A marvellous feat of engineering (and one very happy engineer husband)

Surely no trip to Panama City could be complete without a trip to view the Panama Canal.  Although I perhaps wasn’t as excited about seeing it as my husband was, in fact a trip to the visitors’ centre at the Miraflores locks made for a very interesting couple of hours.

Although 36 boats pass through the Canal every day (which is open 24 hours a day), while we were there we only saw 3 vessels.  When we arrived, we caught sight of a cruise boat which had just cleared the Miraflores locks on its journey towards the Atlantic Ocean and in the distance, we could also see a much larger vessel (huge… really huge) passing through the (relatively) newly opened expanded canal which was a bit further away from the viewing centre.  However, we were able to watch the progress of one tanker through the Miraflores Locks from start to finish which was quite a majestic experience.  All these boats were all going in the same direction – from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean.  We were told that a few hours later that afternoon, boats would be coming through the other way. 

In she comes into the first water chamber and the gates are shut behind her.  Check out the guiding locomotives (which look tiny)

While going through the locks, the ship is guided by small locomotives which run along tracks along the sides of the canal.  On first blush, it looks as though these little engines are pulling the vast ships along but that’s not actually the case (they would have to be extremely powerful to do that given their comparative sizes).  These ships are literally enormous (and the ones on the expanded canals even bigger) – even the tug boats used here are pretty sizeable when you look at them in isolation but when they are up next to the larger vessels, they just look like children’s toys! 

First water chamber filled with water so the gates to the second chamber are opened and on she passes….

All ships have to book their slot in advance and pay a pretty hefty toll to use the Canal and this has to be paid at least 48 hours’ in advance.  Interestingly, no credit cards are accepted, only cash.  Images of used dollar bills in huge money laundering suitcases immediately sprung into my mind but presumably there is some way to wire funds by bank transfer.  Apparently domestic boats are allowed to use credit cards to pay – an interesting fact perhaps but one I doubt I will have reason to need. 

And for those that are interested, here are some more quick facts: the Panama Canal is just over 80 kilometres long and was completed in 1914 (so it has recently celebrated its 100th birthday).  Ships using the Canal save 8 days and thousands of miles of travel round the hazardous Cape Horn (the southernmost tip of the Americas) by going through the Canal which takes about 10 hours (although there can be quite a bit of waiting around time for ships before they are allowed to start their transit through the Canal).  When passing through the Canal, the captain of the ship grants control of the ship to a Panama Canal pilot who has been specially trained to transit vessels through the Canal. 

Finally she is off into Gatun Lake on her way to the Atlantic Ocean.  The tug boat follows her into the lock chambers and then awaits other vessels coming through the other way later that afternoon

As they go along the Canal, ships have to pass through 2 sets of locks that raise them from sea level to 26 metres above and then, after crossing the Continental Divide, lower them back down again to sea level.  In the initial unsuccessful attempts to build the Canal (which were started by the French in 1881), the plan was to build a sea level canal (like the Suez Canal) but that project proved to be unrealistic and failed.   

The size of the lock chambers determines the maximum size of ships that can pass through.  Because the Panama Canal is so important to international trade, the size of these locks therefore usually determines the maximum size of ships worldwide.  The original lock chambers are 33½m wide and almost 305m long.   The new locks are 25% larger allowing bigger ships to transit through deeper and wider channels and again these locks have now set the new maximum size of worldwide ship dimensions. 

It takes 100 million litres of water to fill each of the various chambers in the locks but this is actually done pretty rapidly.  In fact, we were told that it would be quicker to fill one of the lock chambers than it would be to run a bath in your house! 

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This is actually a photo of an aerial photo. On the far right are the Miraflores locks where we were watching the ship pass through; the left of the photo shows the newly expanded canal with its large water saving basins (the water for the locks is recycled)

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