Panama Canal: from the Atlantic to the Pacific

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12 July 2016

In a few days, Tara will cross the Panama Canal, a legendary passage for global navigation. Recent widening works ensure the supremacy of this construction by tripling its transit capacity between Asia and the eastern United States.

For the 4th time in its existence, the schooner will cross the Panama Canal. This will be her 2nd passage under the name Tara, the first one having occurred during the Tara Oceans expedition. This canal connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and facilitates maritime transit to thousands of ships, ranging from private crafts to large commercial vessels, called “Panamax” (term referring to vessels having the largest eligible size in the canal).

 

Tara-fait-son-entrée-dans-lécluse-de-Miraflores-la-première-des-trois-écluses-du-Canal-de-Panama.-C.-BlanchardTara-Expéditions
Tara transiting the Panama Canal, 2011 © C. Blanchard / Tara Expeditions Foundation

 

“Panama, a major rendez-vous”

Tara’s passage has been in preparation for some time. Port formalities are numerous. “Size of the boat, crew on board, engine power, etc. Everything is declared to enable the best possible transit” says Clémentine Moulin, logistics coordinator on land, who prepared Tara’s passage with the Captain. “Going from one ocean to another through one of the busiest canals in the world is a major undertaking! Everything has to be organized with a port agent, an indispensable intermediary.”

The passage is expected to take 24-36 hours at an average speed of 8 knots between each lock and Tara will embark an accompanying pilot. Tara’s maneuvers will be quite easy compared to those of large cargo ships and won’t require towing by electric locomotives. At wharf, the docking pilots, in charge of mooring operations, will oversee Tara and her crew during the passage through each lock.

The cost of the passage depends on the volume of the ship (its tonnage) – a few thousand dollars for Tara and hundreds of thousands of dollars for large cargo ships. A substantial sum to sail up to Lake Gatun and then back down to the Pacific Ocean but it’s ultimately little compared to the detour via Cape Horn.

 
Panama_Canal_Map_EN
© Thomas Römer/OpenStreetMap data CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

 

A seaway crucial to global trade

This construction has impacted considerably maritime commerce. Since its opening in 1914, ships no longer have had to navigate down to Cape Horn or the Strait of Magellan, located on the southern tip of Chile – a region well known for its rough seas and high winds. Thus, each year, more than 14,000 vessels transit through this route, representing 5% of world trade.

Titanic works were required to develop this 77 km-long strip of land separating the 2 oceans. A series of locks, whose dimensions determine the “Panamax”, enable passage to an artificial lake located 26 m above sea level. This lake is essential for the transit of vessels and also serves as a water reservoir for the proper functioning of the locks during the dry season.

Recently, with the development of maritime commerce, the privileged position of the Panama Canal was challenged by the Suez Canal and a new canal construction project in Nicaragua by 2020. The size of its locks was becoming limiting. In 2011, 37% of the container ships were estimated too large (post-panamax) to take this route and nearly 50% of the vessels transiting the canal were already at the maximum width of the locks.

Expansion works were completed this year on June 26. They now enable the passage of longer and larger ships that can carry up to 12,000 containers – more than double the charge authorized for the original canal. More than 100 years after its opening, the Panama Canal has retained its supremacy on the seaway connecting Asia to the east coast of the United States.

 

Miraflores Lock - 10 Nov 1912
Construction of the Miraflores lock, 1912

 

The Panama Canal in numbers

Extension of the canal:
- 9 years of work (from Sept. 2007 to June 2016)
- 5.2 billion dollars: final cost of enlargement
- 24,000 workers on the construction site
- 49 ships transit daily through the canal
- 510 to 600 million tons of freight per year by 2025
- Dimensions of vessels: 49 m large, 366 m long
- Giant lock basins: 55 m large, 420 m long and more than 18 m deep

First canal:
- 32 years of work (from 1882 to 1914)
- 20,000 workers allegedly died during the construction from malaria and yellow fever
- 39 ships transited daily through the canal
- 203 million tons of transported freight per year
- Panamax dimensions: 32.3 m large, 294.1 m long
- Giant lock basins: 33.53 m large, 304.8 m long and more than 12.55 m deep

Maéva Bardy

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