TRANS CANAL CRUISE

A cruise through the Panama Canal attracts a variety of passengers. Steve Skovran from Warren, Ohio, is here for his second time. ``I came through the first time in early 1946 as a Navy crewman aboard the destroyer USS Woodworth. World War II was just over, and we were taking the ship back to the East Coast to be mothballed,'' he says.

This time Mr. Skovran brought his wife, Helen, to show her the workings of the canal from the deck of the Pacific Princess.

Other veterans who went through the canal in WWII are back with their families. The rest of us have signed on to take a look at one of the major engineering feats of all time - or simply to soak up the sun and relax in the luxury of the ship seen on TV's ``Love Boat'' series. Transiting the canal

On transit day, everyone is up at dawn for the nine-hour-plus trip from the Pacific to the Caribbean. A pilot arrives in his droning boat to help the captain guide our ship through the canal. From that time until our transit is completed 50 miles later, there's much to see.

The Pacific Princess is navigating the transcanal route between Acapulco, Mexico, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. The cruise takes 10 nights going east and 11 nights going west, with one more port included on the westbound voyage. Ports on the way are Acapulco, Mexico: Cartagena, Colombia; and the Caribbean islands of Aruba, Martinique, St. Thomas, and Puerto Rico. Passengers don't go ashore in Panama but see Panama City in the distance from the canal.

The story of the canal's construction is compelling, and a preview slide show acquaints passengers with the details.

As early as 1534, Charles I of Spain had ordered a survey for a proposed sea route through the Isthmus of Panama. Yet it wasn't for three more centuries (1880) that France began work on a canal. Twenty years later, the French gave up, because the problems of financing the venture and dealing with the diseases that troubled the workers here seemed overwhelming.

Then, in 1903, the United States and Panama signed a treaty, and the US started planning how to accomplish the project. A year later the US purchased the rights and properties from the French Canal Company and started work. Ten years and $387 million later, the canal was opened for ship traffic.

Three major problems were overcome - sanitation, engineering, and organization. The first obstacles undertaken were to clean up the area and control the mosquitoes and related diseases. Once that was done, the engineering problems could be dealt with. These included digging through the high land of Central America's continental divide, fashioning the largest earth dam built to that time, and designing and constructing the largest locks and gates ever made.

President Theodore Roosevelt said it could only have been done through ``American ingenuity.'' Three men are credited with spearheading the task: engineer John F. Stevens and two administrators, Col. George W. Goethals and Col. William C. Gorgas, who took the lead in solving the health problems.

The French engineers had conceived of a sea-level canal and failed; the US engineers saw the necessity for raising ships above sea level, via a series of locks. As a result, ships transiting the canal are raised 85 feet to pass through a lake, and then they are lowered again to sea level.

The man-made portion of the canal consists of channels at each ocean end, three sets of locks, and the 23-mile-long Gatun Lake in the middle, formed by a dam on the Chagres River. The water in the locks is gravity-fed, with no mechanical pumps. So the pressure of the lake water is essential to the operation. From the ship you can watch the water lowering in one lock as it rises in the other at the rapid rate of 39 inches a minute.

During the transit a guide on board explains the details, over a loudspeaker, to passengers who have gathered on the deck to watch. Most of us are there, elbowing our way to the rail in order to snap photos, only to find later that a lot of heads and arms show up in them.

For safety reasons traffic in the two narrow parallel lanes of the locks is one-way - west to east in the morning and east to west in the afternoon.

The Pacific Princess is paired up with a large grain carrier, the Sunny Glorious, and it's fascinating to watch the two ships inch forward as water moves from one lock to the other to float us through.

Canal traffic is heavy, and ships must reserve their time slots in advance. Passenger ships, which have priority, pay one of the largest fees. According to the guide, ``The tariff for the Pacific Princess is about $40,000. The highest fee paid is by the Queen Elizabeth II - at $89,154.62; the lowest was by author/adventurer Richard Halliburton, who paid 36 cents to swim through the canal in 1928.''

One is struck by the vulnerability of this vital, narrow shipping passage, which saves ships so much time and money. Also, with the seeming importance of the US support system and presence along the route, especially when one considers that the canal reverts to Panamanian sovereignty in the year 2000.

