‘Nature Provides’

Traveling The Panama Canal Part 5

Bridge of Americas on the Pacific side of the Canal. Photo by Beverly Kehe-Rowland

This was the day we had been waiting for, the day we would pass through the Panama Canal on our way to visit my husband’s cousin in Ecuador.

Fred, my spouse, had been up and down throughout the early morning hours of the sixth day of our cruise, in anticipation of our 5 a.m. arrival to the Canal. He had the TV on with the bow cam tuned in and was happy we had decided to book a balcony room for this trip.

Unlike the other lines we have cruised, this one does not have complimentary room service, something we have only taken advantage of if we had an early morning excursion. Because we had a balcony room, the morning we entered the Canal was an exception and they did not charge for breakfast in our room. We chose the 7:30 to 8 a.m. option for delivery.

Our ship got in line, when we finally arrived. From what we could tell, we had just one ship ahead of ours. It was MS Zuiderdam, a ship we had been on four years prior. The Zuiderdam does not pass through the canal, but only goes through the northern locks or Gatun Locks, stopping in Gatun Lake. The passengers have the option of staying on the ship or taking a round trip train to a museum that is close to the Pacific side, like we did. At that time, the talk was all about the ongoing 5.2 billion-dollar expansion project, which included the addition of new locks and a separate lane for longer, wider ships, that had begun in September 2007.

The ship we were on had brought on a man who was very knowledgeable in all things Panama Canal. His voice came through the TV when it was tuned in to the bow cam channel, as well as the speakers in the hallways and those throughout the ship.

The old locks use electric locomotives to pull the ships. Photo by Beverly Kehe-Rowland

We learned that American crocodiles, who have adapted to salt water, hang out near the southern entrance to the canal. They are more aggressive than other crocodiles, so if a worker needs to work in the area, they must be vigilant. Only one croc could be seen this day.

We passed under a new bridge that looked to be near completion and within a short distance saw a ferry. Later we saw cars crossing a bridge connected to one of the locks and then watched more vehicles line up while waiting for the bridge to go back into service. Undoubtedly, the new bridge’s opening is awaited by many.

As is the case with every ship going through the canal and at many ports throughout the world, a pilot boarded our ship to guide it. There is a GPS system connected to each of the canal’s pilots’ iPads.

Four electric locomotives were connected to the front of our ship and two more to the back. Three generations of locomotives have been used, with General Electric making the ones used the first 50 years. They provided good service, but did not have enough power to pull the newer, larger ships. Mitsubishi won the bid for the second-generation locomotives and the ones currently used were a joint project between Mitsubishi and Kawasaki. The engines, whose cost was over two million dollars each, were brought to the canal by crane boats. Half of the new locomotives were built in Japan and the other half were built in the Panama Canal’s own shops.

Our ship was in line to go through the old locks, but had it been any wider it would have had to use the new locks. The original locks were 1,000-feet long and 110-feet wide. They were 45-feet deep and had swinging gates. These gates are more difficult to maintain as they must be taken out of position to repair.

The new locks no longer use locomotives, replacing them with four tug boats. One is connected to the bow, one to the stern and two are on the sides to push the ship into the lock. Each chamber is 1,400-feet long, 180-feet wide and 60-feet deep and have rolling gates, which are less complicated where maintenance is concerned. The gates slide into the walls, allowing them to be welded and maintained where they are.

The largest gates are eight-stories tall. There is little to no leakage when the gates are closed. Fifty-two million gallons of water are displaced to the ocean for every ship that passes through the canal.

Nature provides the water and gravity that makes it possible to get from one lock to the other. There are three locks on each end of the 51-mile expanse. By using this “gigantic fresh water bridge,” as the narrator referred to it, ships save 21 days and 8,000 miles by eliminating the trip around South America. Some tankers enter from the Pacific side, go through the canal, fill up with fuel in Texas and then go back through the canal to deliver in California.

There are lockmasters on each end of the 104-year old canal. Until 1963, the canal operated only during daylight hours, but at this time lights were installed for around the clock traffic. All of the locks have a machine shop and each wall has a locomotive shop.

The Panama Canal actually runs north to south and crosses the Isthmus of Panama at the narrowest point, which goes east to west. The Culebra Cut, nearly one-fifth of the total length of the waterway, was excavated through rock and limestone from the Central Mountain Range of the Isthmus. The material excavated could build 63 Egyptian pyramids.

The US administered the canal until December 31, 1999, when Panama assumed the full operation.

As of September 4, 2010, the Canal had served more than 1,000,000 transport vessels from 160 countries. It connects 144 maritime routes that reach 1,700 ports. Seven types of vessels use the waterway including container vessels, liquefied petroleum gas, liquified natural gas (LNG) and bulk carriers, as well as, car carriers, tankers and passenger vessels. LNG is the biggest commodity going through the canal. The largest car transport ships hold 7,000 cars. OOCL, carrying thousands of shipping containers, is the highest paying customer, paying over one-million dollars to pass through. Another container port and an automobile port will be built on the Pacific side.

The annual income from the canal is three-billion dollars and it costs about half of that amount to operate.

It sells electricity and fresh water to the country of Panama.

Construction companies from all over the world had a part in building the new expansion, including the gates. The expanded canal, which doubles the capacity, complied with environmental impact studies that included reforestation, rescue of wildlife and archaeological and geological rescue. More than 160 species of native mammals depend on the Panama Canal Watershed as their source of water and habitat.

The Canal depends on rainfall, but too much rain in a short period of time can create problems such as in December 2010, when all traffic was stopped for 18 hours. The tunnels beneath the canal were opened to displace the water. The opposite situation occurred in 1998-99 when the lakes became very low causing ships to lighten their loads.

The prison where General Manuel Noriega, who was the de facto ruler of Panama from 1983 to 1989, was held and died after being imprisoned in the United States and France, can be seen from the passing ships.

Because it took about nine hours to pass from one side of the Canal to the other, we viewed it from many locations on the ship. We spent much of the afternoon indoors, because it was a very warm day. My husband got a picture of the two of us wearing the Panama Canal T-shirts we had purchased four years ago, before we passed under the Bridge of Americas on the Pacific side of the waterway. To be continued.