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The Panama Canal – The Big Ditch

Do you have a bucket list? If so what is on yours? Does it include like mine “The Big Ditch”?

With my engineering background, being in Panama meant having to see the Panama Canal. The best way to see this engineering marvel is either to transit the canal on one of the cruise ships passing through, or to get a closer look by tour boat. We took the tour boat, which gives a more personal and up-close perspective.

Our tour starts at Gamboa and heads east to Panama city and the Pacific Ocean aboard the Panama Marine Adventures “Panama Queen”. The trip was a highlight worthy of its place on many “Bucket Lists”.

Panama Canal

The Canal is a manmade waterway, 50 miles long — that connects the world’s two largest oceans.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers the Canal is considered one of the seven wonders of the modern world along with the:

  • Channel tunnel
  • CN Tower
  • Empire State Building
  • Golden Gate Bridge
  • Itaipu Dam in South America
  • Delta Works/Zuiderzee works in Holland

The French first attempted to build a canal through Panama in the 1880’s, after almost ten years of struggling to dig what amounted to a big ditch across Panama the French left. Panamas thick jungles full of snakes, bottomless swamps, and mosquitoes carrying malaria and yellow fever, claimed the lives of 20 000 workers.

When the Americans tackled the project in 1904 they decided to build the canal with a large dam and lake system. The plan included the building of three sets of locks used to raise ships 85 feet to the level of the reservoir and then lower them at the other ocean. The use of the lock system and the creation of Gatun Lake  reduced construction time by years. It also addressed the problem of the significant differences in tides between the two oceans.

Panama Canal-3

By the time the canal was complete in 1915 it had cost the US  10 years of construction time,  $350 million,  and the loss of over 5,000 lives to complete this colossal engineering project.

Not only was the building of the canal a triumph of engineering and technology over nature, the building of the canal was about exerting American power outside of North America. For President Roosevelt, connecting the two seas — the Atlantic and the Pacific –would galvanize the US as a global power.

Before any work could begin, the US had a small detail to resolve. At the time, Panama was a Province of Columbia whose constitution precluded giving away sovereignty. This led to the United States supporting a revolution by Panamanian elites, paying off Colombian troops with bags of cash helped to facilitate the revolution.

After this bloodless revolution, the US signed a treaty with the newly formed Republic of Panama giving the United States total control over the “Canal Zone”.

Since opening the Canal in 1915, almost 1 million ships have taken the shortcut between the world’s largest oceans.

Engineering Facts:

  • Ships traveling between New York and San Francisco save 7,872 miles and 27 days of transit time by using the Panama Canal instead of going around Cape Horn.
  • More than four and half million cubic yards of concrete went in to the construction of the locks and dams.
  • The locks of the Panama Canal are seven feet thick.
  • Since the Pacific tidal variation is significantly larger than the Atlantic (18 feet vs 2 feet), a sea level canal would be faced with the problem of a current running northbound when the Pacific tide was high and a current running south bound when the tide was low if the big ditch was completed.
  • In 1996 13,700 transits  accommodated over 198 million long tons of cargo.
  • More than 60,000,000 pounds of dynamite was used to excavate and construct the Panama Canal.
  • The dam constructed across the Chagres River in Gatun created Gatun Lake, the largest man-made lake in the world at that time.
  • A Panamax vessel is the largest vessel that can pass through the existing locks. A Panamax vessel dimensions are as follows:
    •           Length: 294.1 meters
    •           Beam: 32.3 meters
    •           Draft: 12 meters
  • Estimates are that 40% of the world’s container ships are too large for the present canal and close to 50% of transiting vessels were already using the full width of the locks.
  • A 5 Billion dollar expansion project is well underway to build two new flights of locks to be built parallel to, and operated in addition to, the old locks: when completed in 2015, the new lock chambers will allow the transit of vessels:
    • Length 366 meters
    • Beam 49 meters
    • Draft 15 meters
  • Each lock requires almost 27 million gallon of water to operate.
  • All of the water moves by gravity through massive conduits inside the lock structure. The diameter of the inlet conduit is 22 feet – almost 7 meters.
  • The gates, which separate the chambers, are enormous in size, ranging from 14.3 to 25.0 m and are (2.1 m) thick; each leaves weigh up to 662 t. The gates are hollow  and balanced such that two 25 hp motors are enough to move each gate leaf.
  • The existing gates are the original equipment which were fabricated by riveted construction.
Panama Canal-4






About the author: Apparently born under a wandering star, Michael spent hours as a kid poring over maps, atlases and plotting where he wanted to travel when he grew up. Sadly Engineering school got in the way….. “it takes 5 years to complete and a lot longer to get over”. He still considers himself a “recovering” Professional Engineer. He escaped the rat race at 44 and now pursues his passions for travel, photography, Tai chi, scuba diving, cooking and sampling the world’s wines. Michael is also… Fiercely independent, a bit of a rebel, is on a self-imposed media diet & married to an incredible lady.

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