How Much Do You Know About The Panama Canal?

What do you know about one of the world's most famous man-made passageways?

Panama Canal
Panama Canal. ROSCO

Early Plans for the Panama Canal

As the early Spanish settlers in South America looked to move their acquired cargo back to Spain from places such as Peru and Ecuador, they looked to creating a passageway through the narrow land in Panama. As far back as 1529, a plan for a canal was created, but due to the cost of waging European wars, the funds for the canal were never released.

The next plan for a canal through Panama was approved by the Spanish government in 1819, and a company to build the canal was never created.

In 1880, Frenchman Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal, proposed a sea-level canal through Panama and formed a company to build it. Almost twenty years later, the US congress created the Isthmian Canal Commission to study the best route for a canal to allow ships to move between the Atlantic and Pacific.

The Hay-Bunau-Varilla treaty was signed by the US and Panama on November 18, 1903, whereby the US received rights to a canal zone which was to extend six miles on either side of the canal route in perpetuity. In return, Panama would receive a payment from US of $10 million and an annual rental payment of $250,000. However after civil unrest in Panama during 1964, the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty was abolished in 1977, which led to the handover of the Panama Canal in 1999.

Technical Specifications of the Panama Canal

Ground was broken on the Panama Canal was carried out by the company formed by Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps, on January 1, 1880, although active work on the canal did not start until two years later.

Unfortunately for the French, the work stopped in 1893 after approximately 22,000 workers died from malaria and yellow fever. Subsequent to the signing of the Hay-Bunau-Varilla treaty in 1903, the United States began completing the work started by the French and finally the canal was officially opened on August 15, 1914.

The 51-mile canal is comprised of artificial lakes and three sets of locks. It is the size of the locks that determine the maximum size of vessels passing through the canal. Each lock is 110 feet wide, 41 feet deep, and 1050 feet long. The maximum height of a vessel is determined by the Bridge of the Americas, which is close to the entrance of the canal from the Pacific Ocean.

The bridge was built between 1959 and 1962 and gives 201 feet clearance at high tide. The maximum size limits of a vessel that can pass through the canal is commonly called the Panamax.

The actual limitations for vessel size differ slightly from the maximum tolerances. For normal vessels, the maximum length is 950 feet, 106 feet in width, and 39.5 feet deep. The height of a vessel, or air draft, is 190 feet. There are exceptions to these limits, such as allowing container and passenger ships up to 965 feet in length to pass through the canal.

2014 Expansion Project

The limitations of the canal became an issue as container ships became larger due to the demand for more economic ways of moving goods on the ocean. The government of Panama believed that if the canal was not increased in size other routes, such as a northwest passage could become a threat to the canal and the income it brings to the nation.

The final decision to increase the size of the canal was made by the voters of Panama in a referendum in 2006. Over three-quarters of the voters choose to increase the canal.

The expansion of the canal includes creating a third shipping lane with locks at each end, one at the Atlantic entrance, one at the Pacific. Each of the new locks has three chambers designed to move vessels from sea level to the lake level. The new locks will be 1,400 feet long, by 180 feet wide and 60 feet deep. The project also includes the raising of the artificial lake, called the Gatun Lake, by 18 inches to also help accommodate larger vessels.

The project is estimated to be costing $5.25 billion and was completed in 2014. The new limitations for vessels are being called the New Panamax; 1200 feet in length, 161 feet wide and 50 feet deep.

Despite the expansion to the canal, some existing vessels are still too large to have safe passage. Some large tankers as well as the Maersk E-Class vessels are too wide for the new canal locks. The Maersk E-Class ships are 1300 feet long and 184 feet wide, with future E-Class vessels being even larger.

Updated by Gary Marion, Logistics and Supply Chain Expert.