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Panama Canal at 100

Panama Canal at 100

Posted by Juan Gavasa on November 03, 2014

Five a.m. — first, the false dawn over the Pacific, then the lights of Panama City.

In the calm warm morning I lean on the rail waiting. Waiting for the sun to come up over the Pacific. Waiting to experience the Panama Canal.

The events that led me to this place began in 1951. Dad was called to active duty as the executive officer on a destroyer patrolling the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal. Mother and I moved to the D.C. Naval Yard, Dad’s homeport.

Visiting Turkey I learned the Turks retook Istanbul in 1453 and along with pirates to the south disrupted trade between Europe and Asia. So Columbus sailed west looking for India. In 1503 he found Panama, just two miles from the modern canal, only 50 miles from the Pacific.

We take on pilots and 21 linemen queuing up for our turn through. The first channel buoy glides past at 7:30 a.m., as the city slowly drifts astern. Pressed up against the rail with other passengers we strain to see. We have 10 hours to view mountains, rivers, jungle and a complex canal.

Explorers vision?

How did explorers in 1530 ever consider a canal over these barriers full of disease and rainfall? And how did the French and then the Americans apply engineering, geological, political and epidemiological skills — and money — to cut through mountains, create the largest man-made lake and thus the canal to unite the world?

Twenty-five thousand workers, mostly from Caribbean countries, paid with their lives.

The Bridge of the Americas soars above us as buses rush over honking with people waving madly from the windows. Clearly they do not see the cruise ships every morning. Tugboats come to our side, but do not touch. The NCL Jewel will make the trip under her own power — the tugs are for insurance.

Just ahead, a bulk carrier squeezes into the left lock chamber. When the eight story tall gates close, the ship appears to levitate. Unseen to us, millions of gallons of water raise the ship 55 feet in two steps.

We enter the right lock, and eight powerful locomotives (mules) tie on, not to move us, but to maintain the narrow 2-foot space between the ship and the chamber wall. I easily touched the wall — less than 2 feet. What a balancing act. The Jewel is 965 feet long. The lock chambers are 1,000 feet long. Thus the “Panamax” in our title.

In one chamber, we are right next to the bulk carrier. Their crew lounges on the deck with little to do. I strike up a conversation with them in my limited Spanish and they smile and wave like mad as I take their photo. Surprised at their enthusiasm — until I notice one of the cute young trainers from our ship standing next to me.

Climbing on water

We cross the small Miraflores Lake and after one more step we are 85 feet above sea level and enter the 9-mile Cut.

Beginning the canal in 1881 the French followed the route of the railroad, opened in 1855. Thanks to the White family, the Galveston Railroad Museum has a wonderful Panama Canal Railroad display including a hand-drawn 3D aerial map.

Attempting to build a sea-level canal, the French were forced to abandon construction. They were a few years too early, before health measures and larger equipment. In 1904, with a U.S. battleship “maintaining the peace” during Panama’s bloodless revolution from Columbia, the US took over construction.

We are second in a convoy of seven ships. Only 600-feet wide at the bottom, the Cut is too narrow to risk passing other 106 feet-wide ships. Mountain ranges signify the Continental Divide.

When you see old movies of the dirt flying, chances are the ditch is the Cut. Statistics on the Cut are difficult to get your mind around. One hundred million yards of rock was removed. Over 6,000 workers labored every day filling hundreds of railcars. Enough dynamite holes were drilled to go through the earth.

New canal locks

The almost finished, third set of new canal locks is 10 stories high. Construction just began on the 2-mile long dam, which will feed new, larger ships into the Cut.

Current ships hold 4,500 containers; the new locks will allow new Max ships with 12,000 containers, three times larger!

Emerging from the Cut, I expect to see a wide expanse of water. Yet we are in a narrow lake, passing close to many small islands. The pilot uses large “billboard” signs on the distant shore to keep the ship in the channel, while making numerous turns.

Glancing up, I am shocked to see super structures of other ships slide by in the other direction, appearing within arms reach. Everyone is waving.

Gatun Lake spreads like hundreds of narrow fingers for miles toward the mountains. The large ship looks like it was placed in a small West Texas lake by the giant hand of a child.

The Gatun earthen dam is overgrown and runs for about a mile and a half alongside us, a half-mile wide at the base. All invisible until you see the small spillway, which creates electricity. The channel on the lake now crosses over the old Charges riverbed 20 times.

A lot of water

The rainy season of nine months results in lots of water, until you consider it takes 52 million gallons per ship to cross through the locks. During the 1960 drought, the Sturgis operated a nuclear power plant in the canal, thus freeing up enough water for 15 ships per day to pass through.

Just over the last hill, giant construction cranes put the final touches on the new locks. Starboard is Ft. Sherman, former home of the Army’s jungle training school.

The ship steps down three more levels in about two hours and sails into Limon Bay, where my Dad patrolled in 1951.

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