The Panama Canal

Next year – 2014 – will mark the centenary of the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. The 77.1km (48 mile) ship canal connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, via the Caribbean Sea, and was one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken, but was a key factor in promoting international maritime trade. It enabled vessels to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in half the time previously required and avoided the hazardous and lengthy Cape Horn route.
Although France began the work of building the canal in 1881, the work had to stop due to engineering problems and high mortality rates of the workmen, due to disease. The project was resumed by the United States and was completed in 1914. In 1999 the canal was taken over by the Panamanian government and the annual traffic has risen from about 1,000 ships when the canal first opened, to a staggering 14,544 in 2012.


The Route

The Atlantic entrance to the canal lies in Limon Bay, a large natural harbour which provides a deepwater port (Christobal) with facilities like multimodal cargo exchange to and from the trains and where ships waiting to enter the canal are protected from storms by breakwaters. From here a 3.2km channel forms the approach to the locks.

The Gatun locks, a three-stage flight, lifts vessels to the level of Gatun Lake, around 26.5m above sea level. Gatun Lake is an artificial lake formed by the building of the Gatun Dam in 1913. At that time it was the largest man-made lake in the world covering about 470 sq km. The area around the lake consists of impassable rain forest where many Central American animal and plant species survive undisturbed in their natural habitat. This is the summit canal stretch, fed by the Gatun River and it carries ships 24.2km across the Isthmus of Panama. It also provides the millions of gallons of water necessary to operate the canal locks and provides drinking water for Panama City and Colon.

The next 8.5km is a natural waterway, the Chagres River, followed by the Culebra cut which slices 12.6km through a mountain ridge, crosses the continental divide and passes under the Centennial Bridge.

The first part of the decent is by means of the single stage Pedro Miguel lock, 1.4km long with a fall of 9.5m. This is followed by the artificial Miraflores Lake which is 1.7km long and the two-stage Miraflores locks, 1.7km long with a descent of 16.5m.

The canal ends at Balboa harbour which, like the start, has multimodal exchange provision, and is near Panama City.

There is an additional artificial lake, Alajuela Lake, which acts as a reservoir for the canal.


The Locks

As on every canal, the size of the locks determines the maximum size of vessel that can pass through them. Originally the Gatun locks were designed to be 28.5m wide, but the US Navy requested that the width should be increased to allow the passage of US naval vessels. A compromise was made and they were built 33.53m wide and 320m long.  Because the Panama Canal is so important to international trade many of the ships are constructed to the maximum size possible. These are called Panamax vessels and they have a DWT (Deadweight tonnage) of 65,000-80,000 tonnes. The actual cargo, however, is restricted to about 52,000 tonnes because of the draft restrictions of 12.6m within the canal. The longest vessel to travel the canal was the “San Juan Prospector”, now called the “Marcona Prospector”, which is 296.57m long and has a beam of 32.31m.

In 2015 a new lane of locks is due to open. This is currently under construction and will allow even larger vessels to transit the canal through deeper and wider channels.



Tolls for the canal are based on vessel type, size and cargo and are set by the Panama Canal Authority. They are continually being updated as ships get bigger and costs increase and for cargo ships, with the tolls based on tonnage, there is a complicated scale of charges. For small vessels the toll can range from $800.00 for a vessel less than 15.24m long, up to $3,200.00 for a vessel of over 30.48m.


Efficiency And Safety

The success of the Panama Canal during its first hundred years cannot be disputed and it continues to be a vital link in world trade. In terms of efficiency, the time it takes a vessel to navigate the canal, including waiting time, has varied between 20 and 30 hours since 2000. The accident rate has not changed appreciably in the last 10 years, varying between 10 and 30 accidents per year in around 14,000 annual transits.

The first enforced closure of the canal since 1989 (when the US invaded Panama), was in December 2010, when heavy rains caused a 17 hour closure and the access road to the Centennial bridge collapsed.


The Perils Of Transiting In A Small Vessel

The Canal was not designed for small boats and its immense scale can be intimidating:
  • The lock doors weigh 800 tons each.
  • A 40 horsepower engine is needed to open and close them.
  • The amount of water required to fill each lock is around 2,675,200 cubic metres, enough for a day’s supply of water to a large city.
  • The need to maximize the number of vessels passing through the canal means sharing space with much larger vessels, leaving little room for piloting error.
  • The forces inside the lock are huge, with currents and prop wash from the larger vessels having the potential to wreak havoc on the smaller boats.

Another problem for cruising boats is that they are at the bottom of the queue when it comes to scheduling a transit, some having to wait anything from 2 weeks to a month or more.

There is inevitably a mound of paperwork required which you can do yourself or pay an agent to do for you. You will also have to visit customs, immigration and the port captain, obtain tourist cards, arrange for the boat to be measured and then eventually you can pay the transit fee.

Once you have paid your fee you are given a scheduling time that will have to be checked on a daily basis or even several times a day as the time gets closer. You will have to make arrangements for four line handlers to be on your boat as well as a pilot and captain and make sure you have four 125 foot lines and four heavy duty cleats capable of standing the huge loads of the canal. Begging and borrowing of lines from fellow cruisers is a common event and if you are short of crew, line handlers can be hired. It is good policy to check and recheck your engine to make sure there are no mechanical problems, as breaking down in the canal can result in stiff penalties amounting to several hundred dollars per night.

There are several ways a small boat can transit. The easiest way is to tie up alongside a tug. (Every ship has a tug that accompanies it through the canal). You can also raft up with other cruising boats, three or four abreast.

Every boat has to have an accompanying pilot who is in communication with other pilots and the lockmaster. He will work the logistics of how the boats will enter the lock and how they will be arranged.

While you wait patiently, or otherwise, for your slot in the queue, care should be taken if you decide wander away from the safe confines of your boat and the Yacht Club. Cruisers are often mugged in the tough town of Colon and even short distances are safer if you take a taxi.


The Future

Despite being an engineering marvel, the canal is showing its age. Years of use have waged an ongoing battle with corrosion and metal fatigue. Nonetheless, traffic is on the rise.
An enlargement scheme, to allow for increased number of transits and larger vessels, is at present in operation with completion expected in 2014. This will double the canal’s capacity. The new locks, due to open in 2015, will give engineers greater access for maintenance work and are expected to continue operating indefinitely.
All these improvements have inevitably meant an increase in tolls. The proposed rise of up to 15% has been criticised as “simply unacceptable” by the International Chamber of Shipping. So in spite of its importance, the canal is increasingly facing competition. Some critics suggest that the Suez Canal may become a possible alternative for cargo vessels travelling from Asia to the US East Coast.
In June of 2013 Nicaragua gave a 50 year concession to the Hong Kong based HKND Group to develop a canal through the country.

There is a possibility that the increasing rate of melting ice in the Arctic Ocean may make the Northwest Passage or Arctic Bridge a viable route for commercial shipping in the future. This would save 9,300 km on the route from Asia to Europe via the Panama Canal, but such a route would be plagued with unresolved territorial issues and problems with ice.

Whatever new routes are developed, however, it is likely that as the Panama Canal moves into its centennial year it will continue to maintain its position as a key link in maritime world trade.

Author – Dee White

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