has become one of the most important milestones in navigation. It was first put into operation in 1920 (the first vessel passed through it in 1914, but due to the landslide in the Fall of that year, official movement was revealed six years later). The canal reduced the water-way between the ports of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans several times - previously, to get from one ocean to another, ships had to circumnavigate South America as far as around Cape Horn. Today, Panama Canal is one of the world's major sea lanes through which about 18,000 ships (the current throughput of the canal is 48 ships a day) passes annually, which is a significant part of the global cargo traffic.
The history of the Panama Canal goes back to the 16th century, when the Spaniard Vasco Nunez de Balboa was the first to cross the Isthmus of Panama and reach the Pacific coast - it was revealed that the territory of modern Panama is only a narrow strip of land between the oceans. In 1539 the Spanish king sent an expedition to explore the possibility of building a waterway through the Isthmus of Panama, but the expedition reported that this idea was hopeless.
The first real attempt to build the Panama Canal was undertaken by the French in 1879, under the leadership of Ferdinand de Lesseps, diplomat and project manager of the Suez Canal, which had opened shortly before, in 1869. But the construction of the Panama Canal was much more complex. In 1889, the French project went bankrupt - it was too difficult to get through the Panamanian jungle, with its tropical downpours, impassable swamps, rocky soils, floods and, worst of all, deadly epidemics of malaria, yellow fever, plague, typhus and other diseases that claimed the lives of about 20,000 people in its first campaign.
Construction of the Panama Canal was then undertaken by the Americans. The USA was interested in reducing the waterway from the ports of California to its Atlantic coast, and most importantly, the Panama Canal had great military significance - it allowed the transfer of fleets from one ocean basin to another almost instantly, which would greatly increase the power and global influence of the US. In 1903, the United States bought the Panama project from the French, secured Panama's independence from Colombia. Columbia did not want to give the Americans the canal zone because of perpetuity. The US later signed a formal treaty with the new Panamanian government (which was represented by the Frenchman Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla, who was one of the main participants in the first project that went bankrupt). The treaty provided the United States with a 3 mile (5-kilometer) zone from each side of the canal (that lasted forever) and the exclusive right to occupy the territory outside this zone under any of the measures for the protection of waterways. Thus, it was announcement that the canal was neutral and guaranteed free passage of warships and merchant vessels from all nations during both peace and war. However, it was destroyed by the American reservation who stated that these regulations would not apply to those measures considered by the U.S. as necessary to be taken to protect Panama and maintain the order of the canal. In fact, during the war with the participation of the United States, their military defenses inevitably deprived the other warring party to use the canal on equal terms.
The chief engineer of the Panama Canal was John Frank Stevens. Taking into account the mistakes of the French, the Americans first took measures to disinfect the area of construction to prevent all tropical diseases. The project was also changed. Under the French led project, Panama Canal, like the Suez, was proposed to be built on the same level as the oceans, without locks. This required a huge amount of earthwork in the watershed area of the track. American engineers modified the project and proposed a lock canal with three steps of locks from each side, and a watershed area with a height of 85 feet (26 meters) above sea level. On the watershed, a reservoir was created named
Panama Сanal was opened in 1920 and for many years remained under the control of the United States. In the canal zone, there were dozens of US military bases, with about 50,000 military and civilian specialists. Over time, discontent about this began to grow in Panama, and in 1977, an agreement was signed on the gradual transfer of the Panama Canal from U.S. control to Panama. Actually, this process took more than two decades, with the canal zone coming into Panama's possession on Dec. 31, 1999.
The canal is 50.7 miles (81.6 km) long, of which 40.5 miles (65.2 km) are by land and an additional approach of 10 miles (16.4 km) along the bottom of the Panamanian and Limon bays to deep water. Vessels with the right dimensions to pass through the Panama Canal, are called the 'Panamax'. This size standard was used up until the early 1990s, when active construction of the 'Post-Panamax' vessels (mainly tankers) began, the size of which was larger than the dimensions of the canal's locks. Today, the cost of one ship passing through the canal depends on the type and size of the vessel, ranging from $800 for small yachts, up to $500,000 for larger vessels.
Funny tidbit; in 1928, from the famous American traveler Richard Halliburton, who sailed through the canal from one ocean to another, was only charged 36 cents.
