Day dawned crystalline blue and hot over the Gulf of Panama. The sea’s surface assumed a silk sheen. The Infinity, stretching 964.6 feet from bow to stern and rising 11 decks above the ocean, had already accepted its local pilot at 0645, and now thread its way through the eight-mile channel whose lush green, but narrowing banks inched closer to its hull. Some 40 ships anchored in the distance awaited entry clearance, yet the Infinity itself, oblivious to them, continued its approach. That approach had been to the Panama Canal, which would facilitate its continental cut from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Lying only a short distance away, it stretched almost 500 years behind in origin.
As far back as 1517, Vasco Nunez de Balboa, the first European to have reached the Pacific, had envisioned a pan-Central American canal which would have connected the two oceans, and 17 years later, Charles I of Spain had actually proposed one, specifically via water. During Spain’s 300-year reign of the area, a rugged land trail, facilitating mule-train transport of gold from one coast to the other, had been hacked out of the jungle in Panama.
During the early-1800s, both the United States and the United Kingdom had continued to focus on the feasibility of such a water artery, although the then-envisioned route had traversed Nicaragua, and the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty had ensured its neutrality, regardless of its actual Central American location.
In 1846, Colombia, then one with Panama, had signed a treaty with the US to retain a potential canal’s neutrality and to guard against its capture by any other country, seeking to control this potentially important and lucrative passage.
This importance, and the seed of a “rail canal,” had been demonstrated in 1849, when an influx of gold rushers, destined for California, had sailed from the eastern part of the US to the Panamanian isthmus, crossed it by mule or foot, and continued up the west coast by sea. The demand, prompting construction of the Trans-Panama Railroad, had, for the first time, connected Colon, on the east side, with Panama City, on the west side, when the $8 million project, undertaken by New York businessmen, had been completed in 1855.
The first serious attempt to construct a water passage across Panama, however, had taken place 23 years later, in 1878, when a French company, headed by Suez Canal Director Ferdinand De Lesseps, had secured the rights from Lucien Napoleon Bonaparte Wyse, who himself had received the original ones from Panama. He had also bought control of the Panama Railroad for $20 million.
Actual digging, for a sea level canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, had begun in 1882, and thousands of French engineers and construction workers engaged in the project. Conditions, however, had vastly differed from those encountered during the comparable Suez Canal project, entailing impenetrable jungles, flooding, excruciatingly high temperatures, humidity, cost escalations, controversy, corruption, inadequate preparation, crude tool and machinery usage, and malaria- and yellow fever-caused deaths. After 24 years of effort and the unearthing of 76 million cubic yards, the company, now bankrupt, had succeeded in digging a canal less than ten miles in length.
Additional survey and analysis, conducted in 1886, had indicated that a continuous-level canal had not been feasible, and could only be successfully completed with a step-and-lock system, requiring ships to progressively in- or decrease height in water-contained chambers before sailing to the next level.
Reorganizing themselves as the New Panama Canal Company in 1894, the French accomplished little more, hoping instead to attract a secondary buyer in order to attain a profit from their franchise.
During that same year, US businessmen had attempted to commission their own canal across the isthmus-in this case, across Nicaragua; however, after rapidly depleting their finances, they had made little progress of their own.
Urgency, however, soon presented itself. During the Spanish-American War of 1898, the battleship “Oregon,” required to reinforce the Atlantic fleet, had been forced to circumnavigate the South American continent by means of Cape Horn, a 13,000-mile distance, alerting Congress to the fact that a canal, reducing the route between San Francisco and Cuba to 4,600 miles, had been vital to its national defense.
During the following year, a commission surveyed potential tans-isthmus routes and continued to recommend the one through Nicaragua because of the reduced amount of required digging. The partially completed route through Panama, however, had proven the more favorable choice after the French had offered it, along with the canal rights, property, and railroad, for $40 million.
