Panama Canal

July 15th, 2014
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Awesome then… amazing now

The Panama Canal, after a century in operation, is still one of the engineering wonders of the world – the “Mars probe” of the Wright Brothers’ days.

Even by today’s standards it is awesome to see a container ship gliding through massive locks and past a rain forest. Put the Canal in the context of turn-of-the-19th century technology and the feat of its construction is staggering.

New Canal locks

Above: New locks under construction on the Atlantic side.
Below: Construction of the Mirafores Locks, 1913.

But you cannot help noticing that the container and cruise ships squeeze through the locks nowadays with only inches to spare on either side. These are known as Panamax ships built to the maximum beam and draft which the Canal can handle.

Many ships are too big for the Canal. These ships known as Post Panamax, comprise only a small percentage of the world’s feet but the future promises even more and bigger ships, the cargoes of which, if they cannot transit the Canal, will seek other routes including the “dry canals” across other countries of the continent.

The Panama Canal Administration is building an extra set of wider and deeper locks. The expansion is a project of global importance, designed to maintain the waterway’s competitiveness and enhance the value of the Panama route.

The excavation work and construction of the new locks is nearing completion.

ACP  Administration Building lobby

Above: Mural depicting the original Canal construction in the rotunda of the ACP
Administration Building lobby.
Inset: Visitors admiring the murals.

History of the Canal

The possibilities of a waterway linking the Atlantic and the Pacifc in this region had been well appreciated for four centuries before anyone started to dig. Spain’s King Carlos V ordered a survey of the canal route in 1524 but it was presumably decided that cutlasses would not be adequate for the job.

frst ship to transit the Canal

SS “Ancon”, the frst ship to transit the Canal in 1914.

The French started a canal in 1880 under de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal, but after 20 years of struggle with the jungle, disease, fnancial problems and the sheer enormity of the project, they were forced to give up.

In 1903 Panama seceded from Colombia and the U.S.A. signed a treaty in which the concession for a public maritime transportation service across the Isthmus was granted. The following year, the U.S.A. purchased the French Canal Company’s properties for $40 million and began to dig. On August 15th, 1914, the U.S. cargo ship Ancon made the frst transit.

The story of this gigantic task is best told in the book, “The Path Between the Seas”, by David McCullough. The story is also told dramatically in the murals on the rotunda of the Administration Building at Balboa Heights.

The Canal entered yet another phase of its history on Oct. 1st. 1979 when the process of handing the Canal to the Republic of Panama began, under treaties signed by Panama’s former head of Government, the late Brig. Gen Omar Torrijos Herrera, and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

The Canal and all of its infrastructure in the former Canal Zone was finally under Panama’s control as the 21st century dawned.

Shaping the fate of our country

This interoceanic waterway has also shaped the fate of a country that, due to its geographical position, has become an important link in the world supply chain with the Canal shortening distance and the isthmus serving as a merchandise distribution hub for several countries in the region.

Shaping the fate of our country

On October 22, 2006, the ACP (with the support of the Electoral Tribunal) held a referendum for Panamanian citizens to vote on the Panama Canal expansion project. The expansion was approved by a wide margin, with support from about 78% of the electorate. It is estimated that the project will be completed by December 2015 and will cost $5.3 billion; this sum is expected to be recovered within 11 years.

To see the Canal at work, every year handling more than 13,056 bluewater ships, under the fags of about 70 nations -go to the spectator stands at Mirafores or Gatun locks. Bilingual commentators there are brimful of information and statistics.

The Canal is about 50 miles long and ships are lifted 85 feet in three lockages as they cross the Isthmus. The journey through the Canal takes about eight hours and a ship is normally in Canal waters between 14 and 16 hours.

Benefts of the expanded Canal

Architectural rendering of the new set of locks

Architectural rendering of the new set of locks on the Pacific side.

The expansion of the Canal will double its capacity with two sets of locks, one on the Pacifc side and the other on the Atlantic entrance of the waterway. The locks will move ships through three chambers at different levels.

The new locks will be connected to the existing Canal through new navigational systems.

The new lock chambers will be 1,400 ft (426.72 m) long, 180 ft (54.86 m) wide, and 60 ft (18.29 m) deep.

