I am taking an all day tour of the existing locks, and the new locks. The boarding process is very well organized. Passengers taking tours are given numbered stickers, and when your number is called you proceed to the tenders. Not the chaos that is often seen on some other ships.
About 4 lifeboats are being utilized as tenders which translates to everyone being transferred to shore with two trips of each lifeboat. Essentially there is no waiting, as soon as everyone is aboard, we leave and another tender is ready to load more passengers.
Another detail that HAL does differently is that in addition to the tour driver and the tour guide, there is also someone from the ship staff to escort the entire tour from gathering in the theater until return to the ship.
I am deliberately not going to get used to this, but the bus for this tour is the best I have been on in years, maybe ever. Plush leather seating, no humps in the floor, clean, and very luxurious drapes and valances. The sound system is flawless, the A/C is adequate and Mike, our guide, speaks very clearly.
After driving all the way across the country, yes back to the Atlantic side, we first visit the new locks under construction. We were told yesterday they were expected to open in May, but seeing the work needed to be finished, I am doubtful. The new locks still work with gravity to move water in and out of the various chambers without pumps. However there have been several major improvements in design.
The new locks are consolidated in 2 groups of 3 at each end of the transit, instead of the three locations of the old locks. In addition to labor savings, ships only need to stop for locks twice instead of 3 times.
The new locks will use 60 to 70 percent less water per ship than the old locks. This is accomplished by emptying the gates to holding pools instead of releasing all the water to the ocean. The water in the holding pools is then used to fill a lower chamber.
The gate design has changed from swinging to rolling. The old gates were prone to wear and had to be removed for maintenance, a process that is expensive and shuts down the lock for a period of time. When the new gates are open the storage area can be easily used as a dry dock where all maintenance can be performed without removing the gate. Redundant gates at each location allow uninterrupted operation, even during maintenance.
The fourth major change is that the "mules" and required infrastructure have been eliminated. Instead of the electric powered engines on geared tracks to keep ships centered, a tugboat will be attached to each end of each ship, probably the same tugs that accompany the ship throughout the transit.
Next our tour took us to the Gatun locks and we watched a container ship pass thru the lock. Being 5 feet from the mules and 15 feet from the side of a 1000 foot long 10 deck high container ship gave a very different perspective than being on the ship as I was the previous day. I wish I had adequate internet speed to upload pictures, that is just going to have to wait until after I return home.
The panama canal has a complex set of rules to determine fees. The least that has ever been paid for a transit was less than a dollar, I believe by an individual that swam the canal. The most about $425,000 by the Norwegian Pearl cruise ship. Cruise ship fares are based on many factors including the number of cabins, the number of berths, the actual number of passengers, and if or when a reservation was made.
We return to the dock and board a tender to head back to the ship. The lifeboat is the same common design found on most ships. There are windows in the front, and a hatch in the roof. As we pick up a little speed, waves break over the bow and water comes pouring down on the crew thru the open hatch. All the passengers laugh, the crew member is embarrassed, and he stops and takes a minute to close the hatch before he gets soaked again.
A shower and change of clothes and it is almost time for dinner. I check out the menu, and don't see anything that I am dying to have. I have heard a number of passengers go to the Lido every day and never go to the dining room. This is not unusual, as this occurs on all cruise ships. I decide to check into this further.
There are nearly 100 passengers in the Lido, more than I expected. Essentially over 10 percent of the passengers are eating in the Lido. I quickly also see that every item being offered in the dining room is also being offered in the Lido along with many additional choices, and where appropriate everything is being prepared to order. The Lido is looking very appealing. I dine here tonight.
The football game is being played in the theater. HAL is serving pop corn, nachos, hot dogs and a half dozen or so other items. I easily pass, as I am not a football fan.
The main show tonight is another surprise. Phillip Huber and the Huber Marionettes. Phillip is an extremely talented marionette artist and puts on a hilarious show with numerous marionette characters. I have seen marionette shows before, but never of this caliber.
Tonight we set our clocks back one hour, essentially making ships time the same as central time in the U.S. We are headed westerly, with our next stop about 9 days from now on day 16, January 20, 2016.