Monday 30th March 2020

By 6:00 a.m. we left the Gatun lock system, where locomotives called mules use steel cables to keep the ships in the middle of the lock as there is very little room to spare.

 

Again, all was quiet until we left the Atlantic reception area and were hit by the Beaufort 6 winds and waves. That was the only time so far today we knew we were moving. We may be heading for Florida and even the British Consulate in Miami has been in touch, but it is too early to tell.

We had a small breakfast as we really haven’t moved much for 2 days!

By sunset we were heading northeast towards Cuba.

The canal cuts across the very, very twisty Isthmus of Panama, but large scale maps do not show the twistiness very clearly. On a large scale map there would be more sea than land. Howard remembers buying an OS map of Spurn Point – more than two-thirds of it was water. It is a massive conduit to maritime trade, so much so a new canal running parallel to the original one was opened in 2016. This allows even bigger ships (Neo-Panamax) to transit. We saw a couple of these that had increasing heights of stacks of containers from bow to stern that had an aeroplane body shape.

The French engineer Ferdinand de Lessops began work on the Panama in 1881 following his success with the Suez Canal, the latter was dug across the desert at sea level. At Panama he clearly did not appreciate the difficult terrain – rainforests, high volcanic mountains, high humidity, high temperatures and lots of disease, because he proposed a sea level canal by moving the landscape away. He failed and the US took over in 1904 completing it in 1914. That original concrete was visible from our room in the locks. The route saves thousands of miles and thousands of dollars by avoiding rounding the Horn.

Sunday 29th March 2020

We awoke to see many more cargo ships in the canal reception area. Transfer of guests continued during the morning and was completed around 13:00. We waited for news which came through at 18:30. We were commencing transit. There are strict rules attached – no one on deck, lights on balconies off, curtains closed.

By 21:50 we were just short of the Pacific entrance. We have more than an hour to get to the first lock. We entered the canal after 10:00 and had passed through the double staircase locks at Miraflores. An illuminated arrow points to which lock the ship has to enter.

By the time we had used the Pedro Miguel it was around 11:15 p.m. We had now been elevated to the level of the Gatun Lake but first we had to cross the Atlantic-Pacific watershed by means of the narrow Culebra Cut. One did not know one was moving during the night.

Saturday 28th March 2020

Today turned out to be the longest day of the voyage! It started late Friday night when, after 10:00 p.m.we were informed that we had just made “The Cut” of the age of 70. We slept soundly knowing that we were likely to leave this ship. Breakfast was early, a sign that disembarkation were going to take place. But first we had to pass the medical test. These started at 9:00 a.m. Shortly after 10 there was a knock on the door. It was the medical unit. Temperature sensors to the forehead, can you walk unaided – you are go. We waited until the doctor had moved down the corridor then let out a little cheer!

With packing complete we had to wait for the Rotterdam room keys and baggage tags and most importantly the next knock on the door. Around 1:00 p.m. the Captain announced that things were going well with about 60 guests evacuated in an hour. This was slow because everything and everyone leaving the ship had to be thoroughly sanitised. When we receive the knock we will have to leave the room without touching anything except our suitcase. We continued to wait.

At 4:15 p.m. there was the knock. It was the steward delivering the room keys. “On the next knock please stand up and go”, said the steward. It seemed a long time before the next knock but it wasn’t. Off we went down the corridor keeping appropriate space between others and descended, one person per lift, to A Deck. Here our luggage was taken from us and we were sanitised along with the hand luggage. We checked out of the ship and on a signal walked down to the tender and were directed to our seats. It was pretty choppy alongside the ships but the journey was pretty spectacular with sun and spray. (Pity you can’t see the photographs!) We were sanitised again on arrival and within the hour were settled in.

The artwork in our room records an aspect of Dutch maritime history. All of the HollandAmerica ships have corridors full of similar images. Ours is a print of a port on the former Zuider Zee. Small towns such as these are now promontories sticking out into the inland sea as over more than 2 centuries land has been reclaimed. These small towns still function as ports and marinas. The ship on our picture is moored at the wooden jetty attached to the island by a wooden bridge. The island is protected by a barrier of big rocks. These were imported as there are no rocks like this in the region. The ship we see was a passenger and mail vessel that linked the communities along the shores of the inland sea.

