Cruising and the Panama Canal

Lock up to Gatún Lake

In 1880 the French tackled one of the biggest engineering projects ever. The intent was to dig a canal from the Caribbean across Panama to the Pacific Ocean. They were defeated by a mosquito and a single celled organism that causes malaria.

In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt of the United States took on the responsibility of getting done a long-term United States goal, completing the trans-isthmian canal. In order to get the U.S. authority a number of treaties were attempted and finally the U.S. backed a revolutionary movement to gain Panama independence from Columbia.

The new canal projects success was partly the result of healthcare advances made during the construction, led by William Gorgas, an expert in

Gatún Lake

controlling tropical diseases including yellow fever and malaria. Gorgas was one of the first to recognize the role of mosquitoes in the spread of these diseases, and by focusing on controlling the mosquitoes greatly improved worker safety.

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The American engineers abandoned the French plan of a sea level cut and went to a design using locks to lift ships up to the level of Gatún Lake and back down again. One of the biggest projects was the Culebra Cut through the roughest terrain on the route and remains one of the largest earth –moving projects ever.

Later in the construction it was discovered there would not be enough water reserves to operate the locks. Several dams were built with one being a dam at Pedro Miguel which encloses the south end of the Culebra Cut (actually an arm of Gatún Lake). The Gatun Dam is the main dam blocking the original course of the Chagres River, and created Gatún Lake. Additionally two dams were built at Miraflores that impound Miraflores Lake.

Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

The best way to visit the canal is on a cruise ship. Generally these cruises go back and forth from the American coasts with Miami and Ft. Lauderdale being at one end and San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco at the other. They usually include a number of stops that can include Grand Cayman, Cartagena, Columbia, Colon, Panama, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras and Mexico but the star of the trip is the Panama Canal.

Mules prepare to receive a tanker

We have taken a couple of cruises that transit the canal and are always enthralled by the trip thru the locks and lakes of this remarkable place. Ships are pushed and pulled by tugs and canal engines called “mules” into locks with only inches of clearance. Water roars out of exhaust ports and massive ships rise and drop effortlessly within the locks.

A new electric Mule

Cruising across Lake Gatún is like a journey thru a primitive and beautiful rain forest with numerous islets as dozens of ships glide along near us. Transiting the Culebra Cut with its walls towering above leaves us overwhelmed by the shear tonnage of dirt that had to be hauled away.

Many cruises stop at Cristobal Pier near Colon where locals offer crafts and wares for sale with usually Kuna Indians from the San Blas Islands among the merchants. Many of the cruise ships require a quick paint touch-up at the exit dock to cover up numerous rubs and scrapes from the passage..

Up until recently the canal could only accommodate ships designated Panamax. These original locks are 1,050 ft (320.04 m) in length, 110 ft (33.53 m) in width, and 41.2 ft (12.56 m) in depth. These limits have influenced the ship building industry to build Panamax vessels for the past hundred plus years

On September 7, 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed the Panama Canal Treaty and Neutrality Treaty promising to give control of the canal to the Panamanians in the year 2000. After that the Panama Canal Company began an expansion project. The expansion project started construction in 2007 and opened for commercial operation on 26 June 2016. The new locks allow transit of larger Post-Panamax and New Panamax ships, which have a greater cargo capacity than the original locks could accommodate. Unfortunately many of the cruise industries new mega-ships still cannot cruise the canal mainly because they are too tall to cruise under the bridge at the Pacific end of the canal.

All-in-all this is a fascinating journey and one of the three or four  best itineraries we’ve taken. The ports-of-call are an opportunity to visit a number of Central American countries and get an introduction to this interesting region.

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