President Roosevelt, granting permission to accept the offer in 1902, stipulated that Colombia cede permanent use of the Panama Canal Zone as a condition of the acceptance. These land ownership and access issues had been fundamental to the resumption of the project. Colombia, which had hitherto denied the United States the rights to build such a canal, had ultimately been eliminated as an obstacle when the Roosevelt-led revolution for Panamanian independence had succeeded, removing Colombian jurisdiction. Officially recognizing the new Republic of Panama, Washington negotiated a treaty with it, enabling it to acquire control of the ten-mile strip of land for an initial $10 million and an annual $250,000 thereafter.
The Hay-Paunceforte Treaty, replacing the former Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, granted the US the sole right to build and operate a canal across Central America.
The United States assumed control of the French-initiated canal, but had neither an idea nor a plan as to how to proceed with it, and had been immediately plagued with the same topographical, engineering, and health obstacles with which the French team had contended. Unlike the French, however, the Americans had applied a systematic approach to eradicating the malaria-carrying mosquitoes by removing the swamps and bush in which they had thrived and by substituting the seamless-level passage with a lock-and-step configuration. The latter, which had obviated the need for engineering solutions to the initial, single-level system, had been less expensive and required less time to build.
Colonel George W. Goethals, appointed by Roosevelt, became Project Manager, and he had subdivided the work into three areas:
1. Excavate the Gaillard Cut.
2. Bridge the Chagres River with a dam to create the Gatun Locks.
3. Construct the actual locks.
The Chagres River, particularly, had been perceived as an insurmountable obstacle: bordered by bottomless swamps, if often flooded, destroying everything in its path. Its solution, and the key to the entire project, lay with plugging the river four miles from its Caribbean Sea inlet, in order to create a reservoir where the needed water supply for the series of locks could collect. The region’s high humidity and surrounding rain forest further facilitated this solution by generating the rains which would then continually replenish the reservoir.
Employing more than 43,000 from the US, the British West Indies, Spain, and Italy, and unearthing some 211 million cubic yards of dirt, rock, and plant, the reinitiated Panama Canal project gained momentum, using dredges and steam shovels to remove earth, swamp, jungle, and bush amid torrential rain, saturating humidity, and sweltering heat conditions.
Gatun Lake, 23 miles long and 163 square miles in area, had covered almost half of the canal, making it one of the world’s largest man-made water bodies, while the dam which had created it had been 1.5 miles long and rose 85 feet above sea level.
Like the Chagres River, the Gaillard Cut had also proved a challenge. Stretching more than nine miles and passing through solid rock across the Continental Divide, it had required more than 60 steam shovels depositing dirt into 150 trains running along a 75-mile track before reaching the dumpsite. Mudslides in 1907 had redeposited half a million cubic yards of earth back into the cut, setting the project back by three months.
When completed, this portion of the canal, with a 300-foot width and 40-foot depth, cost $90 million alone.
The Panama Canal, stretching 50.72 miles from Limon Bay on the Atlantic to the Bay of Panama on the Pacific, had been completed in 1914 at a cost of $387 million, which had excluded the almost $300 million already expended by the French. Some 25,000 had lost their lives during its construction.
The first full transit had occurred earlier in the year, on January 7, when the floating crane, “Alexander La Valley,” had plied the water passage, followed eight months later by the first official crossing, on August 15, of the passenger and cargo steamer, “S. S. Ancon,” which had sailed from one end to the other. The date had marked the one-decade anniversary since the United States had assumed control of the French project.
Officially opened six years later, on July 12, 1920, by President Woodrow Wilson, the Panama Canal had toted its purpose as, “The land divided, the world united.”
Several improvements had been made throughout its almost 100-year history. In 1935, for example, 22-square-mile Madden Lake, the result of the dam of the same name, had been completed across the Chagres River and east of the canal in order to store water for Gatun Lake. The Miraflores Swing Bridge, completed seven years later, on May 20, 1942, had provided the first vehicular passage across the canal, and between 1954 and 1970, the Gaillard Cut had been widened from its original 300 feet to a current 500. Its intermittently installed fluorescent lighting, on May 12, 1963, had permitted 24-hour canal operations for the first time. Greater canal depth, attained after additional dredging in 1974, increased maximum ship draft to 39.5 feet.
Ownership, in accordance with the original agreement, had also changed. Territorial jurisdiction of the Panama Canal Zone had been transferred to Panama in 1979, and 20 years later, on December 31, 1999, it had assumed control of the Panama Canal operation from the United States.
