The Panama Canal

Monday, 2 May 2016

My principal reason for visiting Panama was, of course, to see the Panama Canal. A quick history: A French team led by Ferdinand de Lesseps constructed the Suez Canal linking the Mediterranean with the Red Sea. Originally 164 km in length it took 10 years to construct and opened in 1869. ‘Well that was easy,’ the French thought, and in 1881 started work on the Panama Canal.

When work stopped in 1889 22,000 lives had been lost, principally to yellow fever and malaria – it was here that mosquitoes were discovered to be the carriers of malaria. The financial losses – estimated at $287 million way back then – were equally depressing and de Lesseps and engineer Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame both received jail sentences for their roles in the disaster.

In 1904 the US took over the project and 10 years later the 77 km canal finally opened. The original plan to cut the canal at sea level had been ditched, locks on the Atlantic and Pacific side of the peninsula raised ships 26metres above sea level. As well as the canal ships cross artificial Lago Gatún as they pass between the oceans.

The largest ships that can pass through the canal are known as Panamax vessels, limited to 289.56 metres (950 ft) in length and 32.31 metres (106 ft) in width. On 26 June 2016 a new series of locks will be inaugurated and the canal will then be able to handle New Panamax ships, about one and half times as big as the old limits.

IMG_6605 - Miraflores Lock, Panama Canal - 540▲ If you’re not on a vessel transiting the canal there are two ways for visitors to get a closer look. One is by taking the short trip out of Panama City to the Miraflores Visitors Centre beside the Miraflores Locks, the first two locks on the Pacific side of the canal. Entry is a hefty US$15, but there are lots of displays and information, quite apart from the ships coming in to the locks. The displays feature a view from a ship’s bridge as it goes through a couple of locks, suitably speeded up. It’s rather fun. I watch the complete process of one ship (bulk carrier) and three tugs coming in to a lock and lifting up.. The new much bigger locks are just out of sight across a rise.

IMG_6756 - pilot boat, Panama Cana - 540▲ A couple of days later I was heading back to the Miraflores Locks again, this time on Pacific Queen, a tour boat that does regular ‘partial transits’ of the canal. We boarded the vessel at Amador at the end of the causeway and soon picked up a pilot to take us along the canal.

IMG_6777 - Bridge of the Americas, Panama Canal - 540▲ Then it was around the end of the causeway, past the control tower which tracks the incoming and outgoing vessels. Then past the Frank Gehry designed BioMuseo and under the Bridge of the Americas.

MG_6790-following-Albatros-into-Miraflores-lock-Panama-Canal-540.jpg▲ We tucked in behind the Nassau-registered cruise ship Albatros (built in 1973) at the first lock and follow her all the way. It’s a short distance from the double Miraflores lock to the single Pedro Miguel Lock.

IMG_6828 - Albatros under Centennial Bridge, Panama Canal - 540▲ After which we cruised along the Culebra Cut, passing under the newer Centennial Bridge to Gamboa from where a bus took us back to our starting point.

Apart from a couple of yachts the only other vessels we saw were both coming the other way. First the Korean RoRo car transporter Asian Emperor out of Southampton and Belgium – so perhaps Land Rovers and BMWs? It’s had a chequered history recently, some sort of vehicle shift off Canada a couple of years ago followed very quckly by a fire on board in the Pacific. Right behind was the Swarna Mala from Mumbai, carrying ‘oil products.’

The Culebra Cut proved a huge obstacle for the French plans for a sea level canal, but even if it had been possible to excavate the cut there would still have been difficulties. Of course sea level is sea level, it’s the same in the Atlantic or the Pacific. But the Atlantic side of Panama has tidal changes of less than a metre, on the Pacific side the difference between low and high tide is more like six metres. As a result there would have been white-water speed currents flowing through the canal making navigation very difficult. As it is larger vessels are always accompanied by tugs as they transit the canal.