"Mules" bring a ship through the lock
ANOTHER CENTENARY - THE PANAMA CANAL 1914 -2014
We are all probably aware that most of the consumer goods we take for granted today, from mobile phones and computers to everyday items such as the clothes we wear, are made in Asia but do we appreciate the route the majority of this traffic takes to get to Britain? Since the 15th August 1914 sea-borne traffic from the Pacific to the Atlantic oceans has had the option of using the 50 mile long canal and artificial lake crossing of the Isthmus of Panama, a saving of up to 8,000 miles compared to going the traditional and perilous sailing around Cape Horn. Back in Britain the opening celebrations were somewhat overshadowed by the outbreak of WWI ten days earlier. The construction of the canal had been a long drawn out saga, first attempted by the French and championed by Ferdinand de Lesseps, following his success with the Suez Canal. However, financial troubles and tropical diseases saw the French withdraw from the project after thirteen years, following massive financial losses and losing an estimated 22,000 lives due to accident and disease, in 1894. In 1904 the USA took control and completed the canal ten years later. Whilst with more awareness of the risks of mosquito-spread diseases some 5,600 workers died of disease and accidents to complete the canal. The system of two lanes of locks allows ships to be raised from sea level to the man-made Gatun Lake, which is 85 ft. above sea level, in order to cross through the Continental Divide and then lowered through another system of locks on the other side of the Isthmus. Each of the 12 lock chambers needs 52 million gallons of water to accommodate the nearly 15,000 ships that cross the canal each year.
On 6th October Sian and I had the pleasure of transiting the canal in its centenary year care of the cruise liner Norwegian Jewel – it cost NCL, the ship’s owner, some $385,000 (approx. £240,625). This toll was based on the weight of the ship and is applied to all traffic, including the first person to swim through the canal in 1928 who was charged 36 cents! For more conventional traffic it covers lockage, pilots, line-handlers, stand-by tugs and locomotives - that’s right, locomotives, as all vessels are guided though the lock chambers by electric locomotives, known as mules, running on the lock walls. Forward motion is provided by the ships, the mules being used to provide braking control and to ensure that the ships stay in the centre of the lock, as a
‘Panamax’ ship, the term given to the largest ships able to transit the canal, with a beam of 106 ft. has only have two foot either side in the narrowest section of the locks (110 ft.). It was an amazing experience to see how the canal worked, with the lines being thrown by hand to the ship in order to haul up cables which were then secured to the mules. When we first arrived at the Pacific entrance to the Miraflores lock, the first line was brought out to the ship by rowing boat. Watching the three mules at work either side was also amazing particularly in going up and down the steep gradients of 1 in 1 at changes in lock levels. On the Norwegian Jewel we had an extra six inches to play with (105 ft. beam) in the lock. Incidentally would the Titantic fit through the canal? – Yes with its 92 ft. beam it had, by comparison plenty of room, but of course it never had the chance sinking two years before the canal opened. The Queen Mary however, was too wide with its 118-foot beam.
Despite the canal being designed in 1904 it is only in the last 26 years that the biggest container ships have become too wide for the Panama Canal, ships known as ‘Post-Panamax’. Work is underway to allow these larger ships to pass through by the building of new Post Panamax canal locks to access the lakes but with the widening and deepening of ‘pinch points’ in the lakes. That work is about two years behind schedule now but most of the new lock gates are standing on site ready to be fitted when the locks are ready. Sadly no locomotives will be employed on this, as new tugs have been designed to handle the ships. Container ships using the existing system can carry up to 4,500 twenty ft. containers (commonly referred to as 4,500 TEU), the new 180 ft. wide lock gates will allow ships of up to 160 ft. beam which could carry up to 13,500 containers (TEU). The capacity of the latter is equivalent to about 2 million 29inch colour TVs or 75 million mobile phones!
View from a cruise ship
Stephen K. Jones
STAMPS FOR CHARITY
As usual at this time of year we ask you to save your used stamps. They can be left in one of our What’s On boxes, located at Springfield Stores, the Community Centre and the Library and they will be collected and passed on to charities who will make good use of them. Thank you.