Panama Canal

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A man, a plan, a canal, Panama, or so the palindrome goes, not entirely plausibly. The canal dividing the Americas was started by the French but completed by the Americans, 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 Panama City, 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

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 entrance.

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.

Container ship and car carrier

Culebra Cut

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.

Panama Canal earthworks


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 Cuba 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.

Inside the Islamorada

Noriega's prison

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 metres long.

Bulk carrier Nordrhone

Puente Centenario

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 USS Missouri.

Pedro Miguel locks

Panama Canal mules

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.

Lock gates before draining

Sharing a lock with a supertanker

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!

Miraflores locks visitor centre

The lock gates open

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.

Miraflores locks

Giant ships transiting the Panama Canal

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.

The new locks at the Panama Canal

Stealth ship USS Zumwalt

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.

Puente de las Americas

Giant container ship

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.

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Copyright © Ross Wattie 2017