Down to the Sea in Ships

Down to the Sea in Ships

We were undecided for a long time as to whether we would make it to Panama. After missing our scheduled flight from Guatamala to Costa Rica, we had to decide which countries we wanted to target and how we would go about getting there. After realising that flights within Central America are pricey if you don’t book in advance, which I never do, we ended up blowing our budget getting around but nevertheless we ended up making it to Panama (ironically one of the most expensive countries in Central America) and I had a good feeling about it instantly. Luke has been keen to see the Panama Canal for years and after my little stint working at a shipping company whilst home,  plus my love for cargo ships generally, I was very excited about seeing this most famous of world waterways. First though, we became acquainted with Panama’s old town.


Casio Viejo (old town) is pretty upmarket with overpriced coffee shops and stores selling artifacts made by local designers. Even though I love that kind of thing and believe in supporting the local economy, no one in their right mind would spend $60 on a wicker fan. Especially when the old quarter borders a slum. 

My favourite part of the Casio Viejo has to be The Church of San Jose. Legend has it that when the Welsh pirate Henry Morgan invaded Panama in 1671, the priests painted the golden alter black in the hope of tricking the pirates into thinking that the gold had already been stolen. After arriving at the church and being greeted by a wall of black, Henry was disappointed and sceptical – how could it have all disappeared? Whether he was truly deceived by the priest’s lies, nobody knows but rumour has it that he turned to the priest and said: “I think you are a better pirate than me my friend!”

We ended up spending five days in Panama City but apart from the odd wander, we saw very little. This was mainly due to 90% humidity and partly due to the fact we were staying in a very nice apartment with a pool. We are easily distracted when a pool is part of the equation.

The main reason for making it to Panama, though, was to see the canal, so we headed off to Miraflores Locks. There are three locks on the canal, each one with two lanes. Ships are elevated from sea level to twenty six metres above it (this is the level of the man made Gatun Lake) allowing them to travel through Panama from the Pacific to the Atlantic and vice versa, thus avoiding a 7872 mile detour around Cape Horn. 

The French first attempted to build a canal in 1881. However, due to the high number of deaths and various other issues, they abandoned ship in 1889. The US then continued construction in 1904 and completed it in 1914. Unbelievably, 25,000 people died during the building of this epic project.

Here are some facts about the Panama Canal:

– Ships are charged based on their weight. The average toll for a ship to transit the canal is $150,000, but this can vary dramatically.

– The cheapest toll ever paid to transit the canal was 36 cents in 1928 by Richard Halliburton, who swam its length. The most expensive toll recorded however (as of July 6th, 2016) is the MOL Benefactor, a cargo ship which paid $829,000.

– It is expected that when a post-Panamax ship transits the new canal, the record toll will pass $1 million.

– A miter gate used at the canal can weigh up to 700 tons. That is comparable to 300 elephants.

– It takes a ship approximately 8-10 hours to transit the entire canal.

– The Panama Canal takes in approximately $2 billion a year in revenue.

This extremely simply yet impressive process is all done using gravity. I find that the coolest bit of all.

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