A Man, A Plan, A Canal = Panama

Anyone for a bath?

Yesterday we went to see one of the engineering wonders of the world – the Panama canal. The Miraflores Locks are right outside Panama City so we could see the action up-close and personal.

Like everything in Panama City, it started with a little bargaining. Taxis in the city don’t have meters and while there is an official map indicating how much your trip should cost, very few drivers know and/or care about that. So you usually just tell the driver where you want to go and he’ll give you a price. If it’s too high, which it invariably is, you counter with something more reasonable, etc. Eventually you’ll meet somewhere in the middle about 2 dollars higher than what the official price would actually be. In the case of going to the Miraflores locks, the problem is that it’s a little outside of the city in an isolated spot, i.e. the taxis can pretty much charge whatever they want to get you there and away again since they are the only form of transport available. We found a driver who was willing to take us for $6 so we counted ourselves lucky and got into his truck. (Of course it was adorned with the local requirements: Panamanian flag stuck to the windshield and car-freshener tree dangling from the rear-view mirror.)

Once at the locks, we walked through the museum which is not as extensive or informative as the Museo del Canal in the old part of the city but it’s where most of the tourists get their info anyway because unlike the museo del canal, the explanations are in Spanish and English. So we learned how the French started the original dig for the canal, then handed it over to the Americans who did a super job and everyone was happy to give the canal away again to the Panamanians in 1999! Needless to say there was a bit of info missing here but it was interesting enough. Anyway, we had come for the ships and the canal! And we were not disappointed when around noon the ‘Asian Chorus’ started to make its way towards us to pass through the Miraflores locks. The ‘Asian Chorus’ is a cargo ship about 200m long which means it’s not the biggest ship that crosses through the canal but it’s still very impressive when it comes into the tiny little lane right in front of your eyes. ‘Asian Chorus’ is as wide as a Panama canal ship can get, 32m. Here it is, being bullied into the east lane by a tug boat. (Oh, and see that tiny little speck on the left-side of the lane? That’s a row boat which will go out to meet the ship so they can throw a tow line. I would not want to be the guy in that row boat.)

Will it fit???

Speaking of sizes: the Panamanian government and the canal authorities are in talks to expand the canal with additional locks which would a) allow more daily traffic (currently 39 ships) and b) let wider ships pass through. This is obviously of great importance since at the moment all traffic is limited to a certain size ship. The largest possible ship to pass through the canal is called a Panamax and has become one of several standard ship-sizes. (The others are, unsurprisingly, Suez-max and Malacca Max.) Here’s a graph of the different size ships:

Who's got the bigger one?

Once the ship enters this particular lock and the doors are closed on both sides, it takes about 8 minutes for 96 million liters of water to flow out and for the ship to sink about 8m. (Here is a strangely hypnotic time-lapse video someone created with screenshots taken from the Panama canal webcam.)

That little tour boat looks like it'll be squashed soon.

Bye bye little boat!

This is one of several locomotives used to stabilize the ship inside the lane.The little locomotive that could...

These two locomotives at the back act as brakes and can bring the ship to a full stop in no time.

Stop that ship!
All in all the Miraflores locks lower or raise ships about 16m, depending on the tides. Southbound ships are off into the Pacific from here while northbound ships have two more locks to navigate as well as Gatun Lake and Gaillard Cut (Corte Culebra) before they reach the Caribbean sea.

But the coolest thing of all is the title of this blog post: “a man, a plan, a canal = Panama” is a palindrome, meaning it reads the same backwards and forwards. So clever…

Leave a Reply