The Panama Canal began construction under the French in 1881, but due to the exorbitant construction costs, engineering issues, workplace accidents and malaria outbreaks, they eventually went bankrupt. The United States then took over construction of the canal in 1902 and finally completed it in 1914 (over 30,000 people died during construction of the canal).
Because of the curvature of the Isthmus of Panama, ships transitting from the Pacific side travel in a northwest direction. Ships transitting from the Atlantic side will travel in a southeast direction. This is contrary to the belief that the canal runs east/west. There would be many more interesting facts told to us via a shipboard narrator throughout the day as we traversed this incredible engineering achievement.
These new locks were built with water-saving basins to reduce the volume of water used during the operation of the locks. This new lane of traffic doubled the capacity of the canal. These locks are 1400 feet long and 180 feet wide and can accommodate nearly 80% of the worlds cargo ships.
Each original lock is 1050 ft long and 110 ft wide. Ships are guided through the locks with miniature electric-powered trains called "mules." This name derives from the fact that they actually used real mules to help pull ships through when the canal was originally built. The "mules" are used to keep the ships from hitting the sides of the canal. We can't say they were 100% successful because we hit the sides several times through the first couple of locks.
Once out of these locks you will cross Miraflores Lake and then enter the Pedro Miguel lock. This last lock brings the ship up to the total height of 85 feet from the Pacific Ocean to the level of the Culebra Cut (Gaillard).
The canal is not necessarily a two way street. One-way movement is changed every 6 hours in order to expedite ships transitting the canal quicker. Priority is typically given to larger ships since they can only transit during the day. Two-way traffic only happens at night with smaller ships.
Gatun Lake was formed after the Gatun Dam was built to block the Chagres River. Many ships will lie in anchor in this lake waiting for permission to pass or for fees to be paid in order to transit the remaining locks.
The average cost of a vessel transitting the canal is approximately $150,000 (US). The most expensive cruise ship fee was paid by the NCL Pearl. It paid $375,000 ($450,000 w/additional fees) for its passage through the canal. One container ship paid $830,000 (just over $1 million w/fees) to cross the isthmus. The cheapest fee was a mere 36 cents, paid by Richard Halliburton, who swam the Panama Canal back in 1928. These averages will continue to increase over the years.
If ships want priority access to the canal (luxury cruise ships or yachts), they will pay an additional fee (sometimes as high as $50,000) to transit first in line. The use of tugs will also cost extra.
Navigating the canal is an extremely delicate process. Canal pilots must follow strict rules and markers to ensure that they do not run aground or collide with other ships. Highly trained canal pilots will help each ship navigate these difficult waters safely.
Here we would be lowered 85 feet through three successive locks and then travel out past the Port of Colon to the Atlantic Ocean (Caribbean Sea).
Click on a picture below for captions and a larger image.