A man, a plan, a canal, Panama, or so the palindrome goes, not entirely plausibly. The canal dividing
the Americas was started by the
but completed by the
after significant changes
in design and strategy. Opened in 1914, it forever changed world trade, but remained under American
control until 1999, when it was finally handed over to Panama itself.
I visited the canal on a day tour from
collected by bus we were dropped off at Lake Gatún
in the centre of the canal system, and followed the route to the Pacific side over the course of
the afternoon. We passed through the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks, chummed along by a supertanker,
as we bobbed around at its bow in our little tour boat. The day started out blisteringly hot,
and concluded with pouring rain.
Welcome to the Panama Canal! A cheerful sign greeted us shortly after we set off on our tour boat.
A quirk of the shape of Panama is that the Pacific entrance to the canal is in fact east of the Atlantic
Before setting off we had to wait for the last ships transiting to the Atlantic to pass. The canal
operates a one-way system, with ships going from Pacific to Atlantic in the morning, and vice versa
in the afternoon. Here a container ship is pursued by a car carrier.
The deepest cut through the mountainous spine of Central America is at Culebra, where the Culebra Cut
scythed through nearly eight miles of mountain. The original
French plan had been for a sea-level canal
throughout with no locks, which would have required enormously deeper cuts, through almost the
entire canal's 48 mile length.
Despite having been excavated in the early 1900s, earthmoving is a continuous job with the heavy rainfall
and frequent landslides that would otherwise quickly choke up the canal.
The good ship Islamorada provided our passage through the canal. Commissioned by one Mr J.P. Morgan
as a survey vessel during the construction of the canal, which he financed, the boat holds the record
for most transits of the canal.
Inside the Islamorada, wood panelling still adorns the dining area, perhaps as it was during her subsequent
ownership by one Mr Al Capone. Capone used the boat for rum-running from
during the prohibition era in the US. The boat was then acquired by the US navy, before finding her way back to the
canal to ferry tourists like me.
The banks of the canal are occupied by this sinister prison, itself occupied by one Manuel Noriega,
former dictator of Panama who was ousted in 1989. He died only about six months after I passed by,
having been previously imprisoned in France and the United States.
As we pressed on we encountered ever-larger vessels. This bulk carrier, Nordrhone, is nearly two hundred
Puente Centenario, the Centennial Bridge, was opened in 2004 and crosses the Culebra Cut. It replaces
a swing-bridge system at the Miraflores locks, which had presented the dilema of whether to allow
marine traffic or road traffic, and was subsequently abandoned.
We entered our first locks at Pedro Miguel, with the upstream gates slowly swinging open as we approached.
Each lock is 320 metres long, and 33.5 metres wide, dictating the "Panamax" maximum size of
vessels that can pass through. Vessels would be built specifically to these limits, such as the
Ships transit under their own power but are directionally controlled by the "mules", a series of land-based
tugs which use cables to keep the ships correctly centred in the locks. The mules run on rack
tracks, for maximum traction.
Each end of the locks has a double lock gate, twenty metres high and two metres thick. Despite their
size, they open surprisingly quickly.
The Ionic Halo supertanker chummed us through each of the locks. We could zip along to the next one,
but still had to hang around waiting for the sluggish tanker to catch up before we could pass through.
They don't operate the locks just for us tourists.
Miraflores Locks visitor centre was rammed with tourists. We certainly had the best view by being on
the canal itself!
It takes only eight minutes to drop out the one hundred million litres that each lock contains. All
water movements are by gravity, no pumping required, and despite the huge outflow from the canal to
both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, there is more than enough water supplied by the Chagres river
and local rainfall.
A view back into Miraflores Lock with the gates fully open and flush into the wall, and the Ionic Halo
supertanker thinking about making a move.
There are two locks in parallel at each step in the canal, ours was already lowered here with the lock
on the right about to drain, showing the significant drop in height.
New locks were opened in 2016 just a few months before I arrived, which double the load capacity of
Panamax vessels, with longer and wider ships now able to transit. The tours unfortunately don't go anywhere
near these truly giant locks.
Sitting at Balboa Port near the Pacific entrance was the stealth ship USS Zumwalt, or so we were told.
She had conked out during transit and was awaiting parts for repairs. But being stealth, of course, we simply
couldn't see her at all.
The Puente de Las Américas carries the Pan American Highway across the Pacific mouth of the canal.
Finally we were out in the open sea, amongst the other vessels patiently waiting their turn, and some
which were making a clean getaway. This truly enormous container ship was too far away for me to
be able to identify it, other than being a Maersk vessel. She has a beam of seventeen containers.