There is a professor on board whose job it is to prepare us for destinations that lie ahead in greater depth than the man who tells us about the best places to shop. Entire books have been written about the construction and operation of the Panama Canal, so I will only share a few tidbits that interested me.
The need for the canal was obvious. It cut 13,000 miles off the sailing trip from New York to San Francisco and promoted commerce between the west coast and Europe. During the California gold rush interest grew, but engineering and construction skills just weren’t up to the task. Instead a railroad was built across the slender isthmus and gold prospectors sailed to Colon on the Atlantic side, boarded the railroad, and took a different ship the rest of the way from Panama City on the Pacific side. A modern version of that railroad still exists. The fifty mile trip takes less than an hour.
It took our ship all day to make the same trip. We had less than two feet of leeway on either side of the ship in the locks and some of the turns were tight. In the locks we were tethered to motorized mules which kept us in the middle and tugs folllowed us as we sailed. The main construction obstacle was the mountains which requires that the ships passing through must be raised and lowered 85 feet using a total of six locks. As the cut was made through the hillside, the land removed formed the dam for the freshwater Gatun Lake filled by the Chagres River, at that time the largest manmade lake in the world. The railroad was used to move construction machinery and debris. Another challenge continues to be the constantly eroding hillside. Dredging continues 24/7 on a smaller scale than when the canal was originally dug and vegetation was planted to help hold the soil. Today ships sometimes hang out in the fresh water lakes and wait for the salt water barnacles and crustaceans to fall off.
De Lessups, the Frenchman who built the Suez Canal, which is twice as long, promised to build the Panama Canal without even visiting the place. The harsh jungle conditions, malaria and typhoid fever, brought the French to their knees. By the time the Americans took over just over 100 years ago, they spent two years learning how to control and eradicate these diseases before serious digging commenced. The population of Panama at that time was 100,000 and 75,000 workers were needed to build the canal. Many of the workers were from Barbados and used to the heat and humidity. The canal was planned to be large enough to accommodate the Titanic. One of the issues engineers had to address was that the Atlantic and Pacific have their high and low tides at different times. By creating two freshwater lakes rather than cutting through the rock and mountains as the French had planned, the American design saved time, effort and money. The canal opened six months before planned.
Today there are rumors that extremely wealthy Chinese businessmen are planning to build another canal through Nicaragua. This route would take advantage of a natural sea water lake, but would be at least twice as long as the Panama Canal. The Nicaraguan route had been considered back in the day. A Panamanian investor mailed postcards with a Nicaraguan stamp that showed its active volcano to everyone in Congress. Even though the volcano is nowhere near the proposed route, Congress took the hint and chose Panama. Now that the Panamanians are almost finished with digging a wider canal parallel to the one we sailed today that will accommodate the very largest ships afloat today, it doesn’t seem practical to spend billions and billions on another canal close by. All the indigenous people were removed from the ten mile wide Canal Zone a hundred years ago, but many tribes in Nicaragua would face dislocation if the Chinese follow through with their plans.
To make the sailing today, Royal Caribbean had to make a reservation for us over a year ago. Generally ships from the Atlantic always begin sailing through in the morning and ships from the west come through in the afternoon. Most of the route involves sailing from north to south, not east to west as one would imagine. Fresh water fish float along with the west bound ships and are released into the salty Pacific when the last lock opens. The salt stuns and disorients them and dolphins and crocodiles wait there with open mouths. Sounds nasty but the fish would die anyway.
A local guide cam onboard and woke us up at 6:30 with his informative commentary. He talked about the fees charged to ships passing through. The typical Panamax ship pays $120,000 and passenger ships like ours pay still more. Small private sailboats pay about $800 and the man who swam the canal paid $.36. It was nice to see how well the Panamanians are running the canal that we built and gave to them. They are making money hand over fist and are using some of the profits to add the wider lane to accommodate ever larger ships. Their efforts are causing many ports on both sides of the canal to enhance their docking facilities so they can handle the huge ships after they transit the canal.
Tourist viewing centers near both ends of the locks gave Panamanian tourists a chance to wave us us as we waved at them. On the Pacific side the capital Panama City loomed on the horizon. It has an impressive sky line with many skyscrapers. We’ve never been there and now it has been added to the list.