The Panama Canal is an 81 km long canal in the Central American Panama. It runs through the isthmus of Panama and connects the Caribbean Sea with the Pacific Ocean. The canal is an important route for the intercontinental transport because you don’t have to go around South America anymore. For a ship to get from New York to San Francisco it’s a distance of 9500 km through the canal, which is less than half of the 22500 via Cape Horn.
The Pacific Ocean lies west of the Atlantic Ocean, but the position of the canal is more the other way round: the Atlantic side of the canal lies northwest of the Pacific side. This is linked to the irregular shape of the isthmus.
Most of the times people say the border between the North and South American continent lies along the canal. You can also put that line along the political border, between Panama and Colombia.
The 81 km long Panama Canal varies in width between 70 and 300 meter. The locks are 305 m (1000 feet) long and 33.53 m (110 feet) wide. The maximum width for a ship to go throught the locks is 32.3 meter. Ships that size are called Panamax ships. On both sides of the lock there’s a cog. Four electric powered locomotives (2 left and 2 right) keep the ship in the middle in the consecutive locks. The ships move on their own power, but lack maneuverability at the limited speed and through the curves in the canal. That’s why the autorities require the big ships to rent small tugs for 3000 dollar an hour. The specially designed tugs are are fastened at the back of the ship by cables and have “Z-Drive” driving, which means that both propellors can be directed any way so they can brake the bigger ships easily and direct them while going through the locks.
Special about the Panama Canal is that the ship is like pulled over the ridge. The average water level of the Atlantic Ocean (with a lower level caused by the higher mass density because the water is colder and richer in salt) and the Pacific Ocean (higher level because the water is warmer and not rich in salt) differs less than 30 cm, but the tides are really different. The Pacific has a tidal change of 3 meter while the Atlantic Ocean on the other side only has 1 meter tidal change. The Lago Gatún in Panama is higher than both oceans (the surface lies at about 26 meter above sea level). That lake so is the reservoir that feeds the locks. In the original design they wanted to create a through connection like the Suez Canal, but the tidal change makes that nautical impossible and so there always at least one lock is needed.
From the Atlantic Ocean and going south a ship first goes through the three Gatún locks. Next it sails 42 km on the Lago Gatún and through the Gaillard Gorge, the narrowest part of the canal. Via the Centennial Bridge, the Pedro Miguel lock, the Miraflores lake and the three locks of Miraflores the trip goes along the harbour of Balboa. The ship sails then under the Bridge of the Americas, part of the Pan-American Highway, connecting North and South America, ending the trip in the Pacific Ocean. The total time to go through the canal varies between 8 and 11 hours. The Panama Canal is the only place in the world where the captain has to transfer his full authority while passing the canal.
In 1998 the owners of the canal started some research on the long term vision of the river. The strong increase in international shipping and bigger ships made that research needed. This resulted in a plan to move the canal partially, widen it and build new and bigger locks.
The plan foresees the creation of a third row of locks next to the existing locks on the side of the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean. Just like the existing locks three consecutive chambers will be built which will bring the ships from sealevel to Lago Gatún. The new lock chambers will be 427 meter (1400 feet) long, 55 meter (180 feet) wide and 18,3 meter (60 feet) deep. The locks are 60% wider and 40% longer than the existing ones. With those bigger locks ships with a displacement of 150.000 up to 180.000 ton can use the Panama Canal. These sizes correspond to the newest generation container ships which can carry 12.000 TEUs. The new locks will have rolling doors; those will move horizontally while opening and closing. The old locks have point doors. To limit the loss of water while locking the new locks will have saving bowls. While emptying the chamber the water is collected in those bowls and can be reused while filling the chamber. Using this system 60% less water is used. Tugs can take over what the locomotives did. For the new locks, new shipping lanes on the sea side channel will be dredged and new parts are dug.
Disney Cruise Line through the Panama Canal
The Disney Magic and the Disney Wonder each already crossed the Panam Canal. The first twice in 2006 and 2008, the second once in 2010 and 2012, twice in 2013 and 2014. This is an event on its own. Breakfast is on deck in the morning, there’s a Panama Canal Deck Party, barbecue on deck for lunch and the whole day there’s some narration through the speakers where you are and what happens. Both ships can go through the current canal, the Disney Dream and Fantasy are too big.
You can find more pictures here.