before you go … PANAMA CANAL

Juniapetur, The World, Rebooted ®
The Panama Canal

Unlike the Suez Canal (which is a straight flat boring ditch), the Panama Canal weaves along gorgeous lakes and waterways under an occasional bridge through tropical forests. The transverse from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean usually takes about eight to ten hours. Ships line up in the oceans, then travel in convoys about a mile apart. They pull over in lakes along the way and allow ships in the other direction to pass. The Canal runs in a generally north and south direction.

The story of the canal is well known – the French tried to build a connection across Central America in the 19th century and failed. Then President Teddy Roosevelt fomented a revolution and, with Panama as a separate country, struck a deal for the land rights. The canal is an engineering masterpiece and was completed in 1913 long after Roosevelt left office in 1909. Today, a century later, the Panama Canal still functions much the same as originally designed: Goofy rail engines called “mules” drag ships through the locks by cables. It’s a fascinating to watch.

Today, ships are built with the narrowness of the Panama Canal in mind. Ships that fit through the locks are called “Panamax” ships (“Panama canal maximum”). The money to be saved by building Panamax is real – if a ship cannot fit through the Canal, its owners must send it around the tip of South America adding days and thousands of dollars in cost to each journey. Panamax ships are frequently built to the absolute maximum. They often pass through the canal with two feet or less on each side.

Panama took the Canal back from the United States several decades ago, but there is general agreement that they have run it well. Maintaining and operating the canal is not cheap, but it is probably highly profitable. Cruise ships will pay as much as $300,000 to pass through, although that’s a bargain. That same ship traversing the Suez Canal will pay $3-million to save itself a trip around the southern tip of Africa.

Trivia: The Panama Canal is the only place in the world where the port pilot is in charge of the ship. In all other ports, when a pilot comes on board to pilot the ship into port, the captain remains in control and responsible for his ship, and the pilot is only an advisor. Not so in the Panama Canal. In the Panama Canal the captain relinquishes all responsibility for his ship to the pilot.

This means if the pilot breaks it, he buys it.

As important as the Panama Canal is, its century-long dominance may soon change.

With global warming ships are successfully testing whether they can traverse the traditionally ice and snow locked Northwest Passage across northern Canada along the Artic Circle. Last summer several ships succeeded. If the world continues to warm and the ice packs continue to melt, the Northwest Passage will become a reliable waterway, and constitute real competition for the Panama and Suez Canals.

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