Widening the Canal

By Deane Barker on October 23, 2006

Panamanians Vote Overwhelmingly to Expand Canal: This is going to be interesting to watch. Panama voted yesterday to embark on the biggest project in the history of that country: widening the canal.

The overhaul, to begin next year, will double the canal’s capacity by adding a third set of locks that are 40 percent longer and 60 percent wider than the current ones. Constructed by the United States in 1914, the canal these days is congested and too small to handle the world’s largest container vessels and tankers.

I just watched an Extreme Engineering a few weeks ago about this exact thing. The width of the canal has been a huge issue, as tankers have been constructed for years now to fit exactly within the confines of the canal.

There’s even terminology for it: a Panamax class tanker is one that’s the maximum dimensions possible for the canal — 106 ft. across, 965 ft. long, and sitting no more than 39 ft. in the water. When you consider that the biggest ship in the world — the Jahre Viking — is 229 ft. wide, over 1,500 feet long, and sits 69 ft. in the water, you get an idea how this can be a problem. Compared to ships on this scale, you actually have to be pretty small to fit through the canal.

Just for giggles after that show, I went looking for the canal on Google Maps. I didn’t type anything in, I just browsed for it, and managed to find it. There’s a big lake in the narrowest part of Panama called Gatun Lake — it’s tough to miss. Ships pass through this lake from one side of Panama to the other. It takes about 10 hours to make the crossing, and relatively little of that time is spent in the actual locks.

As luck would have it, a massive tanker was navigating the southern locks when the Google Maps picture was taken, and you can see very clearly just how tight the fit really is. (Actually, it wasn’t luck. Given that about 35 ships a day pass through, it would have been lucky to find a moment when there wasn’t a ship in the locks.)

All right, let’s finish this baby up with a relevant palindrome, shall we?

A Man, A Plan, A Canal, Panama.


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  1. Don’t know much about the canal, but after watching the video, wouldn’t a cheap solution to the new super tankers problem, be to join the “2 lane” canal into a “1 lane canal”?

    2 of the current ships would still be able to go through at the same time, while the non panamax would go one at a time.

    Just a thought.

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