Panama Canal


The 82-kilometer Panama Canal cuts through the Isthmus of Panama and connects the Atlantic Ocean, more precisely the Caribbean Sea, with the Pacific Ocean. Since 1995 the ASCE, the American Society of Civil Egineers, counts the Panama Canal next to the Empire State Building in New York or the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to the seven architectural wonders of the world.

Port facilities near Panama City

Port facilities near Panama City


The Panama Canal - a challenge

The circumnavigation of Cape Horn or driving through the Strait of Magellan as dangerous and time-consuming. Therefore, in 1527, thought was given to a canal at the narrowest point in Central America. However, the bold idea was discarded due to the lack of prospects of success. After the construction and inauguration of the Suez Canal in the late autumn of 1869 the idea of ​​a canal cutting through the Central American land bridge came back to the table.

Lush flora in the canal zone

Lush flora in the canal zone


A first unsuccessful attempt

A French consortium was awarded the concession to build the Panama Canal in 1878. The plans were to build a canal without locks. Work began in 1881. Eight years later, the project was canceled due to insurmountable financial and technical problems. The unsuccessful attempt killed 22.000 workers. They died of yellow fever and malaria.

The culebra cut - a major problem in canal construction

The culebra cut - a major problem in canal construction


With a new concept to success

In 1902 the United States of America made a second attempt, driven by strategic considerations. The work lasted from 1904 to 1914. The improved concept included locks. The ships coming from the Atlantic will first be raised by 26 meters to the level of the Gatun reservoir; then they are lowered back to the level of the Pacific Ocean. The planning required the construction of three lock systems. On August 15.08.1914, 5.600 the work was completed; the package boat “Ancon” was the first ship to cross the Panama Canal. The second attempt again cost thousands of lives. It is said that more than XNUMX workers died from accidents and illness during the construction phase.

Islands in Lake Gatun

Islands in Lake Gatun


 

 

The expansion of the canal

Between 2007 and 2016, the canal was adapted to the increased ship sizes. Originally, ships with a maximum length of 294 meters and a width of 32,30 meters ("Panamax ships") were permitted. After the expansion, “Postpanamax ships” of up to 366 meters in length, 49,10 meters in width and 15,20 meters in draft will travel the canal. For container ships this means: Before the expansion, a maximum of 4.500 standard containers were permitted, and after the expansion a maximum of 14.000 containers are permitted.

Miraflores Lake with a cargo ship, behind it a container ship in the new canal

Miraflores Lake with a cargo ship, behind it a container ship in the new canal


The size of the ship decides whether the old or the new lock chambers are used.

The importance of the Panama Canal for shipping and world trade

The Panama Canal was built to reduce travel time between the east and west coasts of the United States. The canal shortens the sea route between the two oceans. Before the canal was built, ships en route from New York to San Francisco rounded Cape Horn or sailed the Strait of Magellan. This corresponds to a distance of around 25.000 kilometers. The Panama Canal reduces the distance by 15.000 to 10.000 kilometers. On top of that, the Panama Canal is of great value for freight traffic between Asia and the United States.

Miraflores Lock and Miraflores Lake

Miraflores Lock and Miraflores Lake


Facts and figures about the Panama Canal

Almost 14.000 ships pass through the canal every year. The amount of goods transported through the canal corresponds to six percent of world trade or 300 million tons. Two thirds of all goods that are loaded or unloaded in US ports pass through the canal.

The transit time between the northern access at Colón (Atlantic) and the southern access at Balboa / Panama City (Pacific) takes between ten to twelve hours.

Panama City docks
Gatun lock in front of the canal exit at Cólon

 

The chambers of the “old” locks are a maximum of 328 meters long and 33,50 meters wide. The “new” lock chambers measure 427 meters in length and 55 meters in width. Its depth is 18,30 meters. Gigantic sliding doors close the new chambers. They are 57 meters long, 10 meters wide and between 22 and 33 meters high. The gates, which weigh 4.000 tons, open and close within five minutes.

Gatun lock

Gatun lock


The lock chambers are fed with fresh water from the dammed Gatunsee. Since the canal was expanded, a considerable amount of water has been saved by means of several collecting basins. In the old lock systems, towing locomotives, so-called mules, pull the ships through the locks, and they stabilize the position of the ships in the lock chambers. Tugs take over the work in the new locks. A pilot is required to navigate the canal. As of May 2012, the Canal Authority employed a total of 212 pilots.

One of more than 100 mules

One of more than 100 mules


Bridges spanning the Panama Canal

Three impressive bridges cross the Panama Canal. They are from west to east

  • Punte de las Américas - the 1962 meter long steel bridge near Balboa has been part of the famous “Panamericana” since 1.654.
  • Puente Centenario - the 1.052 meter cable-stayed bridge near Panama City was inaugurated in 2004.
  • Puente del Atlántico - the 2.820 meter long cable-stayed bridge is located near Colón. It was completed in August 2019.
Puente de las Americas
Centennial Bridge
Bow area of ​​the MS Rotterdam and Centennial Bridge
Puente del Atlantico

 

Panama Canal - Economic Benefit

The USA remained masters of the canal and the 31.12.1999 kilometers wide canal zone until December 16, 2000. The Panamanian Canal Authority ACP has been managing the Panama Canal since XNUMX. With eight percent of Panama's gross domestic product, it makes a significant contribution to Panama's economy.

Since it was commissioned in 1914, more than a million ships have passed the waterway. The canal company Autoridad del Canal de Panamá (ACP) employs 9.000 people. Before the completion of the expansion in 2015, the income from the passage fees amounted to approximately two billion US dollars. Hapag-Lloyd puts the passage costs for a container ship with 10.000 standard containers at around 800.000 US dollars.

Container freighter drives in the new canal

Container freighter drives in the new canal


Passengers on passenger ships - differentiated according to old or new locks - are calculated at 138 or 148 US dollars per person (as of April 1, 2016). For a ship the size of the MS Rotterdam make the total cost of transit $ 230.000.

MS Rotterdam

MS Rotterdam


Panama Canal for crusaders and onlookers

The passage of the Panama Canal by cruise ship is one of the highlights of a sea voyage. The huge lock systems, the bridges crossing the canal, the lush flora of the canal zone and the huge Gatunsee overwhelm the ship travelers. - In order to see the canal, however, it is not necessary to pass the ship. At the Gatún and Miraflores locks, two “Visitor Centers” await interested visitors.

Miraflores Lock Visitor Center
Gatun Lock Visitor Center

 

If you like, you can go on boat tours on sections of the canal. These trips include two locks. 

Update February 2020

 

 

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