Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Panama Canal

If you’ve never transited the Panama Canal, it’s a wonder to behold. Also a spectacular engineering accomplishment, at least for the early 20th Century.

Today was my third time through, and frankly, it gets better every time. There’s always something new to notice, new to learn. For example, the mule drivers like to yell and argue a lot and LOUDLY with each other, especially at 06:00!  And the line throwers actually had some bullseye targets to practice throwing the ropes to the ships.

A mule. Two lines are attached from it to the ship. There is a mule on both sides of the ship, so, two in front and two in the rear, for a total,of four. They help keep the ship centered in the lock. 

There’s the bullseye for practicing rope tossing. 

The Spaniards first conceived of the idea of building a canal through this isthmus in the 1500’s. Clearly, they were procrastinators. In 1880, the French gave it a go but failed miserably, due in part to financial troubles and a pesky disease called Malaria. After Panama secured its independence in 1903, Teddy Roosevelt jumped at the opportunity to build the waterway and so began the successful construction. It was finished in 1914. The U.S. managed the canal operation until 1999, when it was turned over to Panama. 

The canal generates a lot of revenue for Panama, as can be witnessed by the recent appearance of its phenomenal skyline that we see today. In the last decade or so, many skyscrapers have been built with the revenue generated by canal operations. There’s some great architecture in the new city center. One of my favorite buildings is the one that looks like a corkscrew. 

The Panama Canal is important because it saves ships an enormous amount of time, money and lives. If it didn’t exist, ships would have to sail south to the bottom of South America and go around Cape Horn. That’s a dangerous stretch of water and really only safely passable during the summer months. Since it opened in 1914, over a million ships have transited the Canal. 

The Canal uses a system of locks that act like water elevators and raises the ships to the level of Gatun Lake, which sits in the middle of the isthmus at about 84 feet above sea level. Our captain calls it “going over the hump”.  The water to do this comes from Gatun Lake itself, using gravity and poured into the locks through a culvert system. It’s pretty ingenious!

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