sea          Netherlands      1876 (D)    5 miles    Four locks
Canal                                                       (varying

Panama Canal          Panama          1914     50 miles     Six locks

Suez Canal            Egypt           1869     100 miles    Sea level

(A)--Enlarge for deep-sea ships 1940.

(B)--By 1927 a virtually new sea-level canal:
Enlarged for deep-sea ships in 1938.

(C)--Enlarged by 1914.

(D)--Enlarged several times to present
dimensions by 1930.
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Title Annotation:CRUISE ROUNDUP
Author:Scull, Theodore W.
Publication:Cruise Travel
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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