Ok, THIS is a "wow." The vision to harness water gravity, apply the laws of buoyancy, and then the engineering to execute this man-made canal is indeed amazing.
There is no point in my rewriting the history – so, for those of you interested, here is the Wikipedia short version.
A Brief History
The Panamá Canal (Spanish: Canal de Panamá) is a 48-mile (77 km) ship canal in Panama that connects the Atlantic Ocean (via the Caribbean Sea) to the Pacific Ocean. The canal cuts across the Isthmus of Panama and is a key conduit for international maritime trade. There are locks at each end to lift ships up to Gatun Lake, an artificial lake created to reduce the amount of excavation work required for the canal, 26 metres (85 ft) above sea level. The current locks are 33.5 metres (110 ft) wide. A third, wider lane of locks is currently under construction and is due to open in 2016.
France began work on the canal in 1881, but had to stop because of engineering problems and high mortality (20,000 +) due to lack of understanding of the infrastructure needed to move that much dirt to avoid landslides, and especially due to disease (malaria and yellow fever). The United States took over the project in 1904, and took a decade to complete the canal, which was officially opened on August 15, 1914.
One of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken, the Panama Canal shortcut greatly reduced the time for ships to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, enabling them to avoid the lengthy, hazardous Cape Horn route around the southernmost tip of South America via the Drake Passage or Strait of Magellan. The shorter, faster, and safer route to the U.S. West Coast and to nations in and around the Pacific Ocean allowed those places to become more integrated with the world economy.
During construction, ownership of the territory that the Panama Canal now passes through was first Colombian, then French, and then American. The US continued to control the canal and surrounding Panama Canal Zone until the 1977 Torrijos–Carter Treaties provided for handover to Panama. After a period of joint American–Panamanian control, the canal was taken over by the Panamanian government in 1999, and is now managed and operated by the Panama Canal Authority, a Panamanian government agency.
Annual traffic has risen from about 1,000 ships in 1914, when the canal opened, to 14,702 vessels in 2008, the latter measuring a total of 309.6 million Panama Canal/Universal Measurement System (PC/UMS) tons. By 2008, more than 815,000 vessels had passed through the canal; the largest ships that can transit the canal today are called Panamax. It takes 6 to 8 hours to pass through the Panama Canal. The American Society of Civil Engineers has named the Panama Canal one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
A brief note about how the water thing works:
The Canal is built up higher than the oceans on either side (85ft above sea level) because the oceans on either side of Panama have an eight-inch difference in sea level. This means that in order to cross from one side to the next, a ship must be elevated up to the maximum height of the canal on one side, and then lowered back down to sea level on the other side. The Canal itself consists of fresh water that is fed from Lake Gatun (164 sq miles - at the time it was built, the largest man-made lake in the world), which is also situated in an area that receives massive amounts of rain. The rainwater helps maintain the lake’s freshwater levels, even though the Canal is flanked by salt water on either side (the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans).
The freshwater of the Canal is used in excessive volumes to elevate the ships that are going through the locks (laws of buoyancy). Each lock consists of one to three chambers with large concrete doors that are 7 feet thick. Once the large double set of doors are closed, the chamber will fill up (or empty) in order to raise (or lower) vessels to the Canal level (or the Ocean level).
Now that we have the history and details behind us, here's how you go through the locks and it works exactly the same today as when the first ships went through in 1914. Why?, we asked. Answer – It Works.
Here's what it looks like in pictures.
We went through the Miraflores locks at night (Pacific to Gatun Lake), then through the Gatun locks the next afternoon (empty into the Atlantic) and off we went to Colon/Panama.
First things first. You wait. You and lots of other boats small, big, and gigantic all wait. You wait for hours - yep, right through sunset, for your turn.
Nice sunset though.
Then finally - a tug boat brings the Canal Pilot to the ship. He will take command until we are through the locks.
He will wait for instructions to move ahead to the locks land, and follow the arrow.
Line Handlers have boarded, and drop a rope to the row boat guys.
Row boat guys take that rope and tie it to the cable from the mule train.
Here's the lasso toss of the other rope - which is already tied to that mule train.
Line Handlers have this perfect team cadence for pulling the ropes taut so the boat is basically centered between the ropes, then held in that position by connection to the mule trains.
(Even this looks more exciting at night).
Here's the mule train guiding us along. You can see the water mark here and the measurements. Yep, we're going to just sit here until the lock fills all the way.
Water fills up.
Look at the size of the ship we shared the Miraflores locks with. You can see a mule train on either side of that big boy, keeping it centered and guiding it through the lock.
Or water empties to takes you down (roughly the same amount of time to happen for the water-filling process; lots of drinking and snacking happens while going through the Panama Canal).
Here we are, going through the Gatun locks headed down to the Atlantic side. The big boat is done. Once those doors open, we are heading into the lock right there in front of us.
Those doors are 7 feet thick concrete. You can get a better feel for how massive they are from this night shot when the doors were behind us.
Here's the ship that was behind us in our lock as we went through the Gatun locks (down). Their crew were waving out their windows and taking pictures of us taking pictures of them.
And we're out.
26 million gallons of water per lock.
8-10 hours (though we stopped half way to anchor in Gatun Lake after our night trip through the first 3 locks).
We had a tour of the new lock, just getting ready for it's dry run opening (which actually means testing that the water flows in/out correctly so I suspect "dry run" isn't the correct description). It will handle the new the Panamax-size boats, which are about one and a half times the current maximum width and length and can carry over twice as much cargo. Old = 1000 ft long; New = 1400.
Three major differences in structure and operations - instead of walls that open, the new lock has sliding gates; instead of all that water just dumping out into the ocean, the new lock recaptures some of the water into a parallel reservoir; there are no mule trains - the ships guide themselves.
PANAMA CITY, with a population of about 1.4 million (half the population of Panama), has a very new Downtown of massive and modern high rises next to the Old Downtown, which is next to Old Town, which is rimmed by poverty.
Here's a shot from the top of Ancon Hill, the highest point above the city.
From the boat, we could get good look (though somewhat hazy) at just the new downtown. This has all been built in the past 12 years.
Old Town is the center of tourism. It was recently designated as a World Heritage Site, with architecture from 1600's through modern European, including the Presidential Palace, and most of the historic landmarks and statues. There is significant reconstruction throughout all of Old Town.
Just a few shots to give you some idea of the flavor of Old Town…
The contrast to the very old, poor area is quite dramatic. In the second shot here you can see the wires on the building, basically stealing electricity.
That's pretty much it for this trip. Thanks for coming along.