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Panama’s Amazing New Ditch

From the visitor center at the Miraflores Locks, travelers check out the nonstop action of international vessels moving from coast to coast. The strip of red dirt seen beyond the ship is being excavated for the new ditch.

©2011 Latitude 38 Media, LLC

Being able to transit the Panama Canal, rather than traveling via the Strait of Magellan or Cape Horn, saves cargo vessels at least 8,000 miles and an untold volume of fossil fuels. But today it is estimated that a third of the world’s container ships are too large to pass through the Panama Canal. Knowing this, we weren’t too surprised to learn, during our recent visit to The Ditch, that a new, longer, wider set of locks is being built to augment the current parallel lock system.

Cruisers heading west through Miraflores Lake get a front row view of the enormous project.

© Latitude 38 Media, LLC

What did shock us, however, was the timeline for completing it. As every armchair historian knows, construction of the Panama Canal was a colossal effort fraught with a wide range of setbacks, including the deaths of thousands of laborers from all over the globe. Begun by the French in 1880 and later abandoned, The Ditch was finally completed by an American team in 1914. The new lock system, however, was begun just four years ago and is slated for completion in 2014 — the 100 year anniversary of the original Canal. Its upgrade will more than double the Canal’s annual capacity. Currently, the maximum dimensions of ships (dubbed Panamax vessels) transiting the Canal are 965′ long x 106′ wide. The new lane will accommodate New Panamax vessels as big as 1,200′ long x 160′ wide — increases of 25% and 50% respectively.

A sketch of the western end of the project. An effort to dig a third lane was actually begun in 1939, but was soon abandoned.

© 2011 ACP

We got some fascinating insights into the massive, $5.25 billion construction effort from former San Francisco Bay sailor and ex-cruiser David Wilson, who is currently working on the expansion project. Having cruised far and wide, he and his wife Sandra Snyder now call Panama home. "These photos show the location of the new Pacific locks construction area (near Panama City)," he explains. Look for more on the project in an upcoming edition of Latitude 38.

A view of the western end of the project. In the foreground is the Victoria disposal area where unusable excavated material is dumped. It will later be used to fill in swampy areas. Unlike the original locks, these new locks will recycle most of the water used to raise and lower vessels.

© 2011 David Wilson
According to Wilson, “This plant has the capacity to make 5,000 cubic meters of concrete per day. Incidentally everything that goes into the concrete is refrigerated. The cement, water, aggregates and sand are chilled to near freezing so the the concrete goes into the trucks at 4 degrees Celsius. The Atlantic site has similar capacity.”

© 2011 David Wilson

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