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Transiting the Panama Canal

We transited the Panama Canal yesterday. What a fascinating experience! There is all the engineering wonder involved – the fact that this system was conceived and constructed a century ago and continues to operate essentially unchanged.

For me also recent reading and historical context added to the fascination. I’d recently read a history of the California gold rush and the stories of people travelling to the west coast of the US in 1849 and 1850 (and later) are striking. Some overland, some around the horn, and some overland across the Panama isthmus. But this large migration was an undeniable instigator (arguably one of many) of the eventual US involvement in Panama.

I had also read a history of the building of the canal, and I thought of the French effort hot on the heels of their Suez success and the bloodbath that effort turned out to be – the deaths due to yellow fever and malaria (among other diseases to be sure). We drove past the French graveyard on our shore excursion to Monkey Island the previous day…

There is also an amusement ride quality to going through the locks, and seeing these huge ships elevated and lowered 30 some feet at a time…

Average fees are US $80,000. This compares very well with the cost of going around South America.

We transited from the Pacific side and our first set of locks was the Miraflores Locks:

Towing train, Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal
Towing locomotive (or tug), Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal

These tugs nurse vessels through the locks. The size of the locks limit the size of ships that can transit the canal, giving rise to the ‘panamax’ ships which clear the locks by literally inches on either side. There are large container ports on either end of the canal connected with a railroad, and oversize container ships will unload at these. The containers will then be moved by train to the other side and loaded on another container ship.

After clearing the locks on the Pacific side we entered the Galliard cut through the continental divide:

Galliard Cut, Panama Canal
Entering the Galliard Cut, Panama Canal

In the image above, Gold Hill is on the right. I forget the name of the hill on the left. This area forms the continental divide and was very challenging to dig through. The French basically crashed and burned here in 1890 or so. They were attmepting to construct a sea-level canal.

There is no gold in Gold Hill – the French named it Gold Hill in hopes of attracting investors to the project. The French effort failed due to lack of investors, among other reasons.

When the canal opened in 1914, the Galliard cut was 200 ft wide. Currently, and therefore in the photo above, the cut is 800 feet wide. It is hard to imagine transiting through the cut with only 100 feet on either side.

Work on the cut continues today:

Work on Galliard Cut, Panama Canal
Work on the Galliard Cut, Panama Canal

One hundred years later they are still fighting slides and erosion through the cut:

Landslide in Galliard Cut, Panama Canal
Landslide in the Galliard Cut, Panama Canal

And one hundred years later Gold Hill looks to be fairly well tamed:

Gold Hill, Galliard Cut, Panama Canal
Gold Hill, Galliard Cut, Panama Canal

The Panamanians voted in October in favor of widening the canal to allow for two-way traffic and in favor of adding a new set of locks, presumably larger. The new set of locks will consist of a single set of locks on either end of Gatun Lake (there are currently two sets of locks on the Pacific side and a single set on the Atlantic). This work has already begun in earnest:

Widening the Galliard Cut, Panama Canal
Widening the Galliard Cut, Panama Canal

Once through the cut we entered Lake Gatun, the result of damming the Chagres River. The basic structure of the Panama canal is this: Dam the Chagres which flows to the Atlantic, forming a large lake 85 feet above sea level. Build locks on the Atlantic side to the lake. Dig through the continental divide on the other side of the lake, and build locks down to the Pacific at the end of the cut.

We crossed the lake through which there is two-way traffic and approached Gatun locks which would lower us to sea level on the Atlantic side. These are a series of three chambers accomodating two ships at a time spaced one chamber apart. Fascinating to watch! Here are some pics:

Panamax ship, Gatun Lock, Panama Canal
Panamax ship, Gatun Lock, Panama Canal

Gatun Locks, Panama Canal
Gatun Locks, Panama Canal

Gatun Tug, Panama Canal
Tug descending Gatun Locks, Panama Canal

Panamax exiting Gatun Lock, Panama Canal
Panamax vessel leaving Gatun Lock, Panama Canal

Ship behind in Gatun Lock, Panama Canal
Ship in the lock behind us, Gatun Lock, Panama Canal

Leaving Gatun Lock, Panama Canal
Leaving the last lock, Gatun Lock, Panama Canal

We had rough seas last night here in the Carribean. We dined at ‘Restaurant 2′ where they served a tasting menu. Our experience in the past was that this was done with wine pairings, but that did not really happen last night. But it is a really fun way to dine. This restaurant is on deck seven in contrast to the main restaurant which is on deck three, and is also located at the extreme aft of our yacht. We were really moving around lots up there during dinner! Mel did okay thanks to here bonine, but wanted to get to bed right after dinner.

This morning is beautiful with tropical clouds and blue sky (and lots of whitecaps on the ocean!).

Happy travels!

-Steve

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