Panama Canal Hoy!
Today marks the last full day of our UnCruise Adventures Uncharted Isthmus! Sloths, Monkeys and Mangroves itinerary aboard the Safari Voyager . It’s a good one, however: we’re set to make a full transit of the engineering marvel known as the Panama Canal.
The concept of a shortcut between the Pacific and the Atlantic was born in the 1500’s, when King Charles V of Spain ordered the first topographic studies done in the region. Centuries later, the construction of the Canal proved to be a nightmare that would consume the French and the Americans, not to mention countless labourers from around the world who struggled with the region’s challenging terrain and hordes of disease-carrying mosquitoes.
The first man to seriously attempt the construction of the Canal was Ferdinand de Lesseps, a French diplomat who financed the Suez Canal. De Lesseps was a visionary, but he vastly underestimated the terrain of Central America.
Initially, De Lesseps figured he’d dredge the canal at sea level, as he had done with the Suez Canal. Having only scouted the area during the dry season, de Lesseps unwittingly plunged his men into the ferocious rainy season of 1881. At one point during construction, the death toll was recorded at 200 people per month. These deaths were attributed to a potpourri of factors, from floods to snakes to malaria.
Eight years later, Ferdinand de Lesseps was arrested for misappropriation of funds. The French cancelled the massively over budget program, which had lost 22,000 lives and over $287-million dollars. His plan to dredge the canal at sea level was a failure.
The Panama Canal would ultimately be constructed by the United States of America, which would also administer it until January 31, 1999. Rather than attempting to dredge a sea-level canal, as De Lesseps had, American engineers planned to employ a lock system to raise and lower ships from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea. They would also need to create the world’s largest man-made lake – Gatun Lake – in order to complete the project.
Although the wet season and mosquito-borne diseases like Malaria were better understood thanks to the efforts of doctors like Walter Reed, the Canal would still result in the deaths of nearly 6,000 people during the decade-long construction project. The Canal opened on August 15, 1914 – just weeks after the start of World War I in Europe. The S.S. Ancon was the first of 1,000 vessels to transit the Canal that year.
More change has come to the Canal recently. In 2016, the Panama Canal Expansion was officially inaugurated, after nine years of construction. These new locks on the Pacific and Caribbean sides can accommodate “Post Panamax” ships that are traditionally too large to have made the transit. While this route opens the Canal up to ships that are longer than 965 feet and wider than the standard 106 feet, it doesn’t help cruise ships that are too tall to pass under the Bridge of the Americas. So, if you’ve dreamed of transiting the Canal on Queen Mary 2 or Oasis of the Seas, bad news: they’re still too big.
Here aboard the Safari Voyager, we’re nice and small. Since the new locks are for the exclusive use of Post Panamax (read: big) ships, we’ll be using the “classic” Panama Canal.
From the Pacific Ocean, we first anchored out in a staging basin off Panama City. Here, a local pilot came onboard to check the vessel and ensure everything is up to his specifications. The Panama Canal is the only place in th