The building of a viable waterway to cross the isthmus of Panama was closer to being a nightmare than a dream. First, the French took up the challenge in the 1880s by hiring the super-star engineer who built the Suez Canal, Ferdinand De Lesseps, to oversee a sea-level project planned only for barges with a canal depth to 30 feet.
How could you go wrong?
However, the Suez Canal – often described as “a ditch dug through a flat, sandy desert” – was no blueprint for the Panama Canal. With mountainous rises to 360 feet and hard rock to excavate, the proposed Panama sea-level crossing was a daunting undertaking.
After losing an estimated 26,000 workers to disease and accidents and having run up a bill equivalent to $287 million, the French abandoned the project, which in eight years reported only two-fifths of the work as completed. Remnants of the French canal are still visible during transit today.
In 1898, the U.S. government urgently required one of its battleships from the Pacific Coast to show itself off Cuba. The ship’s journey of 14,000 miles took 66 days around Cape Horn. This raised awareness that, for military reasons as much as for commercial reasons, the building of the Panama Canal must become a priority.
In 1904, the French assets were bought by the United States and the design was changed to a non-sea-level, double-lock canal with dimensions to accommodate the largest naval vessels of the day.
Construction manpower was enormous, consisting of more than 5,000 Americans, 11,000 Europeans and 25,000 Caribbean islanders. With plans to use 60 million pounds of dynamite, there were geological concerns about disturbing six identified fault lines and some active volcanoes, not to mention accelerating the daily earthquake count and recurring landslides along the selected route. Four thousand workers died from dynamite accidents alone.
With more than 115 inches of rain a year, flooding was a constant challenge as were the 18-foot tides in the Pacific versus flat water on the Atlantic side. Despite all odds, the canal celebrated the transit of its first client 100 years ago this month, on Aug. 14, 1914.
While the opening of the Panama Canal was truly a momentous event, acknowledged as one of the engineering marvels of the modern era, its unveiling was overshadowed by the start of World War I just 17 days earlier. With the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in charge, the canal cost $352 million to build, and it came in under budget.
During a recent educational cruise through the Panama Canal, I asked one of the lecturers, Capt. Kenneth Puckett (panamacanalpilot.net) to share his recommendations for yachts transiting the isthmus. He worked for 16 years as a Senior Panama Canal Pilot and Port Captain, personally piloting 1,447 vessels through the canal.
Capt. Puckett began by indicating that yacht masters have to sign a responsibility waiver and send blueprints in advance so that Panama Canal Authority staff can recommend the best strategy for moving each particular yacht safely through the locks.
“You must treat the transit like a military operation and consider all options based on the yacht design,” he said. “The reason for sending blueprints is for experienced authorities to consider whether the vessel can stand the stresses of being linked to the stabilizing locomotives on either side of the lock. Often this option has to be discarded because of the yacht design. Locomotives, or ‘electric mules’ with cables attached to each ship, are there only to stop ships from bumping into the lock walls, not for towing ships forward.
“Another possibility is tying the yacht to a lock’s concrete wall but that may not be safe for some designs either,” he said. “I recommend that a yacht captain get in touch with a Panamanian agent who specializes in transiting yachts. It is worth hiring extra local people to handle lines no matter the size of the vessel.
“Other successful options I’ve seen used include transiting the locks tied to a tugboat or in tandem with other yachts or small vessels, and then there is the increasing popularity of using yacht-shipping services aboard large cargo ships.
“Transiting a yacht across the 48-mile isthmus just requires patience and creative thinking,” he said.
The canal has three sets of locks. A two-step flight at Miraflores and a single flight at Pedro Miguel lift ships from the Pacific up to Gatun Lake; then a triple flight at Gatun lowers them 85 feet to the Atlantic side. It takes 52 million gallons of fresh water from Gatun Lake to navigate each vessel through the canal regardless of size.
According to Vicente Barletta, vice president of communications for the Panama Canal Authority, yachts generally take two days to complete their transit. At the end of the first day, the boats are stationed mainly near the Gatun Lake area, allowing some opportunity for people aboard to look around and enjoy the unique experience.
In 2002, Panama adopted a toll structure based on ship size and type, while providing for separate usage rates and charges for other services. Once a yacht’s customized transit plan is established, including the services it requires to make a safe passage, it may transit the canal. Smaller vessels such as yachts and small commercial vessels typically transit at night, saving daylight slots for the largest vessels.
“The Panama Canal operation is complex and very regulated,” said Alessandro Risi, an agent with Associated Yacht Services in Panama. “The mix of ships arriving every day is different, the restrictions applicable to every vessel are also different, and the goal is to prepare a schedule that allows for the maximum utilization of the capacity.
“Big ships can only transit during daylight,” Risi said. “As you can understand, to occupy a daylight slot for a small vessel that can transit in the evening hours simply doesn’t make economic sense.”
Under special conditions of traffic, it may be possible to schedule a small vessel to transit some or all the locks during daylight, but Risi said this cannot be guaranteed. Requesting a daylight transit can cost a yacht larger than 125 feet an additional $20,000 (not guaranteed and requested less than three days prior to transit date) or $30,000 (guaranteed and requested three or more days prior to transit date).
The number of yachts transiting the canal each year continues to increase, growing from 792 in 2000 to 1,194 in 2013.
It is interesting to reflect that the existence of the Panama Canal today was largely a French and American initiative until the U.S. handed it over to Panama in 1999. With a vision to privatize canal management, Panama soon contracted with a Hong Kong conglomerate to manage all operations.
By all statistical measures, Panama and its canal are thriving as this strategic waterway moves into its second century.
Victoria-based Alison Gardner is a travel journalist and editor of Travel with a Challenge web magazine, www.travelwithachallenge.com, a richly-illustrated resource for mature travelers featuring ecological, educational, cultural, and volunteer vacations worldwide. Comments on this story are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Make it fast
Did you know that the Panama lead was invented by ships using the canal?
It was because when using an ordinary (open) fair lead for the lines that went from the ship to the ‘donkeys’ that were pulling the ship through the canal, these lines just used to pull out of them when the ship went down in the locks.
So they got over this by putting a hole in the bulwarks by the mooring bitts on the deck and then led the line from the donkeys through this hole to the bitt. Then, when the ship went down in the lock, the line remained in the Panama lead as it couldn’t jump out of it, and also, of course, remained fast on the bitt.
— Capt. Michael Pignéguy