World’s Best Shortcut Part 2

USS Ancon August 14th 1914

The Panama Canal officially opened on August 15th 1914. The USS Ancon seen above was the first vessel to transit the canal, on August 14th, the day before, to test the locks’ operations. Since its opening to commercial traffic more than 100 years ago, the Panama Canal has seen the passage of nearly one million vessels, and today averages more than 14,000 ships per year, and 40 per day. Here are a few statistics:

Δ Finished by Americans in 1914 after a failed French effort begun in 1881

Δ More than 30,000 died building the canal, most from yellow fever & malaria

Δ 800,000 French investors were wiped out when their effort failed

Δ The Canal is 48 miles/80 Kilometers long & 600 feet wide at its narrowest point

Δ Alternative passage around Cape Horn: 8,000 miles/12,875 Kilometers

Δ Cost of the U.S. effort 8.6 Billion dollars

Δ Revenue to Panama one billion dollars per year*

Δ Excavated material: 15,950,900 square meters. (Most of this material went to building the Amador Causeway in Panama City)

Δ Amount of dynamite used: 60 million pounds

Δ 2016 Fee to transit: $72 per TEU. A TEU is a Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit

Δ Longest ship to transit: Marcona Prospector at 973 feet

Δ Highest fee paid: $840,000

Δ Time to transit: approximately 8 to 10 hours

Δ Ships wait on average 4 days to enter the Canal. Some request entry up to two years in advance.

*As of 2015 prior to the opening of the Super Panamax locks

Map of The Panama Canal aboard Pacific Queen

Many people don’t realize that transiting the Canal from Pacific to Atlantic (Caribbean) side, a ship is traveling Northwest. When we moved to Panama we had a lot of getting used to the idea that it’s an East-West country, not unlike Tennessee. The chart above shows this orientation very well.

1-Locks at Miraflores; 2-A car vessel in the locks (this ship held more than 5,000 cars);3-The same vessel; 4-Miraflores Locks visitor center & museum.

Alejandro our Captain

No vessel, regardless how small, may transit the Panama Canal without a canal captain. The fellow above was captain of the Pacific Queen. He had to board a canal captain to accompany him through the passage. The fellow (named Felix, and not shown) mostly watched Captain Alejandro during our transit. Alejo had more than 14 years at the helm, and ‘more transits than I remember,’ he said.

For an in depth understanding of the Panama Canal, its construction, political & economic impact, engineering & administrative staff and the various challenges and difficulties encountered, read David McCullough’s definitive work, The Path Between The Seas. In the book, McCullough refers to the biggest challenge facing the French, the obsession of its chief engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps to build a sea-level canal. Messieur de Lesseps was the hero of France for pushing through a sea-level canal at Suez. He saw no reason the same thing wouldn’t work in Panama, and he was not to be dissuaded. De Lesseps scorned those who insisted on a series of locks, blindly pursuing his sea-level vision. In the meantime, disease was ravaging construction crews. At one point in the late nineteenth century the French team was losing 40 men per day to yellow fever and malaria.

1-‘Mules’ guide heavier ships; 2-The Canal employs 5,000 full time; 3-In Miraflores

Ships transit the Panama Canal under their own power. The so called mules, special trains with guide cables as show above, do not tug or drag ships along. They assist the canal captain in keeping ships aligned in the canal.

More numbers:

Δ Each lockage uses 52 million gallons of fresh water, all of it from Gatun Lake

Δ Existing locks are 110 feet wide, thought to be double what might be needed when the canal was proposed. New locks on the Super Panamax side are 160 feet wide. Ninety-nine percent of the world’s existing commercial fleet can use the Super Panamax Locks.

Δ Material is still dredged daily from the canal. This material is being distributed throughout Panama City and Colon for additional earthen levies and pedestrian causeways

Part three of The World’s Best Shortcut will arrive soon. Look for yet more astonishing numbers, weird facts about the Panama Canal (including a Nazi crane, and a two hour passage by hydrofoil!) and the background of its existence and future use. Thanks for reading.