Modernizing the greatest shortcut on Earth

What cruise destination is older than most grandmothers, needs an $8 billion face-lift and yet still earns $1 billion in revenues every year? It’s the amazing Panama Canal, one of the seven wonders of the modern world.

Why fix it if it ain’t broke? According to Roberto Alfaro, Panama’s ambassador to the U.S., “Almost 45% of the ships being built today are too wide to go through the canal. In the future, all the ships built will be too wide. So if we don’t enlarge the canal, we will begin to lose business.”

A man, a plan, a canal

The idea for a canal across Panama was first floated in 1524, when seamen realized that a 50-mile canal could cut over 3,000 miles off a trip from Asia to the east coast of North America and over 5,000 miles off a voyage from Ecuador to Europe. The Panama route could also avoid the perils of Cape Horn.

But the engineering problems were so great that construction did not begin until 1881, under the charismatic Frenchman Ferdinand-Marie de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal. Almost 20,000 men died in that attempt.

The effort was abandoned until the early 1900s when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers picked up the gauntlet. Between 1904 and 1914, the Corps conquered yellow fever, numerous landslides, engineering nightmares and some of the most treacherous jungles in the world. It is a testament to their work that the locks they built are still in use today, 91 years later.

Size matters

The problem now is the size of those locks. In 1914 they were considered huge: 1,000 feet long, 110 feet wide and 85 feet deep. Those dimensions set world standards for cruise ship, naval and merchant vessel construction for decades. Ships that fit inside these dimensions are called “Panamax” vessels.

But over the last 30 years, vessel size has crept up steadily. In August 2004, five “extreme-Panamax” vessels in a row paraded through the canal — these are vessels that fit inside the locks in both length and width by only a few inches. And numerous cruise and merchant ships are “post-Panamax” — they already exceed the lock width by 20 to 40 feet and cannot transit the canal. Examples include the new Queen Mary 2 of Cunard and Adventure of the Seas, Navigator of the Seas and several other vessels of Royal Caribbean International.

Busy trade corridor

Other than the size of the locks, the canal is doing well. When it was handed over by the U.S. to the Panamanians in 1999, many skeptics thought that corruption, inefficiency and malaise would sink the canal. In fact, average vessel transit time has been reduced by 24% (to 7.4 hours), container net tonnage has increased by 74% and accidents have decreased by 57%.

Over 13,000 ships travel through the canal each year, hauling more than 250 million tons of goods. Of these vessels, about 300 per year are cruise ships. The biggest commercial users of the canal are vessels serving the U.S., at about 76 million tons, with China in second at 18 million tons but increasing rapidly.

The most important commodity carried by the canal is petroleum, at about 11% of total tonnage. Gotta feed those hungry SUVs! Because of all this traffic, the canal is one of most strategic “choke points” on Earth, of vital importance to the world’s economy. A substantial five percent of the world’s total production of trade goods flows through these narrow locks.

A third traffic lane

Plans for modernizing the canal focus on building a “third lane” for traffic. Currently, there are two lanes of locks, one headed toward the Pacific and one headed toward the Caribbean. (Just to make it confusing, the latter lane, going to the eastern sea, heads northwest, while the former, going to the western ocean, heads southeast. Do you remember that oddity from world geography class?)

The new third lane, at about 180 feet across, will be much wider than the current locks, and the locks would be 95 feet deep, 10 feet deeper than the current standard. The entire project will take about 10 years to complete, once the plans have been finalized.

As with any large construction project, there are social, environmental and financial concerns. In terms of social problems, some villagers may be displaced. But the current government of President Martin Torrijos has agreed to minimize their suffering.

Environmental concerns focus on the driving force of the canal itself. The canal relies on high rainfall in the mountains and Gatun Lake to fill the downstream locks with water via gravity. If too much deforestation associated with construction, or global warming, cuts down on the amount of rainfall, the whole canal could stall.

Financing the new construction is also a problem, since experts estimate that fees alone will not pay for the huge, $8 billion bill, even if amortized over 20 or 30 years. So the World Bank or another development lender may have to step in, ultimately relying (directly or indirectly) on that tried-and-true source of financing, the U.S. taxpayer.

Unforgettable trip

I transited the canal 15 years ago, and it was one of the greatest cruises I’ve ever taken. The intricate workings of the lock “mules” (powerful train engines that hold the ships in place), the beauty of Gatun Lake and the terrible majesty of the infamous Culebra Cut, where thousands of workers lost their lives trying to cut through the loose shale and rock, was absolutely unforgettable. I strongly recommend this cruise destination.

Cruise ships that will transit the canal this winter include the Zandaam of Holland America (Dec. 1 & 11, starting at $1,179 for 10 nights), the Coral Princess of Princess Cruises (Dec. 4, 14 & 24 and Jan. 3, starting at $1,199 for 10 nights), Brilliance of the Seas of Royal Caribbean (Dec. 2 & 23 and Jan. 3, starting at $1,074 for 11 nights) and the Crystal Symphony of Crystal Cruises (Jan. 5, starting at $2,340 for 11 nights).

The canal raises about a billion dollars a year for Panama, with each ship charged according to its tonnage. The biggest transit fee ever paid by a cruise ship was that for the Rhapsody of the Seas: $165,000.

The smallest fee ever was paid by adventurer Richard Halliburton, who in 1928 swam the entire length of the canal, including the locks, in 50 hours spread over 10 days. He was accompanied by a motor launch manned with riflemen to ward off alligators, crocodiles and snakes.

At 150 pounds, Halliburton was charged only 36¢! Hmmm, if we could get just 22 billion people to swim the canal, that would pay for all the new improvements.