The Panamá Canal

Thank you Mitzi & Jaffa for this postcard

The Panamá Canal is 51 miles long across the Panamá isthmus, (a narrow strip of land) and connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Work began on the canal in 1881 under the management of the same French engineers who had successfully completed the Suez Canal in 1869. Unfortunately though, the Panamá isthmus proved more complicated. Although the distance across was shorter, the challenge was greater because of the tropical climate, the dense rainforest and especially the need for locks.

Image: Ulrich Keller

At its worst the project workers suffered 200 deaths a month, mostly from yellow fever. The link between mosquitoes and the disease had not yet been realised and, by the time the French canal effort was abandoned in 1889, there had been an estimated 22 000 deaths and a total spend of nearly $300m.

The unfinished cuts lay dormant for the next 15 years. In 1901, US Major Walter Reed proved that yellow fever was transmitted by a particular species of mosquito and, although there was no vaccination for another 35 years, the knowledge helped people to avoid infection with the use of larvicides to control mosquito populations in areas at risk. In 1903, Panamá gained its independence from Colombia, and shortly after this the USA picked up the canal project in 1904.

The US management finished the canal in ten years, during which time a further 5 600 workers died, some from yellow fever and others from accidents during construction. The completed canal runs Northwest to Southeast and includes three sets of locks, artificial lakes and the canal itself. Each section of locked canal has a parallel cut as a reservoir of water for the filling, emptying and refilling of the lock.

Image: Ulrich Keller

The size of the locks has limited the maximum size of ships. The original locks allowing ships up to 290m long, 32m wide, 58m high and with a draft up to 12m. Ships of this size are called Panamax. In 2009 three new sets of larger locks were opened on the canal, meaning the Neopanamax ships can be up to 366m long, 49m wide, with a draft of 15m. The maximum height remains the same at 58m because of bridges along the canal.

In its first year there were around 1000 ships that sailed through the canal, today at least 14 000 vessels use the canal each year. In May 2018 the cruise ship Norweigan Bliss became the largest ever to sail the Panamá Canal:

Photo credit: Nicolas Psomas

Geography Cat’s human assistant visited the canal in 2001 and loved the incredible experience of standing alongside a mammoth container ship as it inched its way through the incredibly narrow lock.

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