Friday 27th March 2020

We were at sea during the night and awoke to see the Gulf of Panama bathed in sunshine and teeming with bird life. A group of 4 pelicans flew alongside us and other seabirds grabbing the fish that our wake is churning up.

 

The Captain told us yesterday that around 10:00 a.m we would meet the Rotterdam again and wait for our slot to transit the canal.

However, from his initial tone of voice it did not sound as if everything was rosy. In the past few days there have been 4 deaths and 2 positive cases of COVID 19. The plan now is to move healthy people from the inside cabins first and over the weekend from the outside cabins but with priority to those over 70, provided they pass the health check. We are hopeful but compared to some of the guests we are spring chickens!

As we write the refuelling of the Rotterdam is not complete so that may push back the transfer until tomorrow. It is interesting to note that the reception area for the canal when we arrived was packed with ships. Now under darkness there is a handful.

Thursday 26th March 2020

Daybreak, and we are shrouded in mist off the Gulf of Panama.

Overnight we had crossed the Equator but unfortunately we couldn’t keep our eyes open to celebrate! If we had been on schedule we would have done this in daylight and with the traditional ceremony. Crossing the Equator or “The Line” used to be a big thing on the liners of the 1930s to 1960s as the majority of people never had that opportunity. So if one had not done it before and word got out you were given special treatment.

Howard’s father, when returning in 1946 from serving in India had to navigate the Cape of Good Hope, because the Suez Canal was blocked, and crossed the Equator off Central Africa. The staff of the Arundel Castle, all in the best possible taste, tarred and feathered him, helped along by lashings of alcohol. Today’s crossing “The Line“ is a GPS affair. However, on a family holiday in 1996 on a Boeing 747 from Queensland to Hawaii, Howard asked if we could all go to the flight deck as we crossed the Equator at the International Date Line. The response was, “If you know where it is, then yes”. We made it with good old fashioned dead reckoning.

Late in the afternoon the Captain informed us that we were to rendezvous to take on supplies, medical equipment including testing kits and medical staff. In the darkness after 8:00 p.m. we saw the Rotterdam lit from stem to stern move alongside us. We had a ringside seat from our cabin window.

Late at night we left to rendezvous again in the reception area of the Gulf of Panama where ships wait for their slot to transit, like aeroplanes waiting to take off.

Wednesday 25th March 2020

It was cloudy at sunrise and the sun was obscured by the thick cloud banks formed by the Humboldt. We are at 4° S at 07:15 but it will take the best part of the day to reach the Equator. At present we are off Ecuador.

  

The Humboldt dominates here but in some years there is a change to the weather known as the warm phase of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation which brings weather changes to the Pacific as large belts of warm water develop west of our position. Its effects are first experienced here as the colder water is pushed deeper and more westward as the nutrient-poor warm water moves along the coast.

El Niño is associated by high pressure systems in the western Pacific and low pressure in the eastern Pacific. Remember, “winds do blow from high to low,” so over cycles of between 2 and 7 years there are temporary changes in temperature and rainfall patterns (this is still weather and not climate. El Niño is a change in the former and not a climate extreme.)

Countries bordering the Pacific are mostly affected but as the atmosphere is a connected system, what happens in the Pacific impacts upon other places. So weather changes can take place in Europe. None of this is new. Scientists have found fossils and fossilised chemical signatures of warmer and colder weather around 13,000 years ago.

In 1525 Pizarro noted, when he landed in Peru, that rain was falling in the bone dry deserts he had been informed of before his voyage. In the UK 1982-3, 1997-8 and 2014-16 have been amongst the strongest El Niño periods on record.

This afternoon the Captain introduced a walk and fresh air programme where deck by deck all passengers, unless ill, were allowed a supervised 30 minute walk on Deck 3. Social distancing was imperative along with no touching of handrails as one walked the deck.

As of now we are 58 guests and 88 crew with flu like symptoms but we will know more tomorrow when we rendezvous with the Rotterdam.

Tuesday 24th March 2020

We moved to GMT -5 overnight. At daybreak we were at 12° S 79.° W off Peru and well within the Tropics.

Outside it was 24°C with 91% humidity. As of 07:40 we had travelled 4695 miles and Fort Lauderdale was 2304 miles away. We are still on course to meet the Rotterdam at 6:00 a.m. on 26th March off Panama.

