I doubt anyone came to this blog to learn everything I know about the Panama Canal, but I learned a lot yesterday! It's unfortunate I can't get any of the video to load right now, perhaps that will change when I get home to my full setup.
The French tried to dig a canal in the 1880s, but they wanted to dig ocean-to-ocean like they did with the Suez. This wasn't going to work and they went broke. In 1903 Panama was still part of Colombia, and the US sent a naval vessel to keep the Colombians away from a Panamanian insurrection; shortly after they were able to declare independence, they gave the US the canal zone "in perpetuity" (at least until Carter signed it back over).
The Americans, under a West Point graduate, dammed a river and created Gatun Lake--don't have to dig 50 miles anymore, you can sail across a lake a lot of the way! The big cut is, I think, less than 10 miles long. Also, the Americans wanted to go "up and over" Panama and not have to dig through it, so there are 3 sets of locks (some with more than one chamber) to raise ships the 89' needed to get over Panama and lower them back to sea level.
The tour bus picked me up at my hotel at 10am sharp. I was the first to be picked up, and traffic was so horrible for the first hour or so of stops that our driver used his horn at least as much as the gas pedal. When we were gathered up we were driven to a marina where I thought
we would meet our boat:
At the marina we, along with others who were there before us, were loaded onto another bus
and driven 60-90 minutes to the town of Gamboa, in the center of the country.
It was in Gamboa that we boarded our vessel and headed southeast towards the Pacific.
We passed through 2 of the 3 locks on the canal, which are very cool. They're they same gates, and pretty much the same system, that was used when the Canal opened over 100 years ago in 1914.
There was a slightly larger boat in front of us. Each time, they would enter the lock first and tie up, then we would tie up on their port side, and a sailboat would tie up on our port side.
And then they'd bring in that monster vessel right up behind us. It did not motor into the lock; rather, it was secured to trains that pulled it into the lock and right on our tail.
We were up high, we needed to get down to sea level.
The gates behind "Big Bertha" were closed, and then the water in the lock started draining. We dropped about a meter a minute, and the draining took about 10 minutes.
When we were at the next level, the gates would swing open. The sailboat would motor out first, then us, then the slightly larger vessel, then "Big Bertha". The first lock had only 1 step and the second lock had 2 steps, so we went through this entering, tying up, draining, opening the gates, exiting in sequence drill 3 times
The real estate wasn't very interesting as we traveled mostly through cut rock, perhaps the trip through Gatun Lake would be more scenic. However, from a historical and engineering perspective, this was about as cool as it gets.
We motored out of the canal and back to the original marina, where we got on our respective buses and were returned to our hotels.
-the canal fee for our 300-passenger boat was $4100. There were 95 passengers on board, and I myself paid $150 for this trip. Crew, the meal on board, the buses, marina fees--do the math.
-the largest fee ever paid for a single vessel was somewhat over $1 million.
-it is a felony to swim in the Panama Canal.
-since the US Navy must be able to operate in both the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans, the Panama Canal limited the size of our naval vessels for over 100 years!
-in 2016 new, larger locks were added. Now 98% of the world's fleet can sail through the Canal.
-average waiting time to get a transit time/date through the Canal is 24-48 hours. Of course you must pay your fees first, in cash or transfer, no credit! In God We Trust, all others pay cash.
-cruise lines ensure their times are written in stone, they pay 6 months in advance!
A student of mine told me about his family's adventure transiting the Canal in a sailboat several years ago. You can read their experiences here
--and I recommend you do, it's very entertaining.