The Panama Canal is still considered one of mankind’s great engineering achievements.
In fulfillment of the treaties signed in 1977 by Presidents Carter and Torrijos, the canal, opened in 1914, became the property of Panama on January 1, 2000. Its operation is under the control of the “Autoridad del Canal de Panama”, that supervises the artificial waterway. About four percent of the world’s maritime trade passes through the Panama Canal. The 80 km long waterway shortens the sea route from the east to the west coast of North America by 15,000 km. The main trade routes through the canal are from the east coast of the USA to the Far East, from the east coast of the USA to the west coast of South America, and from Europe to the west coast of the USA or Canada.
The Panama Canal has three two-lane lock systems that basically work like water elevators. Their function is to raise ships to the water level of Lake Gatún, which is 26 meters above sea level, allowing them to pass through the continental divide. The fresh water of Lake Gatún is used to operate the locks. Each transit through the locks requires 197 million liters of water, that at the end are pumped into the sea. The lock chambers are about 33.5 m wide and 305 m long and up to 26 m deep. The Miraflores locks have the highest lock gates due to the large tidal differences of the Pacific (as opposed to the Atlantic). The narrowest part of the canal is the 12.6 km long Gaillard Cut, also known as “the big ditch”. Constant work is underway here to widen and straighten the bottleneck and to combat silting of the shipping channel. If all the material and soil excavated during the construction of the canal had been loaded onto a freight train, its length would have reached four times around the equator… All lock systems of the canal have a visitor center with viewing terraces, where one can watch the passage of the ships. Information sheets are also available in German. Both the Miraflores and Gatun locks are well worth a visit.
A passage through the Panama Canal from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean passes in the following sections:
Entrance Canal (Gulf of Panamá – Miraflores Locks: 13.2 km), Miraflores Locks (1.7 km), Miraflores Lake (artificial lake: 1.7 km), Pedro Miguel Lock (1.4 km), Gaillard Canal (12.6 km), Río Chagres, (river: 8.5 km), Gatún Lake (24.2 km), Gatún Locks (1.9 km), exit canal to the Atlantic Ocean (3.2 km). The total transit is 76.9 km.
The fees for the canal passage are strictly based on length and weight. Richard Halliburton, who swam through the canal in 1928, holds an eternal record with 0.36 cents paid for his passage. The maximum payer was the Panamanian container ship “MSC Fabienne”, which paid the highest ever canal fees of US$317,142 on May 16, 2008. New, significantly higher fees have been in force since 2011.
The expansion of the Panama Canal was discussed for years and decided in 2006 after a referendum. Only the construction of new locks (Agua Clara locks on the Atlantic side and Cocoli locks on the Pacific side) will allow post-Panamax ships to pass through the canal. These locks are 55 meters wide, 427 meters long, 18.3 meters deep and equipped with rolling gates. Flooding of the locks on the Atlantic side began in June 2015, with the Pacific side following shortly thereafter. The extension of the canal was ceremonially put into operation on June 26, 2016. The first ship to pass through was the container ship Cosco Shipping Panama, sailing under the flag of the Marshall Islands. The freighter belongs to a Chinese shipping company and was selected by lot.