We’ve been made to look very small, down here in our passenger ferry as two giant gates open into the first of the Panama Canal’s locks on the Pacific Ocean side. Looming over us up ahead is a container vessel that’s just exited the lock. From my vantage point, about 20 metres below, it resembles a towering wall of metal. Beside us, another container ship has slipped into the adjacent lock chamber, it too is easily dwarfing us.
But then everything about the Panama Canal, one of the world’s engineering marvels, is on an enormous scale – the millions of tonnes of earth that was shifted during its construction, the tens of millions of litres of water that make the whole thing work, the thousands of people who died labouring to build it, and the magnitude of the amount of cocaine that reportedly slips through the canal undetected each year.
It’s only when you find yourself within the concrete canyons, or when you watch the Coral Princess cruise liner, with its nearly 2000 passengers, as it eases through the Gatun Lock and on to the Caribbean Sea that the facts and figures are given any real perspective.
We’ve entered the canal on the Pacific side through the Miraflores Locks, the first of three enormous double locks set into the 80km length of the canal. The locks are needed because the canal cuts directly through the continental divide, a backbone of hills that runs the length of the Central American isthmus and links North and South America. To negotiate this, ships must be raised up from sea level as they enter the canal from the coast in order to reach the middle section of the canal. This area is actually a vast artificially created lake, from which vessels are lowered back to sea level through another series of locks so they may continue on to exit the canal.
At Miraflores on the outskirts of Panama City, our progress is watched by hundreds of spectators standing on the verandahs of the visitors’ centre. Intriguingly the crews of the ships we encounter in the locks, with or beside us, seem equally fascinated. With little to do while ships make their transits (a transit takes about nine hours) crews sit up on deck and photograph the canal just as avidly as we do.
I had visions of us whiling away a lot of time after the two-metre-thick, 20-metre-high lock gates shut and the lock filled. But amazingly the entire cavernous space, 300 metres long and 33 metres wide, fills in just eight minutes through 20 holes in the chamber floor.
When the French began the first attempt to build a canal in the 1880s they opted to try to simply cut through the isthmus entirely at sea level and thus do away for the need for locks. This proved to be a monumental failure, so when the United States took on the challenge in 1904, their engineers opted for a different approach. They designed a system of canals and locks that would raise ships up a total of 26 metres to cross the main divide rather than attempting to cut through its full height.
Today, among the state of the art “mules”, the land-based tugs that help keep the ships in position in the locks, and the electronic wizardry that monitors the whole operation, it is hard to imagine that the idea of linking the Atlantic with the Pacific was first dreamed of over 400 years ago.
In 1524 King Charles V of Spain commissioned a survey of the isthmus – the motive: To find a quicker way to be able to transport the gold and silver and other wealth plundered from Peru and elsewhere in their empire back to Spain. Up until then they’d relied on a cobblestone road that linked the two oceans.
However by the 1700s the Spanish had had to resort to sailing around Cape Horn after notorious pirate Henry Morgan sacked Spanish-held Panama. (Incidentally, Morgan, despite his nefarious activities that included causing a serious diplomatic rift between England and Spain, was later knighted and became the governor of Jamaica. Unlike pirates of legend his demise was relatively natural – it’s believed he drank himself to death, there being no shortage of funds from his pirate days for the odd tipple.)
The French embarked on their Panama Canal project in the 1880s with the mastermind of the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps, in charge. No doubt riding on a wave of Suez success he was confident a sea-level canal would work but he had seriously misjudged the challenge of the Panamanian terrain, its malaria and yellow fever-infested jungles and harsh tropical climate. The result was a disaster and the deaths of about 22,000 people, mostly as a result of tropical diseases.
It was the Americans who revived the idea of the canal; first of all buying up the remaining assets of the financially ruined French project and then most significantly signing a treaty with the newly independent state of Panama which was previously a part of Colombia. Panama, partly in return for US protection from Colombian ambitions to take back its territory, handed over the canal construction rights to the US along with an 8km buffer zone on either side that effectively became US territory.
Work on the new canal began in 1904 (the eradication of yellow fever and control of malaria were key factors in the project being viable again) and was completed in 1914.
Now using steam shovels and dynamite (rather than wheelbarrows and picks as during the French attempt) workers on the canal shifted 73 million cubic metres of material to create just one section of the canal alone – the Culebra Cut, which is where the canal actually burrows through the mountains. During the 10 years of construction over 56,000 people worked on the canal, including some New Zealanders. Even today visitors can search the electronic archives to find out if they had relatives employed on the project.