Today, the canal is not only one of the world's most important transport links, but also the main tourist attraction in Panama. Panama Canal now has a large tourist center at the Miraflores locks, where several special viewing areas, from which you can see the locks and vessels passing through, includes a speaker talking about each vessel, its route and what it carries. There are other tours; by bus along the canal, by railroad and tours on small boats. During some of the Caribbean cruises, ships go up through the Gatun locks to the Atlantic slope of the canal, to the watershed area and then return back to the Caribbean Sea (and willing tourists can go through the rest of the Panama Canal on boats during the special tour). But, of course, the best and most unique way to see the canal is to pass through it completely by transit on a cruise ship, sailing from the Atlantic to the Pacific (or vice versa) and continue the cruise to the next ocean basin. Absolutely all, even the most seasoned travelers, make sure to prepare to pass through the Panama Canal in this special way.
Passing through the Panama Canal itself takes about 9 hours, not counting the waiting time of ships during the huge sea raids from each side. Cruise ship, of course, are on schedule and sail into the canal immediately, out of turn. 'Zaandam' arrived in the canal zone at about 5 a.m. Entrance to the spacious waters of the canal, from the Caribbean Sea, was marked with powerful leading lights and protected by miles of dikes. At the entrance to the canal, dozens of ships of all sizes and colors were in the roads waiting for their turn, brightly lit in the night. And on the shores of the bay was the town and port of Colon, with a huge container terminal. The same container terminal was located at another entrance to the canal - thus, 'Post-Panamax' container ships (i.e., which are bigger than the locks of the Panama Canal) are unloaded in these entrance ports. Containers are then transported by passing along the canal railway, and then on the other side they are loaded on new ships to continue their route. Also, the railway between the ports is used for the partial unloading of large container ships passing through the canal, to reduce their drought.
At 5 a.m., just before dawn, most of the tourists were already on their feet: the entrance to the Panama Canal was one of the central events of the cruise! We were approaching waters, the lights of port of Colon were visible from the deck.
After bringing onboard a group of pilots, we headed to the entrance. From the Caribbean Sea, Panama Canal begins with the three-step Gatun staircase of locks, where ships are raised from the level of the Atlantic Ocean to the watershed section of the canal.
To the left of the active two-line locks, in 2007, construction of the additional third strand of locks of the Panama Canal began.
At 6.30 a.m. we approached the Gatun locks. The movement of ships through one of the most important transport links of the world is continuous. The nose of the 'Zaandam' was clearly visible, and just before us, four vessels were moving up the staircase locks, two in each line.
We were approaching the first lock. Hulking ships moved from chamber to chamber by special locomotives, to which mooring lines were attached and tensioned. The locomotives, attached to strained moorings, accompanied the ship from four sides (the fore, the aft and both sides) - so there is a perfectly clear passage for the huge ships into the quite small (compared to the ship's size) chamber. Mooring lines from the locomotives to the board of the ship are taken by a boat.
Moorings were fixed - let's go!
Entering the first lock chamber - ships were being moved from the Caribbean Sea to the watershed area in the three-stage Gatun locks. Total lifting height is 85 feet (26 meters). Accordingly, slightly less than 29 feet (9 meters) on the stage. But from the board of the huge sea liner, this 29 foot (9 meters) difference is not perceived to be significant.
Unbelievable rush on the decks!
After the United States had finally retired from the Panama Canal in 1999, this unique facility was maintained entirely, and served, by Panama independently. The canal is in good hands!
Locomotives, leading the ship from the stern on the right side, were deftly climbing up. The gate then closed and the locking process began.
After getting up in the first lock, we went into the second chamber.
The Gatun locks have one of the Webcams of the Panama Canal, which is in real-time and broadcasts picture on the Internet. At this moment, many of my friends and colleagues were looking to see how we were going through the lock. Here, we were slowly getting up to the Atlantic slope of the Panama Canal, in 'Zaandam', from the side.
After locking in the third chamber, 'Zaandam' was making its way up to the level of the watershed section of the canal. From the stern, there opens a stunning view of the outstretched canal, down stairs from the locks and above the ships moving behind us. Breathtaking! Far below stretches the expanse of the Caribbean Sea. And we were going to the Pacific Ocean. Goodbye, Atlantic!