Where are all the ships?
We peer over the viewing balcony expecting to see lines of ships passing through the Miraflores Locks.
‘The first one will be here at 2:30 pm,’ says the man in the red jacket.
It’s only noon. Not realizing ships had a scheduled time to travel through the locks, we learn even more by watching the IMAX movie and visiting the museum.
Feeling stuffed with Canal facts, we sit in the restaurant and play Uno… still another hour or so to wait….
It’s a boring scene with no activity. Just a narrow, walled channel enclosed by a gate. The murky, green water sits waiting for customers.
The crowd builds. A ship is coming… or two small ferries? But behind them is a massive freighter! They wait and wait… the water lowers. Slowly, they move along the canal.
Basically, a lock is a ship elevator.
Water from man-made Lake Gatun (33 km long in the middle of Panama) feeds the locks.
The lock gates, based on Leonardo Da Vinci’s miter design, close to a 45 degree angle, with water pressure from upstream sealing them shut. Piped-lake water rushes in and lifts ships to the level of Lake Gatun allowing the gates to open. Then ships sail across the lake to get lowered back down to sea level, exiting to the Atlantic Ocean.
Cables attached to freighters, pulled by as many as 3 small trains on each side, allow massive ships to pass through without hitting the walls.
Ships take approximately 10-12 hours to travel through the 82 km long Panama Canal. A short cut, as opposed to extra months of travel and dangerous seas, if they sailed around the tip of South America.
A Bit of History
In the 16th century,the Spanish explorer, Balboa – wanted to find a path through the jungle. He gave up.
Then the French came along. They carved the Culebra Cut (13 km long) through earth and rock, removing 153 million cubic metres of material. Not quite enough.
They didn’t know what they were getting into.
Workers from around the world (Jamaica, China, Italy, Greece, India, Cuba) cleared land, removed debris, passing bucket by bucket, before illness struck. Thousands died from yellow fever and malaria.
They got rid of the mosquitos, but the French gave up in 1889.
Along came the Americans.
A special dredger ship, designed for the terrain, sped up the process … 52 buckets moved 1,000 tons of material in 40 minutes. Workers continue dredging the canal as I write this.
In 1914, the SS Ancon became the first ship through. And finally, in 1977, President Carter handed it over to the Panamanians.
106 years after all the noise and dirt and death ended, the impressive act of engineering stands in front of me, and I, beside a group taking selfies, lazily watch the ships pass through.