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Shipping Canal: Panama Canal

Posted in Shipping Canal - 24 May 2021, 3:29 PM

The Panama Canal is maybe the single most important waterway on earth. Since the early 1900s, it has connected the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean, making the transport and trade between regions easier, shorter, and faster.

The unique crossing system of the canal makes Panama interesting to learn about. Here are some of the facts about the canal:

Trade-in for Panama’s Independence

The first excavating project of the canal was started by the French in 1880. Diseases and work fatality stopped the project in the way, and the United States saw an opportunity to finish the anticipated canal.

Through the signing of the Hay–Herrán Treaty, the United States was granted a lease to take over the construction of the canal. The US was given authority in the canal zone and was responsible for ensuring Panama’s independence from Colombia. It also stated that the US needs to pay $10 million at the start of the project and an annual fee of $250.000 that began nine years later.

Panama Canal Designed as a Sea-Level Canal

The initial design of the canal was proposed by Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French engineer behind the success of the Suez Canal. Although the length of the new proposed canal was only 40% of the length of the Suez Canal, the elevation of the land and the dense rainforest had made the design nearly impossible to reach. At the same time, workers were falling to tropical diseases—something that was not predicted by the French.

Before the US took over the project, de Lesseps was about to change the design to the lock-and-lake canal, as proposed by the French manager of the New Panama Canal Company, Phillipe Bunau-Varilla.

The First Lock-and-Lake Canal in the World

Because a sea-level canal was not feasible to make, locks had to be made to lift the vessel to the same elevation as the man-made Gatun Lake, which is located 85 feet above sea level. The chambers were constructed in three tiers to take vessels up the lake. Then, the vessel needs to navigate some 15 miles across the lake and enter another three tiers down the lake level before it can go through the Panama Gulf to the Pacific.

Entering each lock or chamber, a vessel needs to wait until the water is at the same level as the next chamber before it can go through the lock. The lock system would let the water fill out the chamber before the gate opened. 

Panama Canal Shaped the Entire Shipping Industry

The Panama Canal started to operate in 1914, and since then, it has been the staple route that connects the Atlantic and the Pacific. The original size of the chamber was 94 feet wide. To adjust to this, many vessels were built to follow the measurement so that they can fit in the Panama locks. These vessels are known as Panamax vessels.

To accommodate bigger vessels, new locks were built and completed in 2006. It allowed new metrics for vessels known as New Panamax Vessels. This means the vessels were made significantly to get through the canal, which suggests Panama Canal’s importance to the shipping industry for the last century.

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