Pictures/Journal - page 32

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Part 2:

(Fall 2008)

    Panama City                                                   
    Panama Canal + Boat & Land Tour   (Nov. '08) 

 (includes Slide Show and Animations)






In returning to the USA for a visit, we flew on a small prop plane from Bocas del Toro to Panama City (otherwise it's a 12-hour bus ride over the mountains).  This was our first visit to Panama City so we spent several nights checking it out.  Our long-time friends from Houston, cruisers Bob & Susan on s/v Sunrise, took the hour bus from Colon, where their boat is, to rendezvous with us for a few days in Panama City.  We hadn't seen them since we left Venezuela in early 2005.

Panama City, pop. 450,000, is at sea level bordered by the Pacific Ocean and by the Panama Canal.  It has an impressive skyline and lots of new, high-rise construction in progress.  We stayed in the El Congrejo area, where a good selection of reasonably priced hotels are located, as well as nice restaurants and shopping - all within safe walking distance day or night.  Other shopping and provisioning (not a big selection in Bocas del Toro) is a short taxi ride away.  Other activities include visiting the Panama Canal Museum in old town (Casco Viejo), and hiking up Ancon Hill and up the Natural Metropolitan Park for great, high-up photo ops.  We also like hanging out at the Istmo Brew Pub across the street from our hotel, where we can sample their micro-brewed beers, read the paper, plan our shopping and meet the occasional cruiser passing by on the street!

Flying over Pacific:

<--- Panama Canal starts to left of islands; old Panama City on right

Central Panama City -->

<--- Casco Viejo, the old Panama City, now with restaurants, bars, shops and artists  (this was taken at low tide)

There's lots of new high-rise construction, including a Trump development; some art-deco architecture



Check out Panama City Recommendations, a listing of hotels, restaurants, medical, shopping and more put together by cruisers.


We took this opportunity to transit part of the Panama Canal on a small tour boat.  Another day we went by short taxi ride to the Miraflores Locks that has an observation deck and museum, so once again we were up close and personal with the Canal traffic. 



PANAMA CANAL  +  BOAT & LAND TOURS      (view our SLIDE SHOW below)

The Panama Canal was built as a short cut between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, saving time, money and wear and tear on vessel and crew, instead of sailing around treacherous Cape Horn at the southernmost tip of South America - a savings of 8,000 miles.  The French undertook the historic project of carving a channel through the dense jungles and mountains in the 1880's and 1890's.  But 22,000 worker deaths due to disease (yellow fever and malaria) and accidents and eventual financial bankruptcy ended their attempt.  The project was resurrected by the Americans in 1904 and the Canal completed in 1914.  The Americans turned control of the Canal over to Panama in 2000.  The Panama Canal "shall remain open to the peaceful and uninterrupted transit of vessels of all nations" - if Panama ever restricts passage, the U.S. resumes control of the Canal. 


The Panama Canal Administration building has 4 large murals mounted in its rotunda created by American painter William Van Ingen in 1914.  These 4 murals depict the extraordinary efforts used in building the Canal.

Building dam across Chagres River to create Gatún lake Excavating Gaillard Cut through Continental Divide Constructing Miraflores lock chamber Constructing lock gate


The Panama Canal is one of the world's greatest engineering marvels.  Initially, the Canal was envisioned not to require locks, but just to be a simple passageway between the two Oceans.  While the Atlantic Ocean side sees less than a 2 foot tidal change, the Pacific side has a 20 foot tidal range.  Because of this, the Canal would experience great currents rushing through it as the Pacific tides rise and fall relative to the Atlantic.  It was decided that this tidal current would be too much for vessels to safely navigate.  Thus the idea of "locking" through the Canal was conceived.  To create a reservoir of water from which to supply the lock chambers, the Chagres River was dammed up, creating the largest man-made lake at the time, Gatún Lake.  Because of the abundant rain forests in the area and the copious rainfall during rainy season (that we've been witnessing this past week as I write), Gatún Lake is pretty much assured of always having enough water to operate the locks.  While much of the Canal Zone is dedicated to national parks and wildlife reserves, care still must be made to protect the rainforests and thus the watershed.


