Costa Rica Tour and Panama Cruise with CruiseWest
The Panama Canal * Photos and text by Jack Yeazel
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The canal is 51 miles long and cuts through the isthmus of Panama, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  Because of the S shape of Panama, the Atlantic lies to the west of the canal and the Pacific to the east, reversing the normal orientation.  It takes about nine hours for a ship to traverse the canal.

The canal has two sets of locks on the Pacific side and one on the Atlantic.  At the Atlantic end, the massive steel miter gates of the triple locks at Gatún are 70 feet high and weigh 745 tons each, but are so well counterbalanced that a 40 horsepower motor suffices to open and close them.  Lake Gatún, which is 85 feet above sea level, is fed by the Chagres River, which was dammed to make the lake.  The gates (all original) will float when towed to a dry dock for maintenance every 10 to 15 years.  The locks can handle ships up to 106' beam, 965' length, and 39.5' (fresh water) draft.  Each chamber measures 110' wide by 1,000' long.

From Lake Gatún, the canal passes through the Continental Divide at the Gaillard Cut, and then descends to the Pacific first through a single set of locks at Pedro Miguel to Miraflores Lake at 54 feet above sea level, and then through a double set of locks at Miraflores.  All the locks on the canal are paired so that ships may pass in both directions.  The ships are guided through the locks by small railway engines.  The Pacific end of the canal is 10 inches higher than the Atlantic end and has much greater tides requiring that gate to be higher than on the Atlantic end.  (Notice the tide change on the "Oro" page.)

This is a Garmin World Map-4 with CenRut's Topo Contours superimposed on it.

Profile of the canal locks

We entered the canal at about 6:00pm, so there wasn't enough light to photograph the Gatun Locks.

Click on the following thumbnails for larger views


Lock gates close behind the Pacific Explorer


The Panama Canal Treaty of 1977 turned the canal over to Panama at midnight Dec. 31, 1999.  So, since 1999 the canal has been operated by the Panama Canal Authority (ACP).  The ACP continues to maintain the locks and widen the Gaillard cut.  This narrowest part of the canal has been widened from 450' to 630' to allow two-way ship traffic and the widening continues today.  Also, fluorescent lights have been placed along the edge of the Gaillard cut to enable safer night traffic.

NOTE:  Our Captain, Hernán Lara, piloted a ship through the canal on the first day the canal was controlled by Panama.