Tankers, container ships, and auto carriers lie at anchor in the Pacific, Caribbean and Gatun Lake, waiting their turn to go through. At wide places in the lake and in the canal between the locks we pass ships going the opposite way, which will wait their turn at the locks beyond. Surprisingly, we pass small sailboats being shepherded through in ``pods'' of five or more at a time.

By the end of the day, passengers are ready for a rest. It's a lot of hard work to keep up with what's going on at both bow and stern - with locks opening in front and closing behind - not to mention watching the sturdy locomotives that pull the ships through the locks. Then there's the toll of a day in the tropical heat and humidity. Inside the Pacific Princess

That's when you enjoy going inside the air-conditioned ship to find something cool to drink. On the Pacific Princess, that's easy. There are at least six lounges on several decks where you can get cool drinks at almost any time of day. And there are two pools on deck, which offer snack service throughout the day.

``The Love Boat'' lives up to its screen image in almost every way. Except, come to think of it, I haven't seen any budding romances on board, nor any celebrities on this Easter Week cruise, though we do have three clergymen on board to conduct religious services.

Yet the familiar settings are here: the sun deck with its pool and mermaid statue, the tasteful d'ecor, and the familiar circular staircase where passengers pose for photos to take to the friends back home. Our captain, Michael Bradford, is every bit as gracious as TV captain Merrill Stubing (played by Gavin MacLeod). And cruise director Jim Everett and his staff are as friendly as any seen on screen.

In fact, cordiality is the keynote of the Pacific Princess cruise experience. Everything possible is done to make us feel, in Captain Bradford's words, like ``one of the family.''

The Pacific Princess and her sister ships are part of the P&O Lines (Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company), which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.

According to deputy captain David Brown, ``Like a lot of other lines, the P&O, famed for the long voyages that carried British passengers to India and the Orient beginning in 1837, nearly went under in the late '60s. That's when air travel creamed passengers off the long-distance routes.

``Short ocean cruises had been introduced by some ships to fill the gap between the seasons,'' Captain Brown continues. ``Suddenly, the passenger lines realized that, to stay in business, they would have to operate differently. So the shorter cruise was tried all year long. It not only succeeded but gave birth to an industry which is growing fast today.'' Cuisine on the Princess

The Pacific Princess offers passengers three enormous meals a day. The cuisine is intercontinental, with an Italian flair. The menu varies each day with a different theme for dinner: British, Italian, French, and American nights, with a lights-out finale parade of waiters carrying flaming Baked Alaska. All meals are served with a flourish by the well-trained, mostly Italian staff. And, if three square meals aren't too much for one day, you can take tea and sweets at 4 p.m. or go to the snack buffet at 11:30 p.m. Activities on board

Entertainment is, of course, an important feature on any cruise ship. But it's especially so on the eastbound transcanal cruise, where the ship is under way three days with no ports of call between Acapulco and the canal.

Activities are planned throughout the day for anyone who chooses to get involved. They include dance, exercise, and crafts classes, bingo both morning and afternoon, and a casino open afternoons and evenings. On each cruise there's an instructor who teaches bridge to beginners and helps more advanced players improve their game.

Lectures and slide shows include talks on ports to be visited, details about the ship, a cooking lesson and tour of the galley, and a fashion show. Current movies are shown several times a day. Then, you can find shuffleboard and skeet shooting on a rear deck. Joggers and walkers can exercise on the top sun deck, where 18 times around equals one mile.

Live shows are presented before and after the late sitting in the dining room. (See related article at right.)

If you want to just relax, there's plenty of deck space and time for reading, cooling off in one of the pools, or napping in sun or shade.

Dress on board is casual during the day, with shorts, slacks, and sports attire acceptable anywhere. On some evenings casual dress is also encouraged. There are three formal nights, however, when guests can break out their long dresses and dinner jackets, though shorter-length dresses, and suits or sports jackets and ties, are equally acceptable. If you go

After a summer of cruising from England to Scandinavia and to the Mediterranean, the Pacific Princess will return to the Caribbean in November to assume a winter schedule of seven-night cruises alternating between Miami and San Juan. A larger sister ship, the Royal Princess, will cruise through the canal this winter and spring. For specific dates and costs, as well as details on other cruise lines offering transcanal cruises, call your local travel agent.

Sonia W. Thomas is the Monitor's travel editor.

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