Posted by: Sailing Camelot | October 7, 2012

September 21st – The Panama Canal, demystified

In a few weeks we’ll be crossing the Panama Canal, leaving behind the Pacific Ocean to go explore the Atlantic side.

Though very excited about this next experience, I can’t help feeling somewhat apprehensive and intimidated – possibly due to my ignorance regarding the whole process.

We decided to get informed, not only reading about it, but also doing everything possible short of the crossing itself.

Here’s some of the information I found on the Canal:

Ships passing through the canal from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean actually move from the northwest to the southeast, due to the east-west orientation of the Isthmus of Panama.

The original construction project was started by the French in the late 1880’s, but was abandoned just a few years later for lack of funds and the loss of many workers’ lives to tropical diseases. In 1904 the U.S. bought the Canal Zone, paying $10 million to Panama and $40 million to the French, completing the Panama Canal in 1914 for a total cost of $375 million. The U.S. operated the Canal until 1999, when it was turned over to Panama.

The canal has three sets of locks. From the Pacific side, the first is the Miraflores Locks, followed by the Pedro Miguel locks and lastly by the Gatun Lake locks.

Each one of its chambers measures 33.53 meters (110 feet) wide and 304.80 meters long (1000 feet).

The three locks were built in pairs, so that two ships can move simultaneously in the same direction or in opposite directions.

The big cargo ships we see crossing every day are considered “mid-size” and are known as the “Panamax” class. These are currently the largest ships that can fit into the lock chambers.

Traffic continues to increase, but many oil supertankers, military battleships and aircraft carriers (known as “Post Panamax”) cannot currently fit through the canal.

Therefore, in September 2007 the Panama Canal expansion project began; completion is expected by 2014 for an estimated cost of US$ 5.2 billion.

It’s basically considered a “third lane” that will double the Canal’s capacity and accommodate the Post Panamax ships, which are 1,200 feet in length and carry three times the cargo of the 965-feet-long Panamax ships.

It’s far from a simple endeavor and many factors must be considered, just like during the original project.

First, the sea level of the Caribbean is eight inches lower than the Pacific. Second, the different tides between the two oceans must be accounted for. Third, the Isthmus at Panama itself rises 26 meters above sea level.

Before… Looking from Gatun Lake out to the Atlantic Ocean

… And After. This is what the new expansion will look like once completed.

View from opposite direction – entering Gatun Lake from the Atlantic Ocean

To solve these problems, ships go through a series of three locks, which lift them up to Gatun Lake, and then lower them through three more locks back down to sea level. It takes, on average, 13 hours to move through the Canal’s 51 mile length.

The Panama Canal is rightfully considered a marvel of modern engineering, and I couldn’t agree more after seeing just a part of it…

We took a Bus trip to Gamboa, then hopped on a boat and went thru the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks, thus completing a “three-quarter crossing”; it gave us a clear feel for what’s entailed.

Our ride for the Three Quarter Canal crossing

Miraflores Lock – waiting to lower the water

Doors always open for Tom! The Miraflores lock opening

Basically, the most exciting part of the crossing is being in the locks. We can expect the rest of the transit to be pretty much a quiet trip up a quiet canal… It helps that the flow of traffic is one-way: from midnight to midday ships transit exclusively from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and from midday to midnight from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This greatly minimizes the possibility for accidents… Hopefully, we’ll only have to worry about what’s coming behind or beside us while still maintaining a good lookout for the few stragglers in front of us…

Imagine finding this “straggler” in front of you…

The Panama Canal Guardian Angels

They’re here to nudge, push, pull or – in extreme cases – even tow!

On a separate trip we also visited the brand new canal expansion observation center overlooking the construction site at Gatun Lake on the Atlantic side and had a very clear view of the magnificence of this new engineering project.

Self explanatory…

Visitor Center overlooking Gatun Lake – Ships staged, waiting to cross the last set of locks

The Expansion Plan

Not only will the new locks be bigger, they will also wisely have cisterns to save and recycle the water needed to flood the chambers, instead of relying solely on the water reserve from Gatun Lake and Chagres River.

Section of the Expansion under construction, Atlantic Ocean in the distance

Close up of same construction site

It’s an incredibly detailed and complicated operation

At this point, after gathering all this “intelligence”, I no longer feel so intimidated. The sense of trepidation has been replaced by a sense of wonder and anticipation for the upcoming crossing.

As soon as we’re assigned our crossing date, I’ll post the link to the live-cam stationed at the Miraflores Locks. Just in case you want to see our “tiny” sailboat following huge behemoths into the Canal…

If this guy can DROP in the Canal, I shouldn’t have a problem merely crossing it…



  1. Hi guys,

    So sorry to hear your sad news — that must have been so hard for you both. We wanted to say that we *love* reading your blog, and appreciate all the details that you share! Especially since we’re hoping to follow your tracks this winter!! Please don’t stop posting, and good luck with your canal transit!

    Leah & Jonathan
    s/v Brio

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