Even though conditions were vastly improved since the French attempt, more than 5600 people died during the decade of construction. The Culebra Cut with its precipitous mountains and prodigious landslides (especially during the wet season) was a particularly perilous section.
Today, when one is aboard the small passenger ferry that makes a once-a-month full transit of the canal, it’s possible to lean out from the deck and touch the lock walls that have now been in almost constant use for nearly 100 years. Some of the millions of tonnes of soil excavated from the canal zone was used to manufacture the concrete locks, with still more used to create breakwaters at both ends of the canals, along with major reclamation projects on the Pacific side.
Small vessels like ours are simply tied up while the locks fill or empty. Interestingly every vessel, even the smallest yacht, must carry a Panama Canal Authority pilot with them at all times while passing through the canal. Apparently in 1928 when American Richard Halliburton became the first person to swim the canal he too had to be accompanied by a pilot who traversed the route in a canoe alongside.
Larger vessels including container ships and cruise liners must be attached to the canal “mules” or towing locomotives that run along tracks on the edges of the canals. Working in tandem (large ships may have six in attendance) the mules maintain the ship’s position in the centre of the canal. Each mule, which looks like a cross between a shunting locomotive and a boat with bows at both ends, costs about $2.3m to manufacture.
Ships pass under the only two permanent bridges that span the canal, the Bridge of the Americas, and the spectacular Centennial Bridge that was completed in 2004. Both bridges are part of the Pan American Highway system that runs, almost continuously from Alaska to Patagonia (the only missing link is a 157km stretch through the jungles of the Darien Gap that straddles the Panama-Colombia border).
The Centennial Bridge crosses the canal near the Culebra Cut, and it is here that one can truly appreciate the enormity of the engineering feat that saw a waterway hacked through a mountain range. The steep hillsides have been terraced to reduce the risk of slips. Access to the waterside is difficult, but then the presence of crocodiles (one we spotted was at least three metres long), probably limit the appeal of a canal-side stroll at this point.
We left our vessel at Gamboa, at the start of the vast Gatun Lake, which was created by the damming of the River Chagres. The lake works as a reservoir for the water needed to fill the locks. Each time a lock fills more than 100,000 cubic metres of water is used.
It would take the passenger vessel at least four more hours to reach the Gatun Locks on the Caribbean. We got there in less than an hour by bus in time to see the Coral Princess leave the lock and to stand almost within handshake distance of the crew of a container ship.
Every day up to 100 vessels queue up at either end of the canal waiting for their turn, which for a large vessel can mean a loss of more than US $50,000 – and that’s just the cost of waiting. The average fee for a one-way transit is US $30,000 with the largest fee ever paid a whopping $200,000 by a French cruise liner. At the other end of the scale, Richard Halliburton paid just .36 cents US for the privilege of swimming its crocodile-infested waters.
Although the canal currently handles only about 5 per cent of the world’s sea trade (about 14,000 ships pass through each year) it is still a vital link between the oceans, especially for companies wanting to avoid the 13,000km alternative route around notorious Cape Horn. Since its inception many vessels were actually built especially to be able to use the canal and are known as Panamax vessels.
However, increasingly more and more ships have had to be turned away from the canal because they are simply too big. So Panama, which took back ownership and control of the canal and the former Canal Zone from the US in 1991, has undertaken an audacious expansion plan.
The US $5.25 billion project was first projected to be finished in 2015, and involves building a new set of locks at each of the existing lock locations. These will be 60 per cent longer and 40 per cent wider than the present locks (which will continue to operate). They will also be capable of recycling about 60 per cent of the fresh water used in each lock operation by means of a series of reservoirs constructed alongside the lock chamber.
The evidence of this work is clear to see. There are construction sites on a gargantuan scale at each lock, massive excavations to widen the Culebra Cut and huge gashes through the countryside. Panama is confident that they will be able to repay the enormous loans it has borrowed from a variety sources. As they make about US $800 million per annum in profit from the canal, this doesn’t seem unrealistic, especially as the project will double the canal’s original capacity.
They might not have it all their way, however. Neighbouring Nicaragua is also considering a canal. It would have to be much longer but would be purpose-built from the start for the largest ships on the high seas.
But for now the future’s looking bright for Panama and in years to come, the spectacle I saw of dozens of ships at anchor in the Pacific waiting in one of the world’s biggest marine traffic jams might be a thing of the past.
Frances has been a tour leader with Tours Direct for over 10 years. Her primary specialty is guiding tours through Spanish speaking parts of the world, including destinations such as Cuba, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, and Spain.