This vessel, the Maersk Danbury, belongs in a category known as “Panamax”, the designation for the maximum size allowed to transit the canal. Container ship builders design their ships to this specification in order to get the most cargo possible through the canal. This vessel paid $350,000 for this trip from the Pacific side to the Caribbean side of Panama. We arrived at the Miraflores Locks at 9:00am just as the visitor’s center was opening for the day when this ship was ready to make its way from the first chamber to the second chamber of the locks. During the morning, the traffic flows from the Pacific to the Caribbean, then switches to the opposite direction in the afternoon. (Likewise, during the night they alternate directions.)
To briefly recount the history of the canal, a French construction group was granted the contract to build the canal in 1881. However, after 8 years and the death more than 22,000 workers mostly due to yellow fever and malaria, this effort failed and ended in bankruptcy. In 1903, the French agreed to sell their concession to the United States. At around the same time, Panama sought the assistance of the US in gaining their independence from Colombia. Immediately thereafter, Panama and the US entered into the Hay-Bunau-Varilla treaty which granted the US “sovereign rights in perpetuity over the Canal Zone” and a broad right of intervention in Panamanian affairs. Construction was resumed on the Canal in 1904 and on August 15, 1914, the canal was opened for business. Over the years, Panamanians grew more resentful of the US involvement in their country. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter agreed to allow the complete transfer of the canal and 14 army bases to Panama by December 31, 1999. The Panamanians are quite proud of their success operating the canal since the turnover in 2000.
The visitor’s center at the Miraflores Locks contains a multi-part exhibit, a theater, restaurant and observation decks from which you can watch the vessels transit the two lanes of the locks. The locks are about 12km from the center of Panama City and are easily reached by regular bus service. This is truly one of the world’s most amazing engineering marvels. Everything about the canal requires you to think on a scale that is hard to imagine.
But wait, they have begun construction to expand the canal, which will widen and deepen the existing navigation channels and build two new locks, 60% wider and 40% longer than the existing locks. This $5.25 billion project is expected to be completed on August 15, 2014, just in time for the canal’s 100th birthday.
Partial Canal Transit
On Saturdays, the Bay and Canal Tours company offers a tour through the canal on one of their boats. The boat we were on can handle up to 350 passengers but on this day there were only about 100 of us. They leave from a marina on the Causeway which is just to the east of the entrance to the canal on the Pacific. We first pass under the Bridge of the Americas which marks the entrance. After passing under the bridge, off the left you can see some of the construction work underway for the canal expansion.
Soon we come to the Miraflores Locks and get a look at it from the inside versus the view we had a few days earlier from the visitor’s center. We share the lane with the ship Seaboard Chile as we progress through Chambers 1 and 2 being lifted about 56 feet in the process. Once we leave Miraflores Locks, we enter the Miraflores Lake which will take us a short distance to the Pedro Miguel Locks. Pedro Miguel has only 1 chamber and lifts us an additional 28 feet which gets us to about 85 feet above sea level, the highest level for the canal. When planning the canal construction, the most hotly debated issue was if it should be a sea level canal or one with locks to raiser and lower the ships as we know it to be.
Just past Pedro Miguel we pass under the Centennial Bridge which marks the 100th anniversary of Panama’s break for independence from Colombia in 1903. Just past the bridge we enter the Culebra Cut, also known as the Guillard Cut. The excavation of this valley was one of the singular most difficult aspects of the canal construction, an artificial valley approximately 9 miles in length. The construction of the canal represents the largest earth excavation project in the world.
All too soon we were dropped off at a dock in Gamboa and bussed back to Panama City. Here are photos of our visit to the Miraflores visitor’s center and the partial transit.