Slow boat between the continents

By Robert N. Jenkins

COLON, Panama – The horizon of this port on the Caribbean Sea is interrupted again and again by the hulls of immense freighters, a cruise ship or two, military vessels, a scattering of sailboats.

There is no horizon on the landside. Instead it is a series of giant walls built of cargo containers, interrupted here and there by immense cranes moving the containers to or from docked ships.

And everything you see, on land or water, is here for one reason: This is the north entrance to the Panama Canal, perhaps the greatest construction project ever.

A cargo ship maneuvers into the locks at Gatun Lake.

It is at once a masterpiece of engineering and a blend of tragedy, scheming and an unimaginable amount of human effort. Numbers tell part of the story:

  • - Cubic yards excavated: 268-million
  • - Length of canal: 50 miles, plus its approach channels
  • - Dimensions of each of 6 chambers that form 3 locks: 110’ wide by 1,000’ long
  • - Average number of ships per year: 14,000
  • - And finally, number of laborers’ deaths: more than 27,600, from accidents, landslides, malaria and yellow fever.

About 22,000 of those fatalities occurred in less than eight years, as a French company tried to construct a canal in the 1880s. Theirs was the first effort to create a shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

The French effort in Panama, at the time a territory of neighboring Colombia, was headed by Ferdinand de Lesseps, a former diplomat who had been successful years earlier heading the effort to build the Suez Canal. But that canal was built at sea level – no significant elevation to overcome, so it needed no locks to raise or lower ships.

The first Panama project was doomed to failure: The route chosen was saturated by rainwater – never a problem in the Suez – which caused repeated landslides. Plus, medical science had no realistic ideas about the prevention or cure of malaria and yellow fever.

The landslides, other accidents and disease killed about 22,000 of the West Indian laborers imported because they were more used to the tropical climate. The project did not stop in 1889 because of those deaths. Rather, the French company ran out of money.

About a decade later, the Frenchman who was the company’s chief engineer hired an American lawyer, to influence the U.S. Congress in choosing a path on Panama land owned by the company, rather than through adjacent Nicaragua.

The lawyer ultimately used a lie about volcanoes in Nicaragua to get Congress to vote for a Panama route. When Colombia rejected the U.S. plan, President Theodore Roosevelt dispatched warships that blocked Colombia from putting down a Panamanian rebellion. Panama quickly granted America the right to build and operate a canal.

In May 1904, work began, with the chief engineer selecting a different route – one not at sea level. Medical advances helped eliminate the diseases, and superior heavy equipment was utilized.

The first passage came in August 1914. The 1-millionth occurred in October 2010. And in 2014, construction should be complete on a third set of locks, on each end of the canal, to allow much larger vessels passage.

The 185-foot Pacific Explorer sailed for years under charter to Seattle-based Cruise West, which ceased operations last fall. I was onboard the 100- passenger ship last January on its usual excursion to the rainforests and islands of the Pacific Coast of Panama and Costa Rica.

Cruisin' the canal

Crew members on a cargo ship watch a “mule” as it climbs up its track in the locks at Gatun Lake.


In advance of my trip, the cruise company has paid $38,000 to the Panama Canal Authority, the operator, for passage.

On this trip, Capt. Hernan Lara receives a radio message to get in position at Colon in the afternoon. Shortly before 3 p.m., Eric Hendricks, one of 290 canal pilots, comes aboard Pacific Explorer.

With him are six workers who fasten thick cables to posts at the bow and stern, on both sides of the ship. In turn, these cables run to special locomotives, called mules. While transiting ships propel themselves, the 55-ton mules provide enough tension to keep the ship straight within the lock chambers.

Hendricks, a 22-year veteran, will be on the bridge the entire transit, talking alternately to the captain and, by walkie-talkie, to the mule drivers, who play out or tighten their cables and match Pacific Explorer’s speed of 2.1 miles per hour in the locks.

Huge double doors on a lock swing open to let a ship pass through.

By 3:54, after a Japanese fishing vessel has come up behind the Pacific Explorer, the rear gates of the first chamber of the Gatun Locks’ three chambers begin to close. Matched by Canal Authority computers, these two ships will enter and exit each of the Canal’s six chambers in its locks.

Onshore, operators press buttons to move the 85-ton doors that open or close a chamber, front and back. Now, 3-million gallons of water per minute rush in to the chamber.

By 4:04, the cables on the deck posts are level with the cable-intake slots on the mules. Sensors alert the chamber operators that water pressure is equal on either side of the massive doors. At 4:05, the doors in front of the Pacific Explorer slowly swing open, fitting into the sides of the chamber.

The ship glides forward, and pilot Hendricks swivels his head from side to side, checking the ship’s position vs. the walls. Occasionally he lifts the walkie-talkie to issue instructions.

Once through the third and last chamber of Gatun Lock, the cables are removed from the posts. Capt. Lara increases the Pacific Explorer’s speed to begin the 23.4-mile passage through manmade Gatun Lake, to the next lock.

Hendricks now switches his attention to the screen of the laptop he brought aboard in a scuffed, yellow plastic case. The computer is programmed with an animated look-down view of the route.

At 9:20 p.m., the forward doors in the Miraflores Locks’ southernmost chamber swing open to the Pacific Ocean. Hendricks presses the button of his walkie-talkie: “Ones and twos, everybody cast off. Thank you.’’

More info: Go to, or send e-mail to David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Path Between the Seas is a highly readable history.

Photo credit: All images courtesy of the Panama Canal Museum.

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