After leaving Antigua, we continued heading south in the Pacific Ocean and reached the entrance of the Panama Canal at dawn on the 15th. We are Canal virgins, and I hardly slept a wink the night before in anticipation of this grand event! Queen Victoria had an appointment which was made 2 years ago. Without one, the wait can be up to 10 days. If a ship misses its appointment, they get thrown to the back of the queue. We smugly passed 41 ships at anchor and headed to the front of the line.
The Panama Canal is an artificial 48-mile waterway that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The canal cuts across the narrowest part of Panama and there are a series of locks at each end. From the Pacific side, 3 separate locks lift ships up to the height of Gatun Lake, a manmade body of water created by damming up the Charges River. The lake is 85 feet above sea level and covers 185 square miles. On the Atlantic side of the lake, 3 more locks drop the ships back down to sea level.
The canal was completed in 1914 after 34 grueling years. The French made the first attempt starting in 1881, but went bankrupt in 1889 after spending $287 million US Dollars (multiple billions in today’s money) and only finished 40%. During that 9 year period, 22,000 men lost their lives. That’s 47 men a week! The men were totally unprepared for the rainy season, when the Chagres River, where the canal started, became a raging torrent, rising up to 35 feet. The dense jungle was loaded with venomous snakes, insects and spiders, but the biggest killers were yellow fever and malaria. Public health measures didn’t exist because the role of the mosquito as a disease transmitter was then unknown. The appalling conditions were downplayed in France to avoid recruitment problems, but the high mortality rate made it difficult to maintain an experienced workforce. The bankruptcy wiped out the savings of over 800,000 investors.
After 5 years of negotiations, the Americans took over construction of the canal in 1904. They completed it in 1914, and loss of life was under 6,000 men. By 1905, the mosquito equals disease connection was figured out, and safeguards were taken to keep the workers safer. Screens were put in the windows of the bunk houses. Stagnant water puddles in the camps was filled in with dirt to stop insects from laying eggs. And, chewing the bark of the Chincona tree that contains quinine, helped kill malarial parasites in red blood cells and alleviates fever. Most of the “2nd Phase” deaths occurred due to accidents with dynamite. 800 million tons of TNT were used during the construction process to blow out solid rock, and the timers didn’t always work correctly. You get the picture…
The United States spent $375 million to complete the job.
So why was the Panama Canal built in the first place? I’ll use a “no brainer” example. Before the Canal, a ship traveling to the west coast of the United States from Europe had to sail to the bottom of South America, past Argentina, “round the Horn”, come back up the other side, pass Chile, and continue up the coast. Cape Horn, where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet, is well established as a treacherous stretch of water. After the Panama Canal opened, it knocked off an average of 8,000 miles and 3 weeks of travel time. That’s huge. And, think of the fuel savings on top of that. To date, over one million ships have made the transit!
We went through the original locks, which allows ships with a maximum width of 106.9 feet. Queen Victoria is 106.0 feet wide. That’s cutting it a bit close. In 2006 it was anticipated that by 2011, 37% of the world’s container ships would be too large for the present Canal, and a failure to expand would result in a significant loss of market share. So, after a 9 year construction job costing over $10 billion US Dollars, the “mega locks” were completed in June 2016. Now, every ship in the world can transit here. Here are the 3 new locks on the Pacific Side, with a mega container ship in each one. It was quite a sight.
Ready for this? It cost Queen Victoria $497,000 US Dollars to transit the Canal, in one direction. Payment for all ships is in cash only, at least 48 hours prior to transit, no exceptions. The cost for the “mega ships” to use the new locks can be over $900,000 US Dollars. Mind blowing! But… even more amazing, is that the Canal is still cheaper then the cost and time involved in “rounding the horn”, even at that price.
It took us close to 10 hours to make the complete transit. When we arrived at the first set of locks, the ship was guided in by tug boats. Then, we were hooked up to 8 locomotive “guides”, 4 on each side, connected to the ship by steel cables. They pulled us through to make sure we didn’t scrape the walls and ruin our paint job.
The first two locks on the Atlantic side raised us up by 27 feet each. The third lock was 31 feet. There were hundreds of people watching the ships from Visitor’s Center, which announces all the ships as they move through. By the end, we were 85 feet above sea level, the same elevation as Gatun Lake.
There were two oil tankers following us, here they are.
Next, we cruised under the Centennial Bridge.
Between the locks on the Atlantic side and Lake Gatun, there is a narrow section called the Galliard Cut. During construction, the men had to chop through a mountain here. It was the toughest part of the construction process, because the steep walls kept caving in, creating deadly landslides. It is quite narrow and only allows for one way traffic. Once we hit the lake, other vessels passed by us, coming from the Atlantic.
Dredging is constant in the Canal. Over 200 inches of rain falls here each year, so tons of silt pours into the waterways. The side walls collapse frequently due to erosion from flash floods.
After passing through the lake, we reached the second set of 3 locks that would lower us back down to the level of the Atlantic Ocean. Here are the ships ahead of us in the locks. A car carrier is in our lane. A container ship and Norwegian cruise ship is in the other one.
After we exited, I looked back to see one of the oil tankers who had been following us. Check out the two small boats in front of this massive ship. Pleasure crafts are always squeezed in with the big guys, when there is room.
Steve had the binoculars trained on the jungle, and managed to spot this strange looking critter on the water’s edge. We later discovered that it is the largest rodent in the world, called a Capybara. They are closely related to the guinea pig and are not a threatened species. Adults males can reach 4.5 feet in length and weighs close to 200 pounds. It is a favorite food for large jungle cats and the abundant alligators that live here. It is also hunted by humans for its meat and hide. The grease from its thick fatty skin is used in cosmetics. Ladies, you may have some Capybara in your facial cream.
As we emerged into the Atlantic Ocean, which we hadn’t seen in over two months, the sun was setting over the field of ships waiting to reach the Pacific Ocean. This was a extraordinary day. I hope you enjoyed the transit as much as we did.
Next stop, Aruba.