On October 22, 2006, authorization to construct a third set of locks, doubling its annual capacity, had been granted.
Transit fees vary according to weight and priority. The lowest toll collected had been the 36 cents paid by Richard Haliburton in 1928 when he had swam the length of the canal during a ten-day period, while the highest had been the $313,000 paid by a ship in 2007.
The Panama Canal remains one of the world’s engineering triumphs, averaging 12,000 annual ships, which transit the Central American isthmus between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans by means of three sets of dual-lane locks, Gatun Lake, the Gaillard Cut, and an 85-foot water level change, saving the 7,800 miles otherwise required by the continental circumnavigation. Annual capacity is 27,000 transits.
At 0832, the 91,000-ton Infinity glided under the erector set-appearing Bridge of the Americas, which connects the east and west banks of the Panama Canal and forms an integral part of the Pan American Highway. The old Navy base, sporting its three piers and collection of gray boats and ships, moved off the port side.
At 0847, the relatively minuscule tugboat, “Alianza,” approached the mighty cruise liner from the opposite direction, trailing its own white wake, and disgorged the canal pilot abreast of the tall monoliths representing Panama City.
Reinitiating movement, now at a snail’s pace, the ship passed an area of dredging, which represented the first stage of the canal’s widening project.
Inching toward the ever-narrowing canal, whose banks had been formed by a series of densely green hills, the Infinity trailed the “Maersk Dortmund,” a Valetta-registered containerized ship which had just slipped into the left of the Miraflores Locks’ two lanes. The pyramid-shaped Centennial Bridge rose in the distance.
Moving at swimming speed past the bank-lined palm trees, the lumbering liner penetrated the lock with its bulbous bow, nudged by the Panama Canal tugboats snugly pressed against its stern. Five Century electric locomotives, running on cog tracks laid atop the lock walls, resembled an awaiting armada, poised to take the ship to its next transit process, and moved within arm’s reach of deck 2.
The first line had been cast at 0927. Firmly umbilicaled to the locomotives, which centered and guided the behemoth, it crept into its water cocoon under its own power, and the doors slowly closed behind it. At 1,000 feet long, 110 feet wide, and 41 feet deep, the locks, then the largest structures ever built, are secured by riveted steel doors measuring 47 to 82 feet high, 65 feet wide, and seven feet in thickness. Because of the Pacific’s high tides, the westernmost gates in the Miraflores Locks exceed 745 tons in weight, yet, paradoxically, require only 40-hp motors, recessed in the lock walls, to actuate them. A second lock gate, positioned 50 feet from the first, ensures arrested travel.
Amid a deluge of water, the first lock, harnessing the power of gravity and fed by Miraflores Lake, gradually flooded, rendering the ship a massive, upward-moving elevator.
With the water level of the first, lower chamber now equal to that of the second, upper one, the two massive lock doors gradually swung open at 0950.
Appendaged like a spider to a web, the 91,000-ton vessel inched forward, albeit at a laborious pace, under autonomous power, connected to the gray locomotives by thick, black lines, their tracks within arm’s reach and arching upward to equal the height of the subsequent chamber.
When the ship had been safely cradled inside, the entry doors closed behind its stern at 1006. An oil tanker, the “Asphalt Star,” awaited entry into the left lane. Water, cascading into the chamber through 18-foot-diameter culverts at a three million gallon-per-minute rate, once again flooded the lock during a nine-minute process and raised the ship to a water level 54 feet higher than that of the Pacific from which it had entered.
After the laborious opening of the chamber doors, which had, until now, met in a V-configuration, the Infinity, sounding its blast, recommenced forward motion at 1051 in the concrete, rectangular chamber, moving toward, and equal in level to, Miraflores Lake, the smallest of the three in the Panama Canal system.
The “Asphalt Star” had intermittently slipped into the first of the two left lane chambers.
Exiting the passage, as if the ship had followed a fluid set of railroad tracks, the Infinity had successfully negotiated the first set of the eventual three locks, leaving behind a series of “steps” made of water.
