Going through the Panama Canal

The giant fully-laden Zim San Francisco is hauled by four electric locos into one of the sets of locks along the Canal.

    It's smooth sailing  
using the world's
most amazing
oceanic shortcut 
The Queen Victoria passing through the Gatun Locks 

...and it shaves 12,600k off the only other
   way of getting from the Atlantic to the Pacific

The Panama Canal, even after 100 years of operation,  is still one of the engineering wonders of the modern world. Its construction was a  nightmare, stretched the skills and resolve of two nations, caused the death of 22,000 workers from disease, sparked a war over its  ownership and led to the subsequent creation of a new nation. Since it was opened in September 1914 well over a million ships have sailed through it shifting vast  quantities of cargo around the world. Today the canal is used by 14,000  ships a year and is the world's busiest. It is now nearing completion of a massive expansion which will double its capacity and soon enable the ever larger super ships to pass through it. 



Giant ships line up at Gatun Locks.

Electric locos guide the ships through.


The locos have to negotiate this big dipper!


The control room where the ships are tracked.


 reports from Panama    
                                  (wearing his new hat!)


My brief meander down the Ripon Canal and my feeble unsuccessful attempt to wind open the gates at the Oxclose Locks was scarcely a meaningful preparation for my recent traverse of the Panama Canal. Not that they asked me to open the lock gates there!

This was truly a case of moving from the ridiculous  to the sublime.

The Panama Canal is undoubtedly one of the wonders of the modern age, and leaves our earlier traverses of the Suez Canal, the Corinth Canal, the Volga waterway and The Kiel Canal as  mere entrees to the main course.

The Panama Canal is the world's ultimate oceanic shortcut, providing a convenient 48-mile passage across  the narrowest part of Panama, thereby shaving over 12,600k off the only alternative route, taking you  round the notoriously hazardous Cape Horn, something Pat and I experienced in a gale force 10 last year!

The idea of creating a waterway across Central America was an aspiration as long ago as the 16th century, but it was nearly another 400 years before the French, buoyed by their recent success in building the Suez Canal, and involving such engineering giants as Gustave Eiffel who conceived the Eiffel Tower, started the first meaningful attempt to built a canal here in 1879.

But the French hugely underestimated the challenges that building a waterway in this part of the world presented. The distance was  not the problem - it was the topography of the land, rising as it does from sea level to the towering Continental Divide and across land which is highly fragile and unstable. But an even bigger problem was disease with yellow fever and malaria decimating the work force brought in to tackle the vast undertaking. 

After nine years of endeavour and horrendous setbacks, including the deaths of 22,000 workers mostly due to yellow fever and malaria, the  French withdrew. Then the United States entered the field, obtaining the exclusive rights from Colombia to build the canal.

The 48-mile route across the Panama isthmus.

But then came one of history's most horrendous economic blunders. Bogata refused to ratify the agreement, leading to the briefest war in history, lasting just one day in which Colombia lost one of the world's most valuable areas of land and also the ownership of the land where the Panama Canal was to be built.

On 3 November 1903 Panama became an independent sovereign nation and signed an agreement giving the US a permanent lease on the Canal Zone, a 16k strip of land on which to build the canal and create accommodation, maintenance and security facilities along its shores.

The US plan for the canal, unlike the French who had envisaged a canal all at sea level, was for one with giant locks, lifting the ships up 26m to a huge man-made lake, and then down again at the Pacific end returning them to sea level

This was still a gigantic undertaking which took 10 years to complete, and involved 35,000 workers in excavating 143 million cubic metres of earth - enough to build 63 pyramids the same size as the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt!


Ownership and operation of the Canal remained with the US until 1977 when President Jimmy Carter agreed to a 20-year transitional period after which ownership and operaton of the Canal would pass to the Panama Government. This duly happened on time.

Knowing this bit of background made our own  Panama Canal traverse even more interesting and memorable.

It will also make us bores when we relate our story back home!

We were aboard Minerva, a 12,500 ton passenger ship and, as we approached the start of the canal on the Atlantic side, soon realised we were a minnow queuing up behind a line of giant whales - huge cargo ships stacked 50 feet high with hundreds of containers destined for China, Japan, Australia or one of scores of other destinations dotted round the Pacific

Soon we edged  into the first lock, and our ship was quickly attached to 'mules' - little electric locomotives which run on rails parallel to the sides of the locks.Their job is to hold the ships in position and to haul them forward as and when required (what a disappointment that we were not able to hop off for a ride. Surely Peter Taplin will be allowed to drive one when he passes this way!)

After our ship has negotiated the three locks  we find ourselves 26m nearer the Panamanian clear blue sky and we slowly edge out onto the next phase of our journey across the placid man-made Gatun Lake, specially created by daming the nearby Chagres River and then make our way through the Culebra Cut to take us across the Continental Divide. 

Later in the day we find  ourselves in another queue behind towering bulk carriers, waiting to make our descent first through the Pedro Miguel Locks and later the Moraflores Locks to return us to sea level, and an hour  or so later we emerge, feeling rather triumphant, into the Pacific Ocean. Our  journey from coast to coast, although only 48 miles in length, has taken us 10 hours -  but what fascinating hours!  It can take the bigger ships 24 hours to complete the traverse.

Ships passing through the canal pay a toll based on cargo, number of passengers and other factors. We are told that Minerva will  have paid £46,000 for the privilege, working out at approximately £100 for each  passenger. Cheap at the price when you consider the alternative!

The big expansion of the Panama Canal, which is adding a third lane of traffic and huge new locks, has involved another gigantic engineering undertaking. The work has been under way since 2007 and  is now nearing completion.

Our traverse of the Panama Canal was just one part of an amazingly diverse and fascinating journey Pat and I made in January from Cartagena in Columbia to Lima in Peru. It involved visits to several  World Heritage sites,
 spending a day on a Robinson Crusoe desert island and narrowly avoiding being hit on the head  by a coconut dropping 50 feet from the top of a tree and landing within inches of me with a resounding bang (and a squeal from me!), crossing the Equator (more squeals and drenchings), visiting the home of the Panama Hat (oddly enough in Equador!)  and moving 50 miles from the wettest place on earth (with 10 metres  of rain a year) to one of the driest, where they have not seen a drop in five years!

Never a dull moment! And quite a lot to take in during a fortnight, but one with enough memories to last a lifetime!

Photographic highlights along the way .......


World Hertiage site: Cartagena.

A day on a Robinson Crusoe island.


Some Panama hats can cost $3,000.

Frigate birds kept us company.
Iguanas - reminder of Galapagos.

Another reminder - blue footed boobies. 
Fiesta day in Lima's main square.
Part of a C13th citadel in Peru.
Fishermen use canoes made of reeds.


Some of the world's other major canals

Canal.    Country.  Length (in miles).    Opened

Suez Canal.    Egypt.       168.    1869
St Lawrence Seaway.    US/Canada        182.     1959
Panama Canal   Panama.   51      1914
Grand Canal    China.       1,085.    C4bc
Canal du Midi     France.       149.    1681
Kiel Canal.    Germany.   61.    1895
Corinth Canal  Greece.       3.9.    1893
Grand Canal Venice.    Italy.           2.     ---
Volga Baltic waterway.    Russia       63     1952
Leeds Liverpool Canal     England.    143.    1816