Blog Posts Tagged ‘Panama Canal’
Transiting the Panama Canal is a slow affair. Entering the six chambers of the locks, ships might move just 2 miles per hour, and motoring through the entire 50-mile passage can easily take eight hours.
Guided by a mule, lower left, a cruise ship moves through a lock chamber.
Along the way, your ship passes lushly forested hills and plains carpeted by palm trees. All of which belies the intriguing blend of tragedy, scheming and an unimaginable amount of human effort need to create the engineering masterpiece. It is hard to conceive that more than 27,600 men died in constructing the canal, dead from accidents, landslides, malaria and yellow fever.
First the French tried to build a canal, but despite two years of surveying, they foolishly plotted a sea-level path. That’s most likely because overseeing the project was the man who ha also shepherded the successful construction of the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps.
He had no experience as an engineer or builder but has been a diplomat who gained the rights form Egypt to build that canal, which was at sea level — with no significant elevation to overcome, so it needed no locks to raise or lower ships.
But the route chosen in Panama was saturated by rainwater – never a problem in the Suez – which caused repeated landslides. Plus, medical science had no realistic ideas about the prevention or cure of malaria and yellow fever.
The French project did not stop after eight years, in 1889, because of all the deaths of more than 22,000 laborers but because the company ran out of money.
About a decade later, the Frenchman who was the company’s chief engineer hired an American lawyer, to influence the U.S. Congress in choosing a path on other Panama land owned by the company. After some outright lies by the lawyer, Congress did choose Panama instead of Nicaragua. When Colombia – which then controlled what is now Panama — rejected the U.S. treaty signed with that French engineer, President Theodore Roosevelt dispatched warships that blocked Colombia from putting down a Panamanian rebellion.
Newly independent Panama quickly granted America the right to build and operate a canal. In May 1904, work began, with the chief engineer selecting a different route – one not at sea level.
The first transit came in August 1914. The same lock chambers used back then are still used, and the 1-millionth transit through them is expected this year. But by 2015, construction should be complete on a new set of locks, to allow much larger vessels to pass.
Colon, Panama — Shortly before 3 p.m. on a mid-January day, Eric Hendricks comes aboard the 100-passenger ship Pacific Explorer. He is one of 290 pilots who take control of ships entering the canal.
Passengers on the Pacific Explorer look down as a mule holds the tension steady on a cable.
With him are workers who fasten cables to posts at the bow and stern, on both sides of the ship. These cables run to special locomotives, called mules. While transiting ships propel themselves, the 55-ton mules provide enough tension to keep the vessels straight within the lock chambers.
Hendricks, a 22-year veteran, will be on the bridge the entire transit, talking alternately to the captain and, by walkie-talkie, to the mule drivers, who play out or tighten their cables and match Pacific Explorer’s speed of 1.8 knots (about 2 miles) per hour.
By 3:54, after a Japanese fishing vessel has come up behind the Pacific Explorer, the rear gates of the first chamber of the Gatun Locks’ three chambers begin to close. Matched by Canal Authority computers for maximum occupancy of the chambers’ space — 110’ wide by 1,000’ long — these ships will transit together each of the Canal’s six chambers.
Canal pilot Erick Hendricks works on the bridge as a mule glides alongside.
Onshore, operators press buttons to move the 85-ton doors that open or close a chamber, front and back. Now, 3-million gallons of water per minute rush in to the chamber.
At 4:05, with water pressure equal on either side of the doors to the front of the Pacific Explorer, they slowly swing open, fitting into the sides of the chamber.
The ship glides forward, and Hendricks swivels his head from side to side, checking the ship’s position vs. the walls. Occasionally he lifts the walkie-talkie and to utter instructions.
Once through the third and last chamber of Gatun Lock, the mules having played out or pulled in their cables as the ship sinks or rises, the cable hands who had come aboard remove them from the posts. Untethered, Pacific Explorer begins a 23.4-mille passage through manmade Gatun Lake, to the next lock.
A Japanese fishery ship enters a lock chamber behind the Pacific Explorer.
Hendricks now switches his attention to the screen of the laptop he brought aboard in a scuffed, yellow plastic case. The computer is programmed with a look-down view of the route through the canal.
At 9:20 p.m., the forward doors in the Miraflores Locks’ southernmost chamber swing open to the Pacific Ocean. Hendricks presses the button of his walkie-talkie: “Ones and twos, everybody cast off. Thank you.’’
Passengers on deck wave to the mule drivers, one of whom calls out, “Good voyage!’’
A boat will swing alongside shortly to pick up Hendricks. Tomorrow, he’ll get a call telling him when to report to the locks, to guide another ship back to Colon.
For more information: Go to www.pancanal.com, or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Path Between the Seas is a highly readable history of the canal.