Design, Travel

Just over 100 years ago today…

[Ian Macready]
A ship entering the first stage of the Miraflores Lock

It’s been in the news recently for all the wrong reasons: something to do with an overrun of $1.6bn in costs for the new wider set of locks that the Panama Canal needs for its future, and nobody is prepared to foot the extra bill.  The Spanish Public Works Minister flew out yesterday to meet with the Panamanian President to try and sort this out.

Of course, what they should have been doing is celebrating the 100th anniversary yesterday since the first self-propelled vessel  – the crane ship Alexander Lavalley – traversed the full length of the canal back on January 7th 1914. The official opening, later in August 1914, was overshadowed by the events in Europe which had kicked off in July. Just a few days ago, Viewport was in town to take a look at this wonder of the modern world (as described by the American Society of Civil Engineers). And for a canal it is an amazing and moving sight. The easiest way to visit is to go the Miraflores lock, the first of the three sets of locks and closest to the Pacific Ocean end of the canal. There is a visitor centre with a small museum and you can play at being your own ship’s captain on the simulator.

It is incredibly exciting watching these huge ships squeeze themselves into the 33.5m wide locks with only 60cms to spare on each side. The locks system is all still early twentieth century technology and uses gravity (the central lake of the canal system is 85 feet above sea level) without any pumps. The tiny towing locomotives – known as the mules –  pull the huge ships through and make sure that they do not bash the sides of the canal walls. The lock chamber takes 15 minutes to fill up with 26 million gallons of fresh water from Gatun lake (the centre of the canal system), and the ship rises, the gates are opened, and then passes through to the next chamber. The whole passage through the canal takes on average 24 hours for each of the 17000 ships that make the journey, which is some 5% of international shipping.

Just a few kilometres cycle away along the canal, you get a small understanding about why the earlier French attempt led by the then world famous Ferdinand De Lesseps, engineer of the Suez Canal, failed. The canal is built surrounded by thick tropical jungle, very different from the conditions in Egypt. The project was beset by landslides from the rain-soaked hills, rusting equipment and an unacceptable death toll from malaria and yellow fever.  The canal today built by the Americans, is owned and operated by the Panamanians themselves. A deal was struck with Jimmy Carter in 1978 to relinquish American ownership in the year 2000 despite Teddy Roosevelt’s agreement back in 1903, after securing independence for the isthmus from Colombia, that the Americans could hold on to the canal and a strip of land 10 miles wide each side, in perpetuity.  Anyway, good luck with that meeting today in Panama City. It’s kind of important for those Costa Rican bananas and pineapples to get to Waitrose.

Photos by Ben Brodie and Ian Macready.


The mules pulling the container into position
Water filling up the chamber
The lock gates opening
The ship in the second chamber
A close up of the Mule
Further along, the canal surrounded by the Panamanian jungle.