View Map of Panama Canal to get your bearings


The Panama Canal runs north-south across the narrow, 50-mile wide isthmus of Panama, with the city of Colon located on the north, Atlantic/Caribbean side and Panama City on the south, Pacific side.  The Canal is roughly half the width of the Houston ship channel in places.  It takes 8 - 10 hours to transit the Canal non-stop, although a typical transit is about 24 hours.  There are 2, bi-directional, lanes of traffic through each lock system, so 2 ships can be going through adjacent locks at the same time (same or opposite direction), although independent of each other.  A vessel entering from one ocean is raised a total of 80 feet through 3 sets of locks, it then sails through the Canal and Gatún Lake, and is then lowered 80 feet through 3 more sets of locks to the other ocean. 


In more detail, a vessel entering the Panama Canal from the Atlantic (Caribbean) side first "locks up" through the Gatún Locks, a series of 3 locks.  (Locks are named for the town that's closest to them.)  Then the vessel enters Gatún Lake, 80 feet above the Atlantic.  Then it passes through the narrowest part of the Canal, Gaillard Cut, which crosses the Continental Divide which marks the highest point of land that had to be excavated.  The "lock down" process begins first with 1 set of locks at the Pedro Miguel Locks.  A short distance later are the 2 sets of locks at the Miraflores Locks, which then open up to the Pacific.  Leaving the last Miraflores Lock, the fresh water of Lake Gatún is released into the salty water of the Pacific Ocean, creating a noticeable "trash line"  of sorts.  Here the birds hang out looking for a tasty feast, as fresh water fish die in the salt water and the salt water fish are temporarily stunned by the fresh water.



View 2 short animations on How the Panama Canal Works

Click on both the Operation and Transit tabs


Water is supplied from Gatún Lake to the lock chambers through a system of culverts 18 ft. in diameter that extend under the lock chambers and from the side and center walls.  The whole raising and lowering process via the locks is done strictly by gravity - no pumps are used.  A lock chamber is filled, or emptied, of 26 million gallons of fresh lake water in 8 minutes; afterwards it takes 2 minutes for the lock gates to open.  The steel lock gates are 7 feet thick, and weigh up to 662 tons; the lower part is hollow and sealed with air so they sort of "float"; they are so well balanced that it takes only a 25 horsepower electric motor to open and close a gate.  (Actually, there are 2 motors that are used, one as backup to the other.)  The lock gates, originally mechanical, are now hydraulic requiring less energy to operate and less maintenance.  A single gate hinge weighs 16 tons.



A lock's dimensions are (LxWxD):

1000' x 110' x 83'

Panamax vessel dimensions (built specifically for Canal) are:

965' x 106' x 39.5'

That leaves only a 2' clearance on either side and 35' fore and aft

-  -  -

The current expansion project will result in a new set of locks:

1400' x 180' x 60'

The largest vessels that can go through the existing Canal are called "Panamax", and can carry 4,500* containers.  A third of the world's ship traffic today are "post-Panamax" - too big to go through the Canal - and can carry 12,500* containers.  (A 3rd traffic lane, also with 3 sets of locks, is now being built that will accommodate the larger "post-Panamax" ships.  See more below on the expansion project.)  With the current lock chambers, the Panamax ships literally have only a 24-inch clearance on each side of the ship, and only a few feet forward/aft of the lock gates.  (See box at right.)  Ships are guided through the lock chambers by "mules", locomotives on a track  - ships use their own propulsion to make their way through, although the mules have powerfully strong brakes to restrain unwanted movement.  Larger ships may have 4 to 8 mules guiding it.  The prototype Mitsubishi mules cost around $2.5 million each. 

* This is based on standard 20-foot equivalent units (TEU)

At the narrowest part of the Canal which cuts through the Continental Divide, Gaillard (aka Culebra) Cut, Panamax vessels cannot safely pass each other now.  Because of this, only north-bound Panamax vessels are underway from 5:00 a.m. - 12:00 a.m.;  south-bound Panamax move in the afternoon; after 6:00 p.m. Panamax vessels that had not completed the transit and got caught in between and tied up somewhere on the Canal are now able to proceed.  As part of the expansion project, they have already blasted Gaillard Cut with explosives and are currently in the process of widening, deepening and straightening it so there can be 2-way traffic in the future. 


The largest transit fee paid to date was in November 2007 for $302 million for a Norwegian cruise ship;  the smallest fee ever paid was 36˘ in 1928 by Richard Halliburton who swam through the Canal in 10 days.

Because of congested schedules, the Canal sometimes auctions off a transit slot.  E.g., in 2007 BP paid a premium of $220,000 - in addition to the normal fee of $180,000 -  to jump to the head of the line.



