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My Canal Tops Your Canal

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Published: June 16th 2017

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Geo: 8.99427, -79.5188

We met another wonderful couple from Canada today Heather and Phil—they’re almost as wonderful as you! They’re from Saskachawan and were on the Canal tour with us and 100 of our closest friends.

We did what’s called a partial transit–took a bus to Gamboa where we boarded our boat in the canal, then rode down through two locks to the Pacific ocean.

It was FREAKING awesome. I was totally blown away by the magnitude of what we were witnessing. And me, who was really not excited at all about seeing the canal and only went to placate my adorable husband, was TOTALLY mesmerized by the big honking machinery and STUFF (real big-boy engineering stuff) we saw.

To give you a little background about how the canal came into being (we’re all about the back story)…a French politician convinced his government in the late 17th century that they could build a level canal across Panama from the Atlantic to the Pacific. He proposed a 6 meter (18 ft) depth. Little did he understand that water does not run uphill.

There’s this pesky mountain in the center of the country that had to be negotiated. The French arrived in 1881 and started recruiting workers from

throughout the Caribbean to begin digging. You can still see the remains of their efforts; it’s not much more than a big ditch. Which is how the canal came to be called the Big Ditch.

But unfortunately, thousands died from Malaria and Yellow Fever and the French had to abandon the project.

After the French left, Panama went hunting for a partner. In the early 1900’s Panama was part of Columbia, but because of extensive tribal wars there, they wanted out. They worked out a deal with the US that we’d help them declare independence in exchange for the rights to build the canal.

Credit for the US’s successful venture lies not so much with tenacity as with finding the cause of the diseases wiping out the workers. When Malaria and Yellow Fever had been addressed, real work could begin.

The engineering required to lift giant ships over the mountains had a simple concept. First you get the Continental Divide out of your way, then you make the water flow uphill carrying the ships with it with technology that was available 100 years ago.

Natural rivers got them within 18 miles of the Pacific. Beyond that the channel had to be dug. One section called

the Culebra Cut took 7 years (1907-1913) and used 60 million pounds of dynamite. Over 80% of the debris was solid rock.

My first question was, how come it’s fresh water? Why isn’t it sea water? You have a whole honking ocean out there–make that TWO. How come you’re using FRESH water?

I guess that puts me in the same class as the French guy who wanted to build a level canal 6 meters deep.

The engineers were thankfully smarter. They started with water that was already above sea level by building the largest reservoir in the world at Lake Gatun (ga-TOON), which lies 85′ higher than the ocean. Then let gravity do it’s thing.

Before the canal, you had to go around the tip of South America to reach the Pacific and even with modern vessels you’re talking about an additional 19 days of shippage.

So exactly how do you make water flow uphill? You do it by building chambers you can close up tight for the ships to sit in while the water level is either raised or lowered to the level of the chamber in front of it. Then the gates open, the ship runs through to the next chamber,

gates close, the water level is again raised or lowered, the gates open and the ship goes on it’s way. You do this enough times and you can sail a megaton ship up and over the Continental Divide.

I’d been through the locks on the Nile river in Egypt but it in no way prepared me for this.

The engineering is mind boggling. More on that later. But now the canal has reached capacity. It’s currently expanding before it becomes obsolete, as the larger ships being built now cannot fit into it. And happily, the extension will recycle water, as now the canal uses more water per day than New York City uses in a year. PER DAY.

The largest charge for a ship to go through the canal was $459,000 based on length and tonnage, and the least was Richard Halliburton who swam it in 1913 for 36 cents. The average is around $300,000.

Our guide told many fascinating stories about it’s history but one he was obviously very proud of was that when the US had the canal they charged based on below deck tonnage. Anything above deck was not charged for (does this make sense?) Anyway, evidently that’s why ships

of the time carried 30% of their cargo below and 70% above.

Well, when Panama took over they charged for the whole load and made more money in the last 10 years than the US did total in all it’s years of ownership.

Verdad? Can we really be that stupid?

Now traffic goes 12 hours one way then 12 hours the other. But the canal’s in the middle of an expansion designed for it to accommodate 2-way traffic, in addition to the new larger ships being built that cannot fit into the locks’ current width.

You can’t transit this waterway without feeling that you’re surrounded by giants. Giant locks with gigantic gates, giant drainage tunnels and gigantic dredgers. You’re surrounded by the largest civil engineering project in the world seconded by the original digging of the canal 96 years ago. They tell us there’s nothing that compares with this. What do I know? Sounds good to me.

Check out http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/4212183 for great detail and drawings of the new channels and locks.


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