An Engineering Marvel

Trip Start Jun 29, 2010
Trip End Apr 07, 2012

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Flag of Panama  ,
Monday, January 17, 2011

The main reason we had travelled to Panama City was to visit the legendary Panama Canal and today we would finally get our chance to see it in action, but the canal was not the only area of interest to us, we started the day by visiting Panama Casco Viejo, the old town of Panama (also where the president of Panama lives) which sits on a small piece of land outside of the main developing city centre.

The area itself also seems to be changing, as we arrived we could see lots of engineering works taking place on the entrance to the area and many cranes overhead.

Our taxi dropped us off outside of the presidents house as he told us it was worth a look, also from there we had a good view of the changing face of the Panama City skyline, but unfortunately it was rather hazy but we got the general idea. 

We walked around the old town for about an hour which was just long enough to admire some of the older architecture and sample some of the local stall foods. 

After this we decided to head to the bus station to catch our ride to the Canal.  We eventually managed to find  the place our bus departed from but not before asking around six different people, and so on we went.  But not before getting stopped at the turnstiles and being made to pay 5 cents, yes a whole 3 pence, just to be able to get on to the platform.  This was before we had even bought a bus ticket.  All very strange.  We were both very puzzled by this, they could have at least charged something that was worth it? 

Once on the bus we bumped into an American guy from Washington DC who looked very stressed , when Chris asked him what was wrong he went on to explain that he had his wallet stolen from him on the airport bus and now had to go to the US embassy to get a new passport. 

When Chris asked how this had happened he told us that he had fallen asleep and someone had taken it.  Rule number one, when travelling by yourself, never fall asleep on a bus!  Nevertheless we felt sorry and offered him advice of how to get back to the airport on a cheap bus, he really did not have a clue!  Americans out of America!

Our destination was the Miraflores Locks on the Pacific side of the Panama canal.  The canal links the Atlantic to the Pacific via a set of locks that raise vessels on one side to the level of the Gatun Locks, and then lowers them on the other side via two further sets of gates, the Pedro Miguel Locks and the Miraflores Locks, this allows a vessel to move from one side of the continent to the other .

We jumped both off the bus at the gates and walked up to the nice visitors centre which was crammed with tourists of all nationalities. 

This was also the first place we managed to use our cards to get student discount, paying only US$5 instead of $8 for entrance.  The ticket included a video presentation on the history of the canal in a small cinema, a look around the onsite museum and unlimited access to the various viewing platforms, not bad value at all. 

On arrival we had seen a ship coming into the locks so headed straight to the level 4 viewing platform to get a feel for the place. 

Coming through was an oil tanker called the Narodny Bridge.  The tanker lined itself up and was then attached to 4 towing locomotives (mules) that run on a track on the sides of the canal, they are then used to pull the tanker through at a safe speed. 

There are 2 conditions upon which a vessel is allowed to move through the canal: 1 - The Canal charge each vessel a fixed fee of US$90,000 for each passage.  This must be paid in advance at least 48 hours before any passage is attempted.  2 - Before any vessel is allowed to move through the canal they are boarded by a canal pilot and the captain must manoeuvre according to the exact direction of this pilot.

We watched the whole process unfold as the tanker passed through the locks and was gradually reduced in level by around 57 feet, by two locks each reducing the level around 27 feet each.  We could see the water being pumped from one of the locks into the other and back again as the lock utilises the water supply.  We took a few good pictures before heading in to watch the film and take a look around the museum where we learned the following:

There are three natural features that make the Panama Canal and ideal place to build this inter-oceanic canal space: 1 – A narrow isthmus, 2 – a mighty river and 3 – exceptionally abundant rainfall in the winter months.

By building a dam near the mouth of the Chagres river, a navigable lake, Lake Gatun was created around 26 metres above sea level.  At one time this was the largest artificial lake in the world and it stores all the water needed for the lock operations

Lake Gatun is linked to the Atlantic Ocean by a system of three-tier locks (Gatun Locks) and an approach channel.  Linking the lake to the Pacific involved crossing a small mountain range in which a trench around 14km long was made.  The Gailard cut (named after the engineer who carried out the project).  To reach the Pacific, two locks – the one step Pedro and the two-tier Miraflores were built.  Both are separated by a small navigable Miraflores Lake.

Quick Facts:

- The ANCON was the first vessel to pass through the canal was on 15th August 1914.

- The canal operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. 

-  It generates 45% of the total GDP of Panama.

- The Gailard Cut was recently widened so that two large-tonnage ships can cross simultaneously in opposite directions.

- The total time for a vessel to be in canal waters ranges between 24 and 30 hours, although the average transit time is around 8-10 hours.

- Each lock chamber hols around 26 million gallons of water that are displaced to allow a vessel to be raised or lowered through the locks.

- The main clients of the canal are USA, Japan, South Korea, Chile and China.

On 22nd October 2006, Panama approved expansion plans for the Canal by means of a referendum.  The current system, dating from 1914 posed a series of limitations in the face of growing maritime traffic. 

First restriction being the size of the locks gates, which restricts the number of crossings and the second factor is it was estimated the canal would reach capacity of 330 million tonnes between 2009/2012 (around 14,000 annual high-draft crossings).  Over a five year period 120 nationally supervised studies examined the economic viability of extension. 

One of the important factors to consider was the environmental effects as a large portion of the canal basin (129,000 hectares) are highly protected areas of natural beauty.  Also the rainforests of the Basin provide 40% of the water that the canal uses for normal operation and 50% of Panamanian drinking water. 

The Soberania National Park also contains 1,300 species of vascular plants, 59 of them are endemic.  More than 700 species of vertebrates, with 525 species of birds including the threatened harpy eagle.  Other parks inside the basin include, Camino de Cruces and Altos de Campana National Parks.

The result of the research was a proposal to set up a third set of locks, an idea that has met with wide approval.  In combination with the existing locks, it will increase capacity to 600 million tons a year, almost double current capacity.  The expansion will involve an investment of over US$5,000 million over the next eight years and is due to open in 2014.

Once the oil tanker was clear, there was not a minute to spare a the huge Atlantis Cruise Liner lined up.  It was fun to watch as all of the holiday makers were on their balconies waving ... we don't think they realised it would take them about 40 minutes to get through the lock – by the end they were all waving rather wearily. 

We finished our day by having a quick look around the gift shop and picking up a magnet and information guide to add to the collection. 

Overall we really enjoyed understanding a bit more about the locks but still had some more time and didn’t want to head straight back to our grotty hostel, so in true form, we decided to head back to the sir conditioned Cinema to watch the film Unstoppable, a great end to a great day in Panama.
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