The Republic of Panama Before and After the Canal

A glance at the map begins to give you an idea of the extraordinary engineering feat accomplished with the construction of the Panama Canal.  Damming the Chagres River created what was in 1913 the world’s largest man-made lake.  Gatun Lake sees Panama and its Canal through the dry season between January and March.   The surrounding rain forests act as sponges and help conserve water;  however, deforestation has increased the nation’s challenge to maintain enough water to service the Canal.

The Gatun Locks, Panama

The Panama Canal locks project commenced at Gatun in August of 1909.   The Gatun Locks are nestled in a hillside and raise ships 85 feet above sea level.   Depending on whether a vessel is traveling up or down, an individual lock chamber fills with or empties 27 million gallons of water in the process of moving a ship from one lock to the next.

Ship from Caribbean Approaching Second Lock at Gatun

Each lock measures 110 feet wide by 1050 feet long.   Minus a buffering range, these dimensions dictate the size of ships that may pass through the Canal.  Vessels pay around $28 thousand for passage through the Panama canal, but prices vary depending on how much cargo is being transported (or how much water is displaced).

Cargo-laden Ship Passing from Pacific to Caribbean

Vessels move through the canal on their own power, but several locomotives called “mules” guide the boats keeping them centered and away from the walls of the locks.

Mules are named for the actual animals that used to guide barges along canals.  Mule drivers operate winches used to help stabilize a ship’s passage.  Mitsubishi builds the mules at a cost of around $2 million each.

Pacific-bound Ship Moves Through Gatun Locks, guided by mules

Right now the Canal’s biggest competitor is transportation through the U.S. via ship, rail, truck and ship.  The Northwest Passage which extends around West and North Alaska through the Canadian Archipelago is a minor competitor.  The Arctic ice pack used to limit shipping throughout most of the year.   However, since climate change has decreased year round ice, the passage is more accessible.   Panama’s Canal Expansion Project will add two sets of  locks, 180 feet wide by 1,400 feet long, allowing larger vessels to pass through the nation.  The country expects the project will be completed in 2014.

9 thoughts on “The Gatun Locks on the Panama Canal

    • The guides said it takes between 8 to 10 hours, but it depends on the size of the vessel, too. (A U.S. Navy boat did it in about 3 hours in 1979. That’s the record.)

      Our ship was too wide (116 ft) to fit in a lock, but some cruise ships do. Our ship had an excursion via train ride to the Pacific.

      The guide said each person counts as a piece of cargo. So some ships unload their passengers, put them on trains and go through with crew only, then retrieve their human cargo. A packed cruise ship would cost about $300,000 for passage.

  1. Go back next year and you will see the new vessel my company is building in China come through those very locks 🙂

    It is exciting to see in person, isn’t it?!

    You are quite the world traveler!

    • I’m looking for somewhere to see with my 20-year-old son next year when he graduates.

      China’s Three Gorges Dam would be a spectacular thing to behold.

  2. Hey Cookie, if you were serious about stowing in WriteChic’s luggage, you would have met us in Lauderdale for dinner (and we went to Rustic Inn Crab House too — it was dee-lish)

    Hey, WriteChic, hello from Pleasant Ridge, MI, on the eve of my first trip home since I started my contract at the Blue Oval car company…

    Hey, did you know that the Panama Canal was built using Jamaican labourers? Previous attempts with American, French and English workers all failed, then Teddy Roosevelt hit upon the idea of using people who were already used to tropical weather and diseases. So Jamaicans were part of the winning formula for the Panama Canal, yet another way we’ve changed the world. I’m just saying 🙂

    p.s. It was great meeting you and your daughter…

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