The Panama Canal: More than a wonder of the world

In the past, cruise ships sailed all the way through the canal but lately, on 10- and-11-night Caribbean itineraries, partial transits have become increasingly popular.

The Panama Canal (photo credit: PR)
The Panama Canal
(photo credit: PR)
I can’t believe it: It’s six in the morning and I’m standing on the deck of the Holland America Line’s cruise ship MS Zuiderdam, sipping a mimosa (or if you prefer, the crew will offer you a cup of hot chocolate).
We’re up early because if you want to see one of the wonders of the world up close, this is the time to open one’s eyes wide, wipe away the cobwebs of sleep and stare out in the dim light of dawn.
Our cruise ship begins to maneuver itself into its ship lane and prepares to penetrate the Panama Canal, a waterway that cuts across the Isthmus of Panama and links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Approximately 80 km. long, the canal unites the two oceans at one of the narrowest points of both the Isthmus of Panama and the American continent. A century ago, if ships wanted to pass through the Americas, they would have to go all the way around the southernmost tip of South America; a journey from New York to San Francisco would cover 20,900 km., instead of 8,370 today.
Despite the early morning mist, I can spot the “back-up lights” of the ship ahead already entering the “aquatic bridge” connecting the Caribbean Sea with the Pacific Ocean.
Moving into the first of three locks in the canal, I recall the words of travel guide Richard Detrich aboard the MS Zuiderdam.
“Amazing,” he asserted, “the Panama Canal is almost 100 years old, still working the same way, and still working well.”
The Panama Canal opened in 1914, a feat of engineering that revolutionized global trade. More than a million ships have passed through the canal in the past century; the latest figures declare 13,000 oceangoing vessels annually.
“The creation of a water passage across Panama was one of the supreme human achievements of all time, the culmination of a heroic dream of 400 years and of more than 20 years of phenomenal effort and sacrifice… It is a work of civilization,” wrote David McCullough in his The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914.
WE PASSENGERS stand watch, mesmerized at the engineering marvel we are about to see: our massive cruise ship being raised by water, dozens of feet into the air.
You see, the Panama Canal is a lock-type canal and maintains three sets of locks, each having two lanes. The locks function as water lifts; they raise ships 26 meters above sea level to the level of Gatun Lake, then back to sea level on the opposite side of the isthmus. During these “lockages,” which use water obtained from Gatun Lake, the miter gates seal the locks’ chambers and gravity drains the lower levels.
About 51 millions of gallons of fresh water are used for each lockage, and ultimately flush into the sea.
It is fascinating to see the electric locomotives, or “electric mules,” which help move a ship through a lock. The locomotives employ cables to align and tow the ships, and keep the vessels in position within the lock chambers.
The canal officially opened its watery doors to international trade on August 15, 1914. Most of the shipping is containerized cargo of grains, petroleum and petroleum products.
In the past, cruise ships sailed all the way through the canal but lately, on 10- and-11-night Caribbean itineraries, partial transits have become increasingly popular.
These loop-cruises enter the canal from the Caribbean Sea and sail into Gatun Lake, where they remain for a few hours as passengers tender ashore for excursions. Our ship, the MS Zuiderdam, then passed back through the locks, returning to the Caribbean and stopping at Cristobal Pier to pick us up after our excursions.
Earlier, our guide Richard Detrich cajoled us to “get off the ship and see something of Panama.” And we did: Riding on a dome car of the Panama Canal Railway Company, we admired the length and breadth of this magnificent waterway and small but important nation of about 3.8 million – including an active Jewish community in Panama City.
Geographically, Panama is the only country in the world where north is west and south is east, because the country is shaped like a sideways “S” running from west to east; the North Atlantic and Caribbean Sea is north, the Pacific Ocean lies to the south, Colombia to the east and Costa Rica to the west.
The engine of the nation’s recent economic growth has come from the canal.
Transit fees now bring in about $1 billion a year for the government.
Until now, new oversized container ships and supertankers could not be hauled through the waterway. A third lane, part of an approximate $6b. expansion, was undertaken a decade ago to include a third set of locks, now being built. It was set to have been completed this year, but after work stoppages, the new lane is expected to open in early 2016.
Being constructed are three chambered locks, as long as three Empire State Buildings laid end to end, and access channels on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides of the canal, to allow longer, heavier and wider ships to transit the waterway. “They’ll also add capacity to a canal that’s just about maxed out,” wrote Mimi Whitefield in The Miami Herald.
I was told that the Panama Canal faces growing competition: The Suez Canal recently announced plans to widen its waterway. Nicaragua recently unveiled more details about its own canal between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans; the project is being pushed by Chinese developer Wang Jing, it was reported.
At the start, France’s Ferdinand de Lesseps, the renowned builder of the Suez Canal, established a company in 1879 to construct a sea-level canal.
The effort was ill-fated: Thousands of Caribbean blacks died from snakebite, sunstroke, typhoid fever and smallpox. About 80,000 French men – and women, in many cases – lost their entire savings in the French plan for the canal. One of France’s leading anti-Semites, Edouard Drumont, even charged the Panama tragedy had been caused by a “Jewish plot.”
With the failure of de Lesseps’s plan – he had insisted on a sea-level passage through Panama – the US in 1903 came on to the scene and started building in 1904.
Actually, history cites four Americans as responsible for building the canal: president Theodore Roosevelt; William C.
Gorgas (who stamped out yellow fever and malaria); John F. Stevens (the chief engineer from 1905-1907); and George W.
Goethals (New York/New Jersey residents will recognize his name, as the Goethals Bridge connects New Jersey with Staten Island, NY). Goethals succeeded Stevens, built the locks and completed the canal.
One more fact important to the history of the Panama Canal: Colombia had ruled Panama, but relations between the two nations were always strained. In 1903, Colombia refused an offer by the US to build a canal across Panama. Encouraged by the US, the Panamanians revolted and declared their independence on November 3, 1903, achieving freedom with the complicity of the US government. With Panama’s approval, the US began building the canal in 1904.
In 1977, after a decade of negotiations, a new treaty between Panama and the US granted the former higher rents and tolls, and legal jurisdiction over the passage by 1980. Total sovereignty and operational control over the entire waterway, including a narrow US-controlled canal zone, was handed to Panama on December 31, 1999.
Vital to the economies of North and South America, connecting the Atlantic Coast with the Orient and the Pacific Coast with Europe, the canal is certainly worth a visit. After all, it was, and still is “the miracle route everyone had been searching for.”
The writer covers travel topics, and is the author of the just-published Klara’s Journey, A Novel (Marion Street Press); The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti and Beyond (Globe Pequot Press); and A Travel Guide to the Jewish Caribbean and South America (Pelican Publishing Company). Blog:; Twitter @bengfrank