Crossing the one-and-a-half mile lake, the ship once again slipped into the right of the two lanes forming the Pedro Miguel Locks, the tight, locomotive-connected lines ensuring adherence in the otherwise unattached chamber of the panamax-dimensioned cruiseliner, which ceased motion ahead of the massive lock doors at 1139.
The view through the large, circular portholes in my cabin on Continental Deck 2 resembled that of a train tunnel or coal mine, the black, granite wall of the chamber higher than the deck, permitting only a faint shaft of light to enter it and filter through the window. Like a slow-moving elevator, the 3,000-person vessel inched up its shaft, devoid of any power or generator source other than the overwhelming barrage of water collecting and mounting under its keel. Progressive ascent could be gauged by the outside light’s intensification.
At 1144, the bottom of the porthole had been parallel with the concrete-supported railroad tracks on which the cog locomotives had run, although the upward ascent had continued for another six minutes until the Infinity had been 31 feet higher than Miraflores Lake and 85 feet higher than the Pacific Ocean.
After the massive doors of the single, Pedro Miguel lock chamber had opened, the third facilitating the ship’s lift since it had entered the Panama Canal, it nudged itself out of its aquatic cocoon with its azipods at 1152.
As the ship moved past the concrete island and the two railroad tracks imbedded in it, it temporarily appeared like a train pulling out of a station, one of the cog locomotives passing in the opposite direction in order to usher the next vessel through the lock. Clearing the island at 1205, the Infinity, baked by 90-degree temperatures, carved its path into the turquoise water, sandwiched between the dense, green banks.
Now penetrating the nine-mile-long, 500-foot-wide Gaillard Cut, which had originally been designated “Culebra Cut,” the Infinity sailed between Contractor’s Hill in the west and Gold Hill in the east. The Centennial Bridge, opened in 2004 at a cost of $104 million and the second to span the canal, towered 264 feet above the water and marked the Continental Divide, passing overhead at 1216. Rust-red, tan-brown, and charcoal-black rock, once sliced by primitive methods, passed off the port side, somehow emphasizing the obstacles presented by this area during the canal’s excavation. Gamboa soon moved off the starboard side.
By early afternoon, billowing white and gray cumulous had collected in the sky. Following the emerald green, buoy-lined channel, the Infinity thread its way through the Panamanian rain forest at a ten-knot steam speed beneath the searingly hot sun, entering the 163-square-mile Gatun Lake, which, prior to excavation, had been a mountain top. Because of the “s” shape of Panama, the ship had sailed in a northwesterly direction toward the Caribbean.
Reducing its forward speed to a snail’s pace, the ship once again slipped into the first of Gatun Lock’s three chambers at 1541 in order to commence its 85-foot descent to the Caribbean Sea’s water level. Cable-connected to the numerous electric locomotives, it had been pulled and aligned in the chamber before the steel gates had closed behind it, permitting water to be drained through its 18-foot-diameter culverts until the view through the Deck 2 portholes had been equivalent to a tunnel-resembling concrete wall when the cruise ship had reached its bottom ten minutes later.
The massive lock gates, slowly opening inward until they had been parallel to and an integral part of the chamber’s walls, permitted the behemoth to move forward toward the second chamber at 1555 before the process had been repeated.
Securely inside the third chamber at 1631, the ship descended by means of gravity-created waterpower for a final time during its Panama Canal transit, the opening lock doors unleashing a torrential flood into the Caribbean Sea after having used 26 million gallons for the three-step descent.
Initiating movement under autonomous power at 1656, the ship exited the lock.
Once it had cleared the center island, it had pursued a 010-degree heading at a six-knot crawl, following the seven-mile channel and passing the shipyards, docks, and fueling stations of the Port of Cristobal located on the eastern shore. Deboarding its local pilot into the “Heron” pilot boat, it entered Limon Bay, threshold to the Caribbean Sea, exiting the breakwaters at 1753 and now maintaining a sprightly, 16-knot speed.
Having transited the Panama Canal in an easterly direction and having connected the Pacific with the Atlantic Ocean during an eight-hour period, the Infinity, one of 44 ships to have done so that day, had shaved more than two weeks off of the comparable circumnavigation round the tip of South America.