A Journey Through the Canal
The Atlantic Ocean is geographically east of the Isthmus of Panama and the Pacific Ocean is to the west. However, due to the shape of the isthmus, the general direction of the canal passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific is from northwest to southeast.
Our day begins at 5:30 a.m. on the Atlantic side of Panama (Caribbean Sea). The cruise ship enters Limon Bay, a natural deep-water harbor leading into the Panama Canal. A quick stop before the Manzanillo Bay Breakwater entrance allows four Panamanian Pilots to board the ship. It is their job to safely guide her through the locks.
Slowly it makes it way towards the entrance wall where cables are connected to the electric mules that will stabilize the ship to prevent it from banging side-to-side.
The Gatun Locks, a 1.2 mile three-step system, lifts ships to the Gatun Lake level, some 85 ft above sea level.
These gates are of enormous size, ranging from 47 to 82 ft high and are 7 ft thick. Each door weighs 650 tons.
The gates which separate the chambers hold back a considerable weight of water, and must be both reliable and strong enough to withstand accidents, as the failure of a gate could unleash a catastrophic flood of water downstream.
For safety purpose, ships are guided though the lock chambers by electric locomotives known as mules, named after the animals traditionally used to pull barges. The mules are used for side-to-side and braking control in the rather narrow locks. The forward motion into and through the locks is actually provided by the ship’s engines and not the mules.
The mules themselves run on geared tracks. Each mule has a powerful winch, operated by the driver; these are used to take two cables in or pay them out, to keep the ship centered in the lock while moving it from chamber to chamber. With as little as a 12 inch clearance on each side of the ship, considerable skill is required on the part of the operators.
Navigating each chamber took approximately 30 minutes. Around 9:00 a.m. we entered Gatun Lake. Since our ship would be turning around and retracing its passage back to the Atlantic Ocean later that afternoon, we disembarked and continued our journey through the canal on a small ferry.
In 1913, Gatun Lake was created by the damming of the Chagras River. It was the largest man-made lake in the world at the time it was formed.
It is an essential part of the canal system where ships transit in both directions. It also provides the millions of gallons of water necessary to operate the locks each time a ship passes through as well as provides drinking water for Panama City and Colón.
Panama’s Centennial Bridge was inaugurated on August 15, 2004 on the 90th anniversary of the first ship transit of the Panama Canal.
The Centennial Bridge crosses the canal at the Culebra Cut close to the Pedro Miguel locks. It is 3,451 feet long with a 262 foot clearance allowing large ships to pass underneath.
The bridge carries the 6 lanes of the Pan-American Highway. It has been designed to withstand the frequent earthquakes within this region.
The Culebra Cut is a great engineering feat that cuts through the Continental Divide forming part of the Panama Canal. Culebra is the name for the mountain ridge it cuts through.
Even though this section of the canal is only 9 miles long, the excavation turned out to be the most difficult, dangerous and heartbreaking part of the job. Mudslides were a serious problem. The only way to prevent slides was to make the sides of the cut less steep and stepped fashion. An astonishing amount of earth and rock had to be cut and hauled away. Railroad tracks lined the sides of Culebra Cut so that dozens of dirt trains raced back and forth from morning until night carrying the debris away. Most of this debris was used to build Gatun Dam.
From 1915–2000 the cut was named Gaillard Cut after US Major David du Bose Gaillard, who had led the excavation. After the canal handover to Panama in 2000, the old name Culebra was reinstated.
After traveling the Culebra Canal passing the Continental Divide, we head into the the single-step Pedro Miguel Lock to be lowered down by 31 feet into Miraflores Lake. The picture at the top of the page shows the boat exiting from the lock.
Finally, the last set of locks is the Miraflores Locks, a two-step series lowering the vessel another 54 feet to sea level at Balboa Bay. Each chamber lowers the vessel by draining 26 million gallons of water in only 7 minutes and all done by gravity, and faster than a bathtub drain.
The Visitor Center at Miraflores Locks allows visitors a close-up view of transiting vessels and learn first hand about the various operations of the Panama Canal, the history of its construction, its participation in the world markets, and the importance of its watershed.
A common misconception is that one ocean is higher that the other, but that is not true. Sea level for the Atlantic and Pacific entrance is virtually the same. But since the tidal variation at the Pacific entrance can be up to 18 feet, a sea level canal would be faced with the problem of a current running northbound when the Pacific tide was high and a current running south bound when the tide was low. Thus a lock system solved the problem.
Completed in 1962, at a cost of US$20 million, The Bridge of Americas was the only non-swinging bridge connecting North and South American land masses until the opening of the Centennial Bridge in 2004. The highest point of the bridge is 384 ft above sea level with a clearance under the main span at 201 ft at high tide restricting the size vessels that can traverse the Panama Canal.
While you can cross the canal by car, you cannot cross the Darien Gap which separates Central America and South America. The Gap measures just over 99 miles long and about 31 miles wide. Road building through this area would be expensive, and the environmental toll would be steep.
Panama is in the middle of the tropics and situated just a few degrees from the equator. The climate is quite warm and humid. It receives as much as 200 inches of rain per year. This was a determining factor in placing the canal there since 52 million gallons of fresh water is lost to the ocean on each transit.
Our journey through the Panama Canal ends at Panama City where we board a bus to transit back to the Atlantic side. What a marvelous journey and education.
The Panama Canal Authority (Spanish: Autoridad del Canal de Panamá (ACP)) is the agency of the government of Panama responsible for the operation and management of the Panama Canal. The ACP took over the administration of the Panama Canal on December 31, 1999, when the canal was handed over from the United States to Panama.
In 1907 US President Theodore Roosevelt appointed George Washington Goethals as chief engineer of the Panama Canal. By 1914 Goethals saw the completion of the Canal almost a full year ahead of schedule. In his honor a marble monolith sitting in a fountain at the base of the Administration Building was erected. The three tiers of the monument symbolize the three sets of locks — Gatun, Pedro Miguel and Miraflores.
When the Panama Canal opened in 1914 it was a technological marvel and an important strategic and economic asset to the United States. This new transit revolutionized world shipping patterns. The length of the Panama Canal is approximately 51 miles. It’s nearly 8,000 miles shorter to traverse the Canal than to go around South America. That is a huge savings in fuel and time.
When the canal opened in 1914, approximately 1,000 ships traveled it length. By 2008, more than 815,000 vessels had passed through the canal. The canal is currently handling more vessel traffic than had ever been envisioned by its builders.
Construction of the Panama Canal expansion project started in September 2007. This will double the canal’s capacity, allowing more and larger ships to use the canal. The project is expected to be completed in April 2015.