The Thinker

Transit of Panama

Circuiting the Panama Canal is pretty awesome, but probably more awesome if you are an engineer, since it’s easier to appreciate the feat accomplishment. These days we tend to take engineering for granted. But having traversed the Panama Canal Wednesday for my first and likely last time, it was still impressive. Opened in 1914 it suddenly made getting between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans much faster and less hassle. The transit is hardly free. It cost our cruise ship about $120,000 to make the journey just one way. You can’t charge it to your business AmEx card. You can’t wire Panama the money either. It must be paid in cash in Panama using an agent.

Considering we went through the same locks the first ship used more than 100 years ago and with little in the way of obvious improvements, my immediate reason for being impressed is that it has been working reliably for more than a century. That in itself is stellar engineering. Even the Brooklyn Bridge has undergone major maintenance that shut it down from time to time. Our cruise ship, the MS Westerdam is more than 800 feet long and about 140 feet wide. It fit snugly but completely inside the locks. Turned over to Panama in 2000, the American presence is still obvious during your transit. The locks were built to accommodate 1000 foot ships and you can still see along the locks distances measured in feet along the side of the locks. There is some new stuff, though. Just two years ago, in 2016, a new set of locks was opened for even longer and wider ships.

We have a historian on board who gave us an abridged history of its history and construction. It was standing room only at the Main Stage of our cruise ship for the lecture, but it was still impressive to go through the locks in person. As you sail in through its Caribbean entrance at Colon, what you mostly notice is the vertical distance covered by each lock. It takes three locks to ascend the eighty or so feet to reach Gatun Lake, a lake created as part of engineering the canal. The original intent was simply to not use any locks. That turned out to not be viable because of Panama’s consistent rain and the continuous erosion issue that introduced. Speaking of rain, it rained when we went through, but only briefly. It rains pretty much every day in Panama, so it’s not usually a question of whether it will rain, but how much. How much is usually a lot.

They have the equivalent of a cog railroad along the side of the locks to tow vessels through the canal with no worry that the ships will hit the sides of the locks. It’s old tech but pretty impressive nonetheless to watch. It was hard from our ship to see the lock fill with water due to its girth. But you can still feel the effect as you move a significant vertical distance over about eight minutes. Eventually you end up on Gatun Lake and for a while transit becomes serene and predictable. There are two more sets of locks to transit before you hit the Pacific Ocean.

You would think that you would head east to west coming from the Caribbean Sea, but in fact you go north to south due to the shape of the isthmus. Panama, like Colombia that we visited briefly the day before, is very much a tropical rainforest.

So much of the magic of the Panama Canal has to do with how they solved the basic issue of its hydraulics: create artificial lakes and make huge, indestructible locks. One of the biggest engineering challenges was cutting through what remains of the continental divide when it goes through Panama: the Culebra Cut. It took a lot of dynamite, a lot of hauling away rocks with a portable railway of sorts, and a lot of lives lost. About 5000 people, mostly from the Caribbean, died constructing the American attempt to build the canal. Many more died in an earlier attempt by the French But its completion signaled a new age in history: the end of an age dominated by Europe and one dominated by the United States. With the completion of the canal, the U.S. proved it had the right stuff.

When you’ve completed passage perhaps the most impressive part is looking out at the vista of the Pacific Ocean: seemingly limitless and in our case sunny and under fair seas. Considering that twelve hours earlier you were in the Caribbean Sea, it’s an impressive transition. It’s not hard to understand why the Panama Canal is seen as one of the ten wonders of the modern world. So scratch that off my bucket list. In addition, this is my first excursion by ship on the Pacific Ocean.

We had a brief stop in Cartagena, Columbia, so brief that we elected not to take a tour and didn’t make it past the cruise terminal. It is a thoroughly modern city, just thoroughly tropical. For our ship to make its date with the Pamana Canal, we had to leave shortly after noon.

Our next stop is Puntarenas, Costa Rica and some exciting tours there. We won’t arrive in San Diego until January 20. You might think we could get there a lot sooner, but there are 5000 miles or so of coastline to traverse with plenty of port stops in between.


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