They will use rolling gates instead of miter gates, which are used by the existing locks. The new locks will use tugboats to position the vessels instead of locomotives.

Currently an average of 14,000 ships uses the Canal. The new locks will allow the transit of between 12 to 14 ships daily, which will represent more than 18,000 transits per year.

Canal as a trade route

The Panama Canal because of its privileged position at the narrowest point between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans provides a short, relatively inexpensive passageway between these two great bodies of water.

Most of the traffic through the Canal moves between the east coast of the United States and the Far East, while movements between Europe and the west coast of the United States and Canada comprise the second major

trade route of the waterway. Other regions and countries, however, such as the neighboring countries of Central and South America, are also dependent on this vital artery to promote their economic development and expand trade.

Despite the increase in the number and size of transiting vessels in recent years, the total average time spent by a vessel at the Panama Canal still remains at slightly less than 24 hours, depending on volume of traffc. Of the thousands of vessels transiting the Canal each year, about 30 percent of the total oceangoing transits are by Panamax- size vessels, the largest vessels the waterway can accommodate.

Panama Canal – benefiting world commerce

Panama Canal – benefiting world commerce

The average toll for ships using the canal is about $100,000 but many save about ten times this fgure by eliminating the journey round the Horn. Record tolls: the cruise ship “Westerland of the Sea” which transited for $419,000 and Richard Halliburton, who swam the Canal in 1926 and was charged 36 cents after his displacement tonnage was calculated.

An optional transit reservation system is available upon request to provide a guaranteed priority transit.

The Panama Canal expansion impact will be felt in several market segments. Grain, the second most important commodity after containers to go through the waterway, will beneft, as the expansion will facilitate the fow of grains originating in the Midwest of the US. Annually, around 40 million metric tons of grains – particularly soybeans, corn and sorghum – move in barges through the Mississippi River system to ports on the Gulf Coast where they are loaded into dry bulkers that reach Asian markets via the Panama Canal.

The expanded canal will allow for the transportation of grains in vessels of around 100,000 deadweight tonnage, generating economies of scale in shipping. Additionally, the ACP is currently assessing the potential of soybean movements originating from northern Brazil to Asia.

Other South American commodities that could be shipped in larger volumes through the expanded canal are coal and iron ore originating from Colombia and Venezuela, with destinations in Asia.

In particular, coal exports from Colombia are expected to increase by more than 200 million tons in the next ten years. Colombian coal shipments to China could transit the canal in vessels of 175,000 deadweight tons, and be cheaper than coal from other production sources.

Iron ore shipments from Venezuela and Northern Brazil, could also be more attractive to the growing Asian market.

The liquifed natural gas (LNG) industry is also interested in deploying this cargo through the expanded canal.

LNG is a completely new trade for the ACP, as the existing locks cannot accommodate this type of specialized vessel.

Take a tour

Tour companies, or hop-on, hop-off buses will take you to Mirafores Locks to watch huge ships being raised or lowered 54 feet to the next stage of their journey, Pacifc or Atlantic bound.

There is a magnifcent Visitors Center and Canal Museum here which has been recently remodeled. Bilingual commentators will give you a running commentary. Make sure to see the Administration Building. For information as to when there will be ships in the locks each day call the Orientation Service at Mirafores, 276-8617.

A partial transit offers a first-hand view of the Canal in operation.

For visitors who prefer a more relaxed approach to sightseeing there is the Mirafores restaurant in the Visitors Center which offers a spectacular view of the transiting ships as you dine. A film of the Canal’s operations is shown in the theater of the Visitors Center.

The Gatún Locks on the Atlantic side of the Canal also have comfortable viewing and bilingual commentators. Opening hours: Monday – Sunday (holidays included) from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information call (507) 276-8325 or email cvm@pancanal.com

A new observation center for viewing work on the Canal expansion is located close to Gatun locks. It also has an ecological trail, where visitors can discover Panama’s tropical wildlife. Amenities include a restaurant, a snack bar, a children’s playground and a gift shop.

The most exciting way to experience the Canal is to take a partial transit that offers a frst-hand view of the Canal in operation. Call Canal & Bay Tours 209-2010.

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