by Virginia Hirons

A ship sailing into the Canal from the Atlantic Ocean enters the the Canal through Limon Bay, the port of the town of Cristobal in the Canal Zone. While the ship is still in deep water, a Canal Pilot comes on board from a small boat, (a launch). The pilot has complete charge of the ship during its trip through the Canal. After passing through the breakwater at the entrance to the bay, the ship proceeds south along the seven-mile-channel that leads to the Gatun Locks. The shipyards, docks and fueling stations of Cristobal line the eastern shore of the bay.


This lock system, which resembles giant steps, or stairs, is made up of three pairs of concrete chambers that lift ships about 85 feet from sea level to Gatun Lake. Small electric locomotives called 'mules' run on tracks along both sides of the locks. They pull ships through the locks. The locomotives run up an incline at the end of each chamber to reach the next higher level. This allows the same set of locomotives to pull vessels through the entire length of the Gatun Locks. Four to 12 locomotives are used for each ship, depending on its size. As the ship approaches the first chamber, its engines are shut off. Canal workers fasten the ends of the locomotives' towing cables to the vessel. The locomotives then pull the ship into the first chamber. Huge steel gates close silently behind the vessel. Canal workers open valves that allow water from the Gatun Lake to flow into the chamber through openings in the bottom of the lock. During the next eight to 15 minutes, the rising water slowly lifts the ship. When the level of the water, is the same as that in the second chamber, the gates in front of the ship swing outward. The locomotives pull the vessel into the second chamber. Again the water level is raised. The process is repeated until the third chamber of the locks raises the ship to the level of Gatun Lake.


The Canal workers release the cables, and the ship sails out of the locks under its own power. As it heads south across the quiet waters of Gatun Lake, it passes the huge Gatun Dam to the west of the locks. This 23,000,000-cubic-yard earth dam is one of the largest in the world. The ship steams across the lake from Gatun Locks to Gamboa, following the 22-mile channel that was once the Chagres River Valley. The tops of trees and hills jut above the water. They were almost completely covered by water when engineers flooded the valley to create Gatun Lake. The long, coarse stems of water hyacinths--which are green-leafed with violet blossoms--float on the surface of the lake and can become entangled in propellers of ships and endanger navigation. A special hyacinth patrol destroys more than 42,000,000 of these plants each year to keep the channel clear.


When the ship reaches the southeastern end of Gatun Lake it enters the eight-mile-long, 500-foot-wide Gallard Cut, which has a minimum depth of 42 feet. "Cut" is an engineering term for a man-made passageway or channel. The Gaillard Cut runs between Gold Hill on the east and Contractor's Hill on the west. The Gaillard Cut was originally called the Culebra Cut.  In 1913, it was renamed in honor of David Du Bose Gaillard (1859-1913), the engineer in charge of digging between the hills.  Dredges work constantly to keep the channel clear of earthslides. In some years, the dredgers in the Gaillard Cut remove as much as 1,000,000 cubic yards of earth.


After the ship steams out of the Gaillard Cut, electric locomotives pull it into the Pedro Miguel Locks. These locks lower the vessel 31 feet in one step to man-made Miraflores lake. The ship sails 1 1/2 miles across the lake to the Miraflores Locks. Here, two chambers lower the vessel to the level of the Pacific Ocean. The distances these chambers must lower the ship depends on the height of the tide in the Pacific. Tides at the Pacific end of the Canal rise and fall about 12 1/2 feet a day. Tides on the Atlantic side change only about two feet daily.

Out of the locks, the ship heads down the eight-mile-long channel between the Miraflores Locks and the end of the Canal. It passes the houses and buildings of the towns of Balboa, Balboa Heights, Diablo and La Boca that stand on the shore of the channel. The ship also passes under the Bridge of the Americas (Thatcher Ferry Bridge), an important link in the Pan American Highway. After the pilot leaves the ship, it enters the Bay of Panama and steams toward the open sea. The ship has traveled a little over 50 miles from the Atlantic to the Pacific in about eight hours.

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Last update: October 20, 1998

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