Archive for panamax

24 Jul 2009

Panama + Canal

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Entering Miraflores lock

Like Cold + Beer, if there is one word that goes with Panama, it has to be Canal.

So before we slipped off to the Islas de las Perlas, one of the must-dos for our time in Panama City was a trip out to the Miraflores lock to see the great canal in action.


Miraflores lock in action

The friendly people at the visitor centre gave us a lot of information, not all of which my woolly head can remember – but here is some of it.

  • Did you know that the canal uses a lock system to lift the ships almost 30 metres to the level of the lakes inside Panama and then down again to the ocean on the other side?
  • The French tried to build a canal here before the US but they planned a sea level canal and struggled with the environment and the amount of earth they had to move. Plus 22,000 people died while they were building – mainly from a variety of tropical diseases.
  • The canal is still functioning using the same technology as when it first opened in 1914. This technology consists simply of gravity plus shitloads of water. It could only work in a country with so much rainfall.
  • Several locomotives on rails guide the ships through the locks. The captains of the ships have to cede control of their vessels over to canal pilots.
  • About 14,000 ships go through the canal every year, paying around US$250,000-US$400,000 per journey for the privilege and generating some US$800 million in profit for the country, its main source of income. Charges are levied by displaced volume and weight. The lowest toll ever levied was to Richard Halliburton who swam the canal in 1928 and paid a grand total of 36 cents.
  • Now the canal is too small to cope with the ginormous freight ships of today and Panama is working on an expansion which will be finished in 2014. These new locks will recycle the water – using more sophisticated technology.The Panamax ships we saw going through the Miraflores lock looked pretty massive to me – its hard to imagine what the new locks will be coping with.


Being guided through the canal