Southern Exposure 3: Day 8, The Panama Canal

The passage through the Panama Canal did not disappoint. After a night at sea, on the morning of October 21st we rose at 5:15  when we were  to arrive at the Caribbean breakwater before entering the canal. After several days of cruising with rarely a vessel in sight, we saw  sparkling lights dotting the horizon everywhere as ships patiently waited in line. Cruise ships typically pay a premium to be able to break in line as was apparent in our case as we motored directly to the first lock as the sun was just starting to peak above the horizon. I  counted 26 ships behind us, all freighters, tankers or container ships. We watched from our balcony as the ship in front of us, a behemoth, red tanker, slowly started rising in the first lock.

So here is the deal on the Panama Canal, considered from its completion to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. For centuries it had become apparent that the easiest and fastest way to get from Europe to Asia, or vice versa, would be sailing through the narrow isthmus that connects the North American and South American continents. It was only about 50 miles wide at its narrowest point. If you could just figure out how to do it, you could save thousands of miles of travel at sea and cut weeks off the time—10 hours versus over three weeks for a modern freighter. But the hills were the problem. There were a lot of them, and the smallest were still almost 90 feet above sea level.

The French were the first to try it. In the late 18th Century, when the land was still part of Columbia, they negotiated a treaty, which gave them the rights to build a canal. It took over 20 years for them to throw in the towel, after tens of thousands of deaths and the realization that cutting a ditch over 150 feet deep for much of the 50 miles was not feasible. Most of the deaths came from sickness and disease—yellow fever, malaria, and cholera—than from accidents. The price was too high for the French. They bailed.

Enter the Americans. By the end of the 19th century,  Teddy Roosevelt, had his eye on the real estate and as president in 1904 persuaded the fledgling Republic of Panama to let the U.S. take over the canal project from France. The agreement provided for the U.S. to build and control the canal for perpetuity. It took just over 10 years to get it done, but not without losing over five thousand workers and costing what in today’s dollars would amount to over $ 8 billion plus another $25 billion paid to Panama and more than quadruple that to France. The solution was a series of locks—three on the Atlantic (Caribbean) side and three on the Pacific side—and creating a  massive body of water in the middle,  Gatun Lake,  by damming up two rivers.  It was an engineering masterpiece and still functions successfully with one new series of locks (wider and longer for the bigger commercial vessels)  completed three years ago. For the past 19  years the canal has been owned  and operated by Panama (the Torrijos-Carter Treaty in 1977),  which gained full control on the last day of the Twentieth Century. About 14,000 ships pass through annually or between 35 and 40 ships a day. Based on size and tonnage, the average fee paid by vessels using the original two-lane locks is estimated to be around $150,000 with cruise ships and large commercial vessels paying a lot more. The fee for the Zaandam was reportedly around $450,000 though I could never get anything definitive on this. The larger vessels using the new, one-lane locks pay more than double what the ships in the older section pay. All this produces over $2  billion in gross revenues annually, nets about $800 million for Panama, and is the main driver of Panama’s relatively strong  economy. Supposedly the canal is open to small, private vessels as well, but we did not see any vessel in the canal or waiting in line for passage that was not a large, commercial vessel.

The experience for me I suspect will turn out to be one of the trip highlights. Just being part of a passage experienced by passengers and crew on more than a million other vessels from all parts of the world for more than one hundred years was special. The weather cooperated as well with no storms or rain, which for Panama this time of year was unusual. Most of the crossing is on Gatun Lake. This 45-mile stretch was gorgeous with lush, dense rain forests lining the banks of the lake  and no sign of any human activity or habitation until we reached the last series of locks taking us back down to sea level on the Pacific side.  For some reason it took us about 12 hours to complete the passage, about two hours more than usual, and we did not arrive in Panama City, our next port of call, until just before nine pm.  Panama City will be the subject of the next blog.

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