As the sun rose we could clearly see the banks of cloud paralleling the Peruvian coast as the upwelling cold water of the Humboldt Current was exaggerated by the deep Peru-Chile Trench. It is the outer edge of the original South American continent. The trench at depths of more than 6,000 metres defines the fault line that forms part of the “Pacific Rim of Fire” that encompasses the Pacific Ocean. It is here that the Pacific crustal plate dives under South America. When at work the former melts at depths of many kilometres creating earthquakes and volcanoes.

Monday 23rd March 2020

We awoke at 8:15 a.m. and wondered why everything was so quiet. When we went to the ship’s navigator system we saw that we had crossed the Tropic of Capricorn and entered GMT – 4 during the night.

  

Breakfast in the room was delicious, in fact the coffee was better than in the restaurant!

Our journey northwards close to the coast of South America follows the route of the Humboldt (or Peru) Current. This is a cold mass of water that has its origins in the South Pacific where the waters from the Southern Ocean mix with the waters of the Pacific. It is named after the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt who identified the currents of cold water and its direction of travel. Along its journey there is a circular movement in the ocean which brings nutrients to the surface which provides food for fish. We have seen shoals of fish very near the surface some of which have been eaten by seabirds as they skim the surface. This mixing of the upward movement of the cold water is even greater around 4° S where the Humboldt mixes with the warmer waters of the Tropics. Here is a fishing ground that accounts for 20% of the total world wide catch of sea fish. The fish caught are mostly pelagic (close to the surface) and are mostly sardines, anchovies, mackerel, tuna and hake. Until the 1980s this fishing ground had a longstanding rival at the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, Canada. These fishing grounds were famous for their cod, originally caught by the Portuguese and British from the 17th century until its closure in the late 20th century to conserve stocks.

The cold current cools the marine air off the coast of Chile, Peru and Ecuador. This produces little rainfall and hence the arid lands of the three countries. The most notable of these is Chile and its Atacama Desert. The town of Calama was until the early 21st century the driest town on earth where for 150 years rain had never been recorded. The record was shattered by a few millimetres of rainfall but it is still a very dry place.

The world’s oceans have many currents both warm and cold which makes the air above them move in the same consistent direction. Because of this consistency sailing ships involved in international trade used these currents and moving air to navigate the world, hence the term ‘trade winds’. So leaving Europe captains would navigate their ships into the northeasterly trade winds which would take them to the Caribbean. After a period of light winds in the Tropics the northwesterly trade winds would get them to Australia. Similar winds would enable them to return to Europe. This is an example from the Atlantic, the other oceans have similar patterns.

The Captain has informed us that we are aiming to rendezvous with the sister ship Rotterdam during the early evening of the 26th off the Panama Canal. They will be able to top us up with supplies and anything virus related should it be needed as they have done with the Eurodam and Oosterdam off Mexico.

Negotiations are still taking place with the US State Department and other Foreign Offices.

To add to the excitement the first alert alarm sounded this afternoon. It turned out to be a small fire in the ironing section of the laundry on Deck A. We were on alert but no need for life vests. Another unexpected moment in this year’s Lisle tour.

Sunday 22nd March 2020

Sunrise today was spectacular at 27° S. We are getting closer to the Tropics and its towering cumulonimbus clouds. We had a low layer of stratocumulus which appeared to trap the red of sunrise in the sky and ocean. By 09:00 the sun was back again in a clear blue sky.

  

We had taken a light lunch and done the one mile walk around the ship when the Captain announced that we had to return to our rooms immediately and that all public areas were closed.

A higher than normal number of respiratory problems had been identified amongst guests and crew and the medical teams were working to determine the problems. This meant all meals being delivered to your door and no contact with crew. Delivery took time but the two bottles of wine and two litres of water eased the hunger.

Saturday 21st March 2020

It was a cloudy start to the day as we began our next day in Valparaiso. Food tenders worked late into the night and during nothing seemed to happen. Near to noon as usual the Captain informed us that he had refuelled 800 tons that gave us a range of 7000 miles. When the last food tender has unloaded this afternoon we will have enough supplies for 3 weeks.

Two supply ships arrived 13:00 and when this stock is on board we will leave port.

At 5:00 p.m. the Captain announced we were heading north for a Panama transit to Fort Lauderdale, but if the worst happened we would be in Mexico or San Diego, California. He added, “the wine is on the house tonight and you will be pleased to know it is not Chilean”.

The sun has just set and we are overtaking a bulk carrier on our way to the Tropic of Capricorn.