Hats off to Panama!

Guest expert Wendy Gomersall visits Panama and finds out about that most famous of shipping lanes, the Panama Canal.

Panama City beach

Have you ever been in a queue in, say, Tesco’s on a Saturday morning or the Severn Bridge into Wales on a Bank Holiday Friday afternoon and thought, I wish I could have just one day’s takings from this place?

Passing through the Panama Canal

I bags the Panama Canal. To give you an idea of the tolls involved, it cost P&O’s relatively small ship, Adonia, 173,000 US dollars to transit the canal recently – and that was one way.

On September 4, 2010, the bulk carrier Fortune Plum became the one millionth vessel to transit the 80km waterway since it opened in 1914.

Still, the canal does cost a few bob to run, particularly as a major expansion programme is underway, due for completion in its centenary year.

A new, bigger, third set of locks, with one new lock complex each end, plus serious accompanying dredging and excavations, will mean much larger ships (paying presumably much higher fees, too) will be able to pass through.

In these days of WiFi, Wii, 4G, sat-navs and all that hi-tech, super scientific stuff  – I have no idea how any of it works – it’s fantastic to witness such an amazing but essentially uncomplicated feat of engineering. In fact, I found the whole experience quite awesome when I visited Panama recently.

The locks on the Panama Canal

It does not require any great understanding to appreciate it the sheer brilliance of the spectacle – ship passes along a waterway comprising a big lake as well as narrow channels through a series of locks that raise it up and lower it as the water level changes, taking it from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific (and vice versa).

It’s basically one hell of a shortcut as it means the ship doesn’t have to go all the way round the bottom of South America, thus saving a substantial amount of time and money – simple.

You appreciate the sheer physicality of the process by watching the process from the Miraflores Visitors Centre on the east side of Miraflores Locks (which has observation grandstands and four exhibitions explaining everything) or when you’re actually on board a ship as it is lifted up and down just by the strength of water.

It’s an awesome sight – bloody great ship edges gingerly into comparatively very titchy lock chamber, helped by teeny ‘mules’, little engines roped to the ship that keep it in line – there isn’t a huge amount of leeway. It must be like trying to park my new Nissan Juke (very lovely) in a garden shed.

Truly vast lock gates heave shut before the chamber is flooded; ship rises soundlessly, eerily, seemingly effortlessly, with minimum fuss, then the gates open again and it sails slowly, serenely, out again and onwards into the next stretch of water and perhaps another lock.

The scale of the whole transit is awesome – it takes nine hours, yes hours, to complete. The scale of those new locks is also mind-blowing at 427m long and 55m wide – that’s the size of four football fields. Imagine the size of the ships that can be accommodated then – and the daily takings…

Wendy Gomersall is a Hertfordshire-based journalist specialising in travel. She has travelled all over the world, has an interest in archaeology and ancient cultures, but also loves anywhere with wildlife to track, photograph, or cuddle ideally. Not surprisingly, she’s very fond of southern Africa, India, Australia and New Zealand, but also particularly adores Egypt, which she visits on a regular basis, and Jordan.

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