Panama Canal

Don’t think you’re going to read this article about the Panama Canal and not have to go and see it.  Many consider it the 8th wonder of the world.  Consider this your primer if you do go, so you won’t have to listen so hard or that you’ll have notes or a website share for your friends.  Or just read about the Panama Canal because you’re interested in these things.

Having been in or around the maritime business most of my life, I couldn’t make a trip to Panama without seeing the Panama Canal.  I was afraid the tours would be full, but February is off-season, and there were only 100 of the possible 300 on our tour.  I would still book ahead.  The Hilton Panama, where I stayed, was able to get me on the next day’s bus to Gamboa with a boat returning along the canal.  Hotel transfers, all transportation, snacks, nonalcoholic drinks AND a buffet lunch were all included for $150. I recommend tips.

I was worried Juan Carlos, our tour guide, wouldn’t be that good when he spent the whole time talking to the bus driver on the hour or so drive north, but that was certainly not the case.  That was his down time prior to setting up to guide us down the Panama Canal with history, culture, and lots of other fun facts about the amazing Panama Canal.  (And there I was on the bus, working desperately to immerse myself in the Spanish language – no better way than to be there and dive in – when I ended up sitting next to a lady from Paris and spoke French with her the entire way to Gamboa.  MAN did that mess me up – yes – si – oui was just the start of my confusion, and it stayed with me the rest of the day maybe more!!

The Panamanian government did a really good thing when they took over the Panama Canal.  They hired a separate operator to divest the government of the potential corruption and paybacks when managing it themselves.  An arm’s distance from the operation has worked well for them, but it’s not all doom and gloom for them.  The Panama Canal earns approximately $3.2B annually (US$ are the currency of Panama), and half of the proceeds go to the Panamanian government, making Panama one of the strongest economies in Central and South America.  There are other huge advantages for Panama – cost of goods, availability of goods, international lifestyle, low taxes.well-supported services. Panama is a darn nice place to live.

There are 3 criteria for a ship to pass through the Panama Canal –

1 – cash – $155k on average on hand prior to 48 hours of sailing, the larger the vessel, the larger the deposit

2 – a guarantee that the ship won’t break down (gets kinda messy with hundreds of ships trying to pass through on one causing a backup costing millions)

3 – a pilot is required.  This is the only place in the world that even military ships must relinquish control of their ships to a registered Panama Canal pilot.  (The pilots don’t have the same nepotism found in other countries.  These guys/gals earn their job, but they work 2/3 time, and they are paid around $250K a year or more.  Taxes in Panama are 15% across the board.  Nice!!)

It’s a 55-mile channel.  And those of you who live near locks know this but I didn’t.  Sea level is sea level – period!!  0 = 0.  The reason for locks is that something gets in the way.  In Seattle, it’s Lake Washington, west to Lake Union, west to the Pacific.  In the Panama Canal, it’s the Caribbean/Atlantic to Gutan Lake that causes an 85-foot disparity between one side and the other.  The pattern is ‘in-up-through-down-out’.  The Panama Canal only works with fresh water, although you’ll see brackish water on both sides, evidenced by sea birds, like the frigates – fascinating birds.  AND, this is really confusing, but Panama runs east and west, so therefore, the Panama Canal runs north and south.  Go figure – this on hurt my brain while I was riding the Canal.

There are three sets of locks – a big one on the north side, two smaller ones right next to each other before entering the Pacific.  Right next to these double Pacific locks I’ll call them, is the new mega lock built for the biggest ships in the world.  The expansion was estimated at $3.4B, ended up twice as much, opened only recently, and as you can see by the revenues, at its ultimate cost of $7B, it will be paid for in a little over 2 years!  The new lock is not without its issues though.  Although our tour guide chose not to discuss it, the new locks do not have the rail guides that exist in the other locks.  Pilots drive the ships through with tugs fore and aft.  Without the rails, surges can come with the filling of the locks, and damage has occurred to both the ships and the sides of the locks themselves.

The design of the Panama Canal was made in the 1850s by the man who designed the Suez Canal.  At the time, Panama was still a part of Columbia.  In 1890, more than 33,000 people died of malaria from the alarming number of mosquitoes.  There was also a civil war in Columbia at the time.  When Panama unsuccessfully asked to separate from Columbia, Panama then turned to the US giving the US the rights to build the canal if they succeeded in the separation.  And that they did on 11/3/1903.

During construction, the most complex area was the Culebra expansion.  674 metric cubic feet had to be cleared.  That’s the equivalent of 4 loops of railroad cars lined up around the world!!!  AND, five times that amount has been dredged since then.  The Panama Canal has a constant struggle of removing dirt and silt.  It was pretty darn brown when we went through.  And, supposedly there were more explosives used to blast the canal than both world wars, but I do believe that needs a fact check.

The Continental Divide runs from the Canadian Rockies through the Andes in South America.  The Panama Canal is the ONLY place to sail across from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and the only place where the continents are physically divided.  There are 2 bridges across Panama north to south – one built in 1962 and the second built in 2003 to celebrate independence from Columbia.

The cost of the crossing can be astronomical, so you can imagine almost all of the ships are full for the passing.  I didn’t write this down but recall the alternative being at least another 14,500 miles.  Mr. Haliburton is the cheapest known crossing in 1928 when he chose to swim the canal from end to end.  His price – $3600, but he was still required the entourage of accompanying boats and adherence to all passage rules.  The Empress MV cost $828K in November 2016.  Cruise ships are charged $125 per occupied bed and $100 for unoccupied.  Tour boats cost $4500 and are subject to long waits in favor of the big money-making vessels.  Our our was almost 2 hours longer because of this. The new locks can cost up to $1.5M. 

Since there’s no longer any hunting in Panama, you wouldn’t want to swim the canal these days.  It is teaming with crocodiles ranging in age from 16 to 80 years old and 10-18 feet in length.  They’re not picky – salt or fresh water works for them.

As for the nuts and bolts, so to speak, ships/vessels move all the way up front and tie up.  They often tie up to each other.  Since we were in a steel vessel and an aluminum one was next to use, we tied alongside the locks and them next to use.  The bottom chamber has 104+ holes in a field.  They are 18’ wide in a culvert.  Gate to gate the locks are 1000’ long.  (The new lock is 1800’ long by 180’ wide and 60’ deep.)  1/8 less concrete was used to build the Panama Canal vs. the Hoover Dam (1936), but no rebar was used in the Panama Canal.  There are 5 vales at each lock.  It takes them 8 minutes to displace 31’ of water!!!!  That’s 26 million gallons of fresh water.  In comparison, it takes 5-8 days to fill an Olympic size pool!  The 88 pairs of steel gates used are the equivalent of stacking 29 Eiffel Towers on end!  Absolutely mind blowing!!

If you’re ever in or near Panama, the Panama Canal is a must visit, and make sure your visit includes the ride on the Canal itself.  Also check out my other blogs on things to eat and do in Panama.  A very worthwhile and reasonable trip!!




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