THE PANAMA CANAL HAS THREE LOCKS. TRANSITING
ALL OF THEM FOLLOWING A NORTHBOUND ROUTE
(PACIFIC TO ATLANTIC) WILL HAVE YOU PASS THROUGH
THEM IN THIS ORDER:
• The Miraflores Locks are the closest to Panama City and the
Pacific Ocean. The locks have two chambers and raise ships
54 feet up to Lake Miraflores.
• The Pedro Miguel Locks are not far from the Miraflores
Locks. They have a single chamber that raises ships 31 feet
to Lake Gatun.
• The Gatun Locks are the closest locks to the Atlantic Ocean.
They have three chambers that lower ships a total of 85 feet
back to sea level.
For ships that are transiting from north to south, they enter the
locks in reverse order, which means the Gatun Locks raise them
instead of lowering them, and the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores
Locks lower them instead of raising them.
IT’S A TIGHT FIT FOR THE BIG SHIPS!
Many of the ships that pass through the locks are absolutely
enormous, so it takes a huge team to ensure they pass safely
without damaging the locks or their own boats. When a ship
is ready to pass through the canal, a pilot from the Panama
Canal Transit Authority boards the ship and is responsible for
guiding it from end to end. It’s one of the few times a ship’s
captain is not in control of his or her own vessel. If you are on
the water, it’s easy to spot when a pilot boards; a speedboat
pulls up alongside a cargo ship, a gangplank is extended, and
the pilot boards. Pilots are necessary for smaller ships as well;
our pilot joined us without using a gangplank because of the
size of our boat. When the ship is safely out of all of the locks,
another speedboat appears to reclaim the pilot and take him
to his next assignment.
Larger boats are pushed into position by tugboats, which ensure
the ships are as close to the locks’ walls as possible. These
ships are then connected to electric trains called mules, which
are responsible for guiding the ship along a very precise route
within the lock chamber. The mules eectively have full control
of the ship during this time, and they do no disconnect until
the chamber is open and the boat has cleared the lock. Smaller
boats that don’t run the risk of damaging the locks do not need
assistance from mules, but they do tie up to the walls during
filling and draining to minimize the boat’s movement.
Stephanie and Adam Hubka are part-time world travelers on a quest to
maximize their paid vacation time and see as much of this amazing planet
as possible. They have been to a combined 64 countries, 7 continents,
and all 50 US states, you can read about their adventures
THE PANAMA CANAL IS AN INCREDIBLE FEAT OF
ENGINEERING, BUT THERE’S MORE TO IT THAN HUGE
CARGO SHIPS CROSSING BETWEEN OCEANS.
HERE ARE A FEW OF THE FUN FACTS WE LEARNED
DURING OUR VISIT:
• The Panama Canal averages 42 transits each day. If you
think that sounds low, it is — ships take between 8 and 10
hours to transit all three locks during a canal passage. It’s
a slow, meticulous process!
• Ships enter on a first-come, first-served basis. Many ships
wait for approximately 24 hours in line, queuing in either
Panama City or Colon, before their transit begins.
• Lake Gatun was the largest manmade lake in the world
until the construction of the Hoover Dam. The lake was
built as part of the Panama Canal’s construction; it didn’t
exist before 1904.
• Every time a lock opens, 26 million gallons of water rush
out of Lake Gatun. Lake Gatun is a freshwater lake that is
refreshed only by rainwater; however, since Panama gets
as much as 16 feet of rain in a given year, keeping the
lake full has never been a concern.
• When the locks open, Lake Gatun’s fresh water meets
the salt water from the ocean. This causes chaos for the
fish who live in the lake, and those fish caught in the lock
often die or are stunned by the change in water. That’s
why you’ll see tons of birds circling overhead around the
locks—as our guide explained, they remember where to
find a good sushi bu¡et!
• Tolls to take the Panama Canal range based on a ship’s
weight, and they can be expensive — to date, at least one
ship has paid more than a $1 million toll to transit. Why
do shipping companies pay such fees? The alternative is
to sail down around South America, which adds 16 days
of travel. Knowing that a ship can easily burn $100,000
in fuel each day it is at sea, combined with other
operational costs and crew-related costs, the Panama
Canal actually saves money in addition to more than two
weeks of time.
• While Panamax ships were once the largest that the
canal’s locks could accommodate, two new locks opened
last year that are much larger. Now, “post-Panamax”
ships are able to pass through safely.
Our visit to the Panama Canal exceeded our expectations
and fulfilled a major travel goal of ours. We loved seeing
the canal in action, operating exactly as it did when it
first opened more than a century ago. Don’t let a visit to
Panama City pass you by without visiting — or transiting —
the Panama Canal!