To go through the Panama Canal, a reservation must be made.  Large ships must pay in advance; if they miss their reservation time, they forfeit the fees and must make a new reservation.  Accordingly, the Pacific "anchorage" at Panama City is filled with ships either waiting to transit the Canal or having just finished the passage.  Average fees are $30,000 (seems low).  For a typical sailboat, the net fees are about $1,500; a refundable deposit of approx. $600 is required.  Since inception, fees have been assessed based on weight.  But starting in 2005 a new, more equitable fee structure based on international standards and transit needs has been phased in.  Charges vary depending on whether a vessel is "laden" (with cargo or passengers) or "ballast" (empty).  Among the changes, full on-deck container ships are being charged based on their cargo measured in TEUs.  (If you want to know more about tolls, go to ACP's official site.)




▪  About 14,000 vessels a year - or 40 vessels a day - transit the Canal.    Over 300 million tons of freight are transported this way each year.  This represents 5% of the world trade.  The Canal runs at 90% of capacity.

▪  24-hr operations began in 1963

▪ 200 million cubic yards of material were removed during the construction (half just from the Cut) - placed on railroad flatcars it would circle the globe 4 times.

▪  The Canal employs 9,000 workers

▪  Top users of the Canal, in order:   USA, China, Japan, Chile, S. Korea, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, Colombia, Canada, Panama, Taiwan, Venezuela

All transiting vessels are required to have an official Panama Canal pilot on board ($3,000/hr for large ships; for smaller boats included in transit fee).  This is the only place in the world where a ship's captain yields control of his vessel to a pilot.  Big ships are required to use official Panama Canal line handlers whereas smaller boats can provide their own (ARGO would have to have 4 line handlers - i.e., other cruisers - on board).  Panamax ships are required to use a tug/pilot boat to assist them into and out of the chambers. 


A state of the art system based on GPS technology places the Panama Canal at the cutting edge of maritime traffic administration.  Each Canal pilot carries onboard their transiting vessel a portable box that contains a monitor and other electronic equipment.  A vessel's location and other information are transmitted to a traffic control center where it is integrated with information from other transiting vessels, launchas, tugboats, dredges, construction equipment, etc., then sent back out to the vessel to view on the monitor - similar in some respects to the AIS (Automatic Identification System).


On both the Pacific and Atlantic sides of the Canal, there are large ports with a railway connecting the two.  Ships that are either too large to transit the Canal, or who don't have enough cargo to make a transit worthwhile, are able to unload their cargo at either Colon or Panama City and have it transported by rail to the other side, saving a lot of money.  The railway was originally used to help construct the Canal.


We first did a tour on a small cruise boat that began in Gamboa (south of Gatún Lake) and took us south through the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks, and out to Flamenco Island where commercial and pleasure vessels anchor. The first part of the slide show is from that boat tour.  The next day we went by land to visit the Miraflores Locks where an observation deck gave us an up-close view of the process.  On site is also an interesting museum.


View our Panama Canal Slide Show


The expansion project began work in 2007 and will be completed in 2014, for a total cost of $5.2 billion.  This includes enlarging Gaillard Cut.  As mentioned above, a 3rd traffic lane, also with 3 sets of locks, is being constructed parallel to the existing 2 lanes.  However, new features are being used that make it even more efficient:  Each lock has a series of 3 "pools", or water reutilization basins, that will either empty into the lock (raising the water level) or fill from the lock as it is being emptied - this will allow for faster fill/empty times; also, the water will be "recycled".  Tug boats will be used instead of the locomotive mules.  The lock gates will slide (in/out of the wall) as opposed to swinging open/close, which will require less effort and be easier to maintain.  View an animation of how the new locks will work.


Live !  View COOL  LIVE 24-hour Webcam at Locks - see ship traffic at both Miraflores and Gatún Locks in REAL TIME


Live !

View TIME LAPSE  video at the Miraflores Locks - different views (including Pedro Miguel Locks and Centennial Bridge in background)

Great 7 min. video - lots of traffic over 2 days, diff. views, sailboats

See 24 hours in 3 minutes - starts at night; note dredge(?) that moves each time vessel passes

 Accelerated Webcam through Miraflores Locks - 12 hours in 1 minute



Dec. 4, 2008 update:  This week the Russian navy has been involved in joint maneuvers with the Venezuelan navy in the Caribbean, Russia's first such deployment to the Western Hemisphere since the Cold War era.  Yesterday, it was announced that a Russian warship will sail through the Panama Canal tomorrow, the first time since World War II.  It will dock at a former U.S. naval base.  This transit is viewed mostly as symbolic. 


Continue for new updates .  .  .

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