Panamá Canal

Gatun Locks, Panamá Canal

It is always exciting to sail through the Panamá Canal.  As you can see from the photo above, we entered the Gatun Locks very early in the morning.  As you may know, there are three sets of locks in the canal.  When a ship enters the canal, the first three locks raise the ship 75 feet above sea level.  At the other end of the canal there are three locks that return ships to sea level.  The Gatun Locks are all together on the Caribbean end of the canal.  Toward the Pacific side there is a single lock at San Miguel, and at Miraflores, nearest to the Pacific Ocean, there is a double set of locks.

While we were in Gatun Lake, where ships wait for their turn to pass through the remainder of the canal, the captain took us on a little side trip so we could see the northern end of the new canal construction that is designed for the mega ships that are being built these days.

New Construction, Gatun Area

As you can see from the above photo, contraction is progressing nicely, but the new portions of the canal will not be completed in 2014 as planned.  Originally the plan was to open the new part as part of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the canal’s opening.  Multiple delays regarding disagreements about  concrete quality, cost overruns, and a 2-week labor strike over wages have pushed the completion date back to December of 2015, with a strong likelihood that it will be pushed back even further.

The new portion of the canal will work differently from the original one.  For one thing, the way the locks operate they will lose only 10 million gallons of water at the end locks rather than the current 50 million gallons per ship passing through.  The other difference is that the mules, the locomotives that apply tension to lines between them and the ships, to keep the ships centered in the canal, will be replaced by tug boats.  At the time of our passage through the canal the Canal Authority had recently purchased 10 tug boats at a cost of $40 million.  We’re not quite sure how the tug boats will work out, since in the currently locks ships have only one to two feet on each side, but we are certain that the Canal Authority has it figured out.

Even though this was our third trip through the Panamá Canal, it was as awe-inspiring this time as it has been the previous times.  It is hard not to think about all the work that went into building the original canal and all the lives that were lost in the process.  We would again recommend to anyone who is planning a trip through the Panamá Canal to read David McCullough’s book, The Path Between The Seas.  It will make a difference in your experience of the canal.

Miraflores Locks

New Locks at Miraflores

© Susan L. Stone 2015