ANAMA CITY, Panama — The Maersk Damietta, a Liberian-registered container ship the size of at least two football fields and weighing 68 tons, moved glacially through the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal, one of the wonders of the world.
Carrying hundreds of stacked containers on its deck, the blue vessel, 293 metres long and 32 metres wide, was pulled gently by two silver vehicles attached to tracks on each side of the locks. A cross between a locomotive and a harvester, the vehicles were expressly designed for this special purpose.
Along with other spectators, I watched the progress of the Maersk Damietta from a platform about 10 metres above the canal. I had come here to see a small but vital component of an engineering marvel that has been praised as a saga of human ingenuity and courage.
Consisting of artificial lakes, channels and locks set amid the sylvan splendour of a rainforest, this globally important 80-kilometre waterway links the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean and is absolutely integral to international shipping.
Slicing through the Isthmus of Panama, the canal will mark its 100th anniversary in 2014, when an expansion program will basically double the canal’s capacity to handle the increasing demands of world trade. Administered by the Panama Canal Authority, the canal represents the apotheosis of a 16th-century vision to drastically shorten voyages between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans.
Before the canal was officially opened on Aug. 15, 1914, ships setting out from European ports and bound for Pacific destinations were forced to sail down the coast of South America and then around the tip of Argentina. It could be a perilous voyage.
By all accounts, the Holy Roman Spanish emperor, plotting ways to gain a strategic advantage over his Portuguese rival, was the first known ruler to raise the idea of finding a cheaper, alternative route from Spain to its colony in Peru.
Nothing came of this scheme, but the discovery of gold in California in 1849 spurred interest in this visionary project.
France, under the leadership of Ferdinand de Lesseps, made the first attempt to build a canal through the Isthmus of Panama. Nicaragua was briefly considered, but de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal, chose Panama as the shorter, faster route that could cut travel time in half.
As an exhibit at a two-storey museum at the Miraflores Locks suggests, the French underestimated the gargantuan task that lay ahead.
Essentially, they were required to build a system of or water elevators, or locks, that would enable ships to descend to sea level on the other side of the isthmus.
Ships would enter the canal at Colon on the Caribbean Sea, cross the treacherous Chagres River and reach Panama City on the Pacific Ocean.
Work began in 1880 as immense steam shovels and rock crushers cleared mountainous mounds of soil and rocks.
When the canal was finished, 152 million metres of earth had been excavated. U.S. army engineers used the material to build a causeway that today links Panama City with a marina and a series of upscale shops, cafes and restaurants.
Accidents and diseases, mainly malaria and yellow fever, cost the lives of about 22,000 labourers, many of whom were recruited from Caribbean islands.
Public health measures introduced by the French to combat these twin killers were ineffective because medical science did not yet realize that mosquitos were the source of the problem.
Meanwhile cost overruns bankrupted the French companies that had invested more than $280 million in this monumental project.
For all intents and purposes, France abandoned it in the 1890s. In 1904, however, the United States government bought the French concession for $40 million after the U.S. Senate agreed to support the purchase and backed Panamanian rebels who sought to wrest Panama from Colombia.
Newly independent Panama granted the United States a 99-year lease in the Panama Canal zone. With the Americans now in charge, mosquito-abatement programs were established to protect workers. Nonetheless, several thousand workers died of disease and accidents during the U.S. phase of construction.
From 1914 until 1977, the United States completely controlled the Panama Canal zone. U.S. army barracks built during this period still stand, facing the Miraflores Locks.
Under an agreement signed in 1977 during the presidency of Jimmy Carter, the canal was placed under the joint jurisdiction of the United States and Panama. On the last day of 1999, the Panama Canal Authority, a Panamanian government agency, assumed full control of the canal, which remains one of the chief sources of revenue for this Central American nation.
Since 1914, more than one million ships have passed through the canal, with the historic millionth mark having been reached on Sept. 4, 2010.
On average, 14,000 ships transit the canal every year.
Typically, the passage takes from eight to 10 hours as a vessel moves through the Gatun Locks, Gatun Lake, the Celebra Cut, the Pedro Miguel Locks, Miraflores Lake and the Miraflores Locks onward to the Pacific Ocean.
Under the ongoing expansion program, which broke ground in 2007, entrances on the Pacific and Atlantic sides will be deepened and widened, a six-kilometre Pacific access channel will be built and Gatun Lake and the Celebra Cut will be expanded.
These changes will permit ships far longer and wider than the Maersk Damietta to use the canal and thereby strengthen Panama’s position as one of the pivotal logistics and transportation centres in the Americas.