"CANAL TRANSIT" Panama Travelogue by mtncorg
Panama Travel Guide: 1,648 reviews and 3,897 photos
The Canal is described by many as the Eight Wonder of the World and maybe they are correct. It is truly worthy of being consideration alongside the pyramids of Egypt. Similar to them, the Canal was costly not only in money spent, but also in human life, as well - over 20000 died during the first French efforts in the late 19th century.
Originally, the French planned on a repeat of their Suez efforts with a seal level canal without locks. In fact, the man in charge of the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lessep, took up this challenge, too. The environment, topography, climate, rampant insect-borne disease and crass corruption of the Third French Republic all conspired to an extravagant failure, but one French engineer, Phillipe Bunau-Varilla, was able to convince American planners who were looking to build a canal through Nicaragua to pick up the flag for the French. The US then bought out the French, but the conclusion of the sale was not forthcoming as the Colombian government - political owners of Panama at the time - dragged its feet long enough for many - including most importantly, American president Theodore Roosevelt - to become impatient enough to foment a coup - supported by American naval vessels - which separated the province of Panama from Colombia (the US eventually paid the Colombians some $20 million for their ‘lost’ province) in December of 1903.
With Panama’s independence and the signing of the first Canal Treaty - also written by Bunau-Varilla on behalf of the people of Panama - the project was on. Construction lasted for ten years - 1904-1914 - and once completed, the Panama Canal revolutionized - as did the Suez Canal before it - the transport of commerce. The whole story is laid out in grand style in the book ‘Path Between the Seas’ by David McCullough and I recommend anyone heading to or through the Canal to read the book to better understand the effort and the cost involved with this enormous project.
I was in Panama City helping out with a weeklong vision clinic in the southern district of Chanis in June 2005. At the conclusion of the clinic - we saw some 1370 patients - I had a little free time and I wanted to see the Canal from the water. Canal Bay and Tours runs Saturday trips through the Canal either partially - through the three Pacific locks and through the Culebra Cut to Gamboa - or full transits to include Gatun Lake and the three locks at Gatun. I had already seen the locks at Gatun, so I decided on a partial transit.
The tour starts from the Balboa Muelle/Pier 19 and you cruise out past the Balboa container docks - many ships do not go through the Canal due to cost and the fact that they only have partial loads for the other side. Containers are offloaded in either Balboa or Colon and shipped via rail to the other side where other ships then pick them up and carry them forth. After picking up a Canal Pilot - every vessel of a certain length must carry a Canal Pilot - you go acific-ward and cross under the Puente de las Americas, before heading back into the Canal, passing the old US Naval docks on your left. Next up is the first locks at Miraflores.
Each side - Pacific and Atlantic - have three sets of double locks. Here at Miraflores, you find two of the Pacific side locks. On the Atlantic side, all three locks are located at Gatun. See my Colon travelogues for more on the operation of those locks. After passing through the locks here at Miraflores, there is one more set of double locks at Pedro Miguel.
Transit through the Canal is highly regulated. Ships pay basically by displacement with a n average cost of $30000 per passage, which is still much cheaper than having to go all the way around south America. Panamax ships - vessels designed to barely fit the lock dimensions of 305 meters long by 33.5 meters wide will run a higher tab at closer to $150000 per passage. You are also always told about Richard Halliburton who in 1928 swam through the Canal at a cost of $0.36.
Costs and passage times are all determined by the ACP - Panamanian Canal Authority. Large vessels take almost eight hours to cross. Ship displacements and lake levels at Gatun Lake all have to be finely figured out in advance. An average of 30 vessels a day pass through the Canal - over 12000 a year.
The main engineering problem with the French design for a sea level canal without locks foundered because of the enormous amounts of water delivered via the Rio Chagres in the rainy season - we are talking 24 hour rises in river flow of more than 20 feet! There was also the difference in tide levels between the two oceans to be taken into account - 20 feet variations in the Pacific and only two in the Caribbean - but it was really the Chagres problem that did the French effort in - combined with the problem of disease.
Operation for the Canal is made possible by waters from the Rio Chagres that have been impounded behind Gatun Dam in the form of a huge artificial lake - Lago Gatun. The dam was the largest earthen dam in the World when it was built and Lago Gatun was the largest reservoir, as well, until Lake Mead was formed in Nevada in 1936.
Above the two locks at Miraflores, you move across the small Miraflores lake. There is a small dam on the east side of the locks serving to moderate the tidal differences between the two oceans and to spill wter from the Chagres system if needed.
Next lock on the Pacific side, is the single set of double locks at Pedro Miguel. Beyond this lock is the expansive waters of Gatun Lake, not immediately obvious until you get beyond the huge excavations of Culebra and the Continental Divide and out to Gamboa. See the next travelogue for more of the partial transit, including the Culebra Cut.
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