The World’s Best Shortcut Part 1

Holland America Line’s Veendam transiting Miraflores Locks

The Veendam, one of 40 ships per day, on average, that transit the Panama Canal. Built between 1904 and 1914, the Canal was finished by the U.S. after a failed French effort. The Panama Canal has been called one of the wonders of the modern world. I call it the world’s best shortcut. This is part 1 of a series on this marvel of engineering, a vital link in the world economy, responsible for fully 5% of all goods shipped around the world, and 10% of all American shipping.

In the shot above, The Veendam is in the Miraflores Locks, the first set of gates on the Pacific side of the Canal. In Miraflores, ships are raised or lowered a total of 54 feet. From Miraflores, ships travel a short distance to the Pedro Miguel Locks which raises (or lowers) them an additional 31 feet for transit into Gatun Lake which is 85 feet above sea level. The numbers explain why the French effort failed; French engineers were determined to build a sea level canal, a simple excavation cut through the country, similar to the canal they built at Suez. The chief engineer in that effort, Ferdinand de Lesseps, dismissed the need for locks at Panama, and his determination essentially dictated the French failure in the latter days of the nineteenth century.

1- Ships awaiting transit, 2-Princess Cruises ‘Island Princess‘ 3-Under the bridge of the Americas, 4-Entering the Miraflores Locks

We followed the Island Princess for our tour of the Panama Canal. This ship is a good example of the canal’s utility and purpose. Launched in 2003, Island Princess is 965 feet long with a beam of 106 feet. Each lock chamber is 110 feet wide, so the Princess, like most ships, have been built with those dimensions in mind. As she passes through each lock, Island Princess has exactly 24 inches of clearance on either side. Until the new Super Panamax locks opened in 2016, with chambers of 161 feet wide and 1,201 feet long to accommodate so called Panamax ships, dimensions of the Panama Canal determined how wide and long a ship could be built if users wished to transit from ocean to ocean.

1-Flag of our tour boat, the Pacific Queen, from Ancon Tours in Panama City 2- Safety is paramount in Canal operation, 3-Car carrier at Miraflores, 4-Derricks offload containers for trans-isthmus shipping by rail.

As we entered Miraflores Locks, we saw a series of derricks to the east. Our operator explained that these are to offload cargo containers. If a shipper wishes to send only a few containers across the canal, they offload them here, then they’re shipped by rail to the other side by the Panama Canal Railway. It’s all about efficiency: if only a few containers must transit the canal, there’s no need to send the whole ship through. It’s about cost as well. The reason the canal exists at all is threefold. One, the cost of shipping. Modern container ships typically guzzle more than $100,000 dollars per day of fuel, not to mention crew, maintenance and insurance costs. By transiting the Panama Canal they knock off 16 days on average between oceans. Not only does this save $$$, it allows them to carry more goods instead of fuel. Number two is safety. Rounding Cape Horn is always a risky proposition, especially during the winter season when hazards include, ‘…strong winds, large waves, and icebergs drifting up from Antarctica,’ according to ‘Rounding the horn’ has caused the loss of many vessels and their crews, thus the Canal’s usefulness for lowered insurance costs for shipping. Number three, increased usage of vessels, since those ships can be used more often.

1-A ‘mule’ along the Miraflores Locks, 2-in the chamber, 3-the Island Princess in the east lock as we transit the west and 4-one of many tugs that assist larger ships.

Vital details of the Panama Canal: All raising and lowering is accomplished by filling and emptying the locks, in other words, by using water and the ships’ buoyancy. No electric or hydraulic power is used, except to open and close the gates. Each gate weighs 700 tons, and water pressure against them causes the lock to seal so no water is lost. No ship can transit without a pilot from the Canal Authority aboard. No exceptions are made as to size, crew, type of ship or cargo etc., every ship must carry a canal pilot. We came alongside one of the Canal boats, slowed to a crawl and allowed our pilot to board. The fellow’s name was Felix, and he accompanied our boat to the final lock at Gatun. Each lock uses 52 million gallons of water, all from Lake Gatun, and all of it fresh water for each fill. For this reason ships are carefully scheduled into the locks. For example, our tour boat shared the locks with five other vessels, to maximize the use of the lock, and to decrease time of transit for each boat. It’s not unusual for ships to wait for passage for up to ten days, though the average wait is three days. The Panama Canal Authority employs roughly 5,000 full time employees, and an additional 8,000 part timers, and it operates 24/7/365. The Canal delivers nearly 1.5 Billion dollars into the Panamanian economy yearly, partly for those employees salaries, partly to fund infrastructure and educational efforts in Panama. The cost of transit?

On the left, a car carrier. On the right, a container ship.

The car carrier above can transport as many as 5,000 vehicles. Typical cost to transit the canal for a vessel like this is upward of $500,000 dollars. The container ship on the right, seen exiting the new Super Panamax lock adjacent to Miraflores, will typically be charged more than half a million dollars as well. The fee is based on weight, length, type of cargo and equipment needed for the transit. Every Supermax ship, for example, requires a tug at both ends to navigate each lock at a cost of $3,000 per hour per tug, times the two new Supermax locks. Time from ocean to ocean is typically 12 hours. Because of the length of the vessel, Supermax ships require two canal pilots, one forward, one aft. All boats transit the canal under their own power, with tugs and mules simply keeping them centered. To date, the biggest check written to the Canal Authority which administers the Canal was $840,000 for the transit of a Super Panamax ship in 2015. The lowest charge ever for a transit was 36 cents paid by a fellow named Richard Halliburton who weighed in at 150 pounds, and swam the length of the canal in 1928.

1-A canal worker at Miraflores, 2-Each lock uses 52 million gallons per operation, 3-Tugs must be used fore and aft for the new Super Panamax ships.

More later in part 2 of our Panama Canal post. Read about the men and women who built it, operate it and rely on it every day and more amazing facts about the world’s best shortcut. Thanks for reading.


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