Our favorite cruise story occurred on a ten-day journey from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Acapulco, Mexico. In ten days, you can really let yourself go: everything from the midnight buffets to the efficient pool service encourages you to eat and drink more than your fill. We’ve documented the perils of a cruise vacation elsewhere, however. This story describes a real event during a real cruise.
Our trip from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean included passage through the Panama Canal. Most people don’t realize that to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the canal, you actually travel southeast. We learned this—along with mountains of other useless facts—in the days before the crossing.
We rose early the day we were to enter the canal’s first locks. Practiced tourists, we wanted to see it all. We jostled with the crowd in the ship’s bow, ordering umbrella drinks and baking under the equatorial sun. Well, that’s not quite true. The equator was still a long way away, but the umbrella drinks made it more and more difficult to find on a map.
Our ship, which like most other cruiseliners looked like a floating hotel, sat unmoving in a shallow bay. Half-sunken trees near the shore appeared to be wading into the sea to greet us. In the distance we could see the first lock, a mammoth tub with doors swung open to welcome us. We could hardly wait. But wait we did. Wait and drink.
Before a cruise ship enters the canal, a Panamanian pilot has to come aboard to guide her. It’s not just a good idea; it’s the law. Even after the pilot boarded, though, we saw little sign of movement. Cargo boats and pleasure craft cruised past us to ride the locks while we watched in envy. The only movement on our ship belonged to the waiters and busboys, pushing food and drink like hawkers at a ballgame. The passengers, including us, laughed off the delay in a haze of alcohol. At least from what we remember.
Then the engines roared to life and we started to move. A cheer rippled through the ship like a pebble tossed into a still pond, growing louder the longer it lasted. But it didn't last. We sliced through the water for less than a minute, and then we stopped. That’s about the time we decided to head inside to care for our burnt skin and emerging hangovers.
Four drunken hours later, our cruise ship finally reached the first lock. We learned later that shortly after the Panamanian pilot took control, the ship hit “a submerged object”—a flooded tree trunk, unmarked on maps and unknown to local pilots—that damaged one of the cruise ship’s massive propellers.
Nonetheless, the show must go on, especially if you’re a Norwegian cruise ship full of impatient passengers. Powered by a single propeller, the massive cruise ship limped into the first lock. It barely fit despite the lock’s immense size (1,000 feet long by 110 feet wide). We marveled at the snug fit. Only a swimmer could have shared the lock with us. (Swimming the Panama Canal is considered an extreme sport, albeit a discouraged, dangerous, and demented one.)
After the gates behind us had closed, it took ten minutes to fill the lock with enough water to raise the ship 85 feet to the next level. Six electric-powered “mules,” three on each side, guided our ship through the three locks.
The crossing should have taken eight hours. Ours took twelve. It was pitch dark by the time we left the last lock on the Pacific side. In the morning, we found ourselves at an unscheduled stop in Balboa, Panama. The ship could not make the open sea voyage up the coast to Mexico with only one working propeller. We bemoaned our fate. We’d miss volcano-hiking in Costa Rica and whale-watching off Guatemala.
Then word came down from the bridge (or wherever word originates, maybe in Scandinavia): The cruise line had decided to fly all the passengers and most of the crew to Acapulco while the ship went into dry dock for repairs. Suddenly, things began to look up. A free stay in a hotel on the beach! All the Mexican food we could eat! We’d miss the volcano, but we’d get to see the cliff-divers.
Early the next morning, with everyone packed, they shipped us all off the boat onto a fleet of buses to the airport in Panama City. They did it in stages, of course, performed with Norwegian precision. How else can you move 500 people?
The bus ride taught us not to visit Panama City. Sleek skyscrapers rose right next to tin-and-cardboard shantytowns. Life might not be fair, but this sight threw that fact right in our faces. Even if we wanted to help, we couldn’t. Our windows were sealed to prevent us from interacting with the vendors who stalked the streets, fearless in the heavy traffic. We were captives in a prison of our own wealth . . . which, come to think of it, felt an awful lot like being a passenger of a cruise ship.
Lessons Learned: Our tale had a happy ending, though, and not just because we enjoyed our stay in Acapulco. Our troubles with the broken prop eventually paid off. Big time. The cruise line refunded a full third of our fare.
How We Saw It
Communication Breakdown: 3
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 1
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 4
Fun Fraction: 4/5
If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Tocumen Panama International Airport
Native Population: 3,300,000 (in the entire country)
Normal Attractions: The canal and its museum, Casco Viejo (the Old Quarter of Panama City), Palacio de las Garzas (Heron’s Palace), fine dining, pickpockets.
Final Point of Interest: Panama La Vieja (Old Panama) is the first city built by Europeans on the Pacific coast of the Americas. The second is Who Cares.