Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Beset by woes and weather, canal expansion project is back on track

A Pacific bound container ship goes south through the Panama Canal, photographed from the balcony of our northbound ship. Pacific-Atlantic bound ships pass traffic going the opposite direction in wider parts
of the river and Gatun Lake. Passage fees must be paid in advance and are thousands of dollars.


Lock doors open while our ship prepares
to enter, towed in by  diesel powered "mules."


HOW MANYcountries does it take to complete a $5.3 billion expansion of the wondrous Panama Canal?
The answer might be, "more than four," because Spain, Italy, Belgium and Panama have not delivered so far.
The expansion contract was lost to the U.S., whose bid was too high.  But the countries sharing the various sub-contracts have found their endeavors beset with problems.  
A YEAR AGO, the project was shut down for a time when it ran out of money and floods further crippled the effort. It's back on track, with a revised budget of $7 million.  Korea is now involved, too.
Our recent visit found the world's largest earth movers noisily back on the project, and estimates are that it will be done by December of 2015 or early 2016 at the latest.
I wouldn't hold my breath.
Because of the shape of the land, the canal runs north-south, not east-west.
The intricate, massive addition will accommodate three times larger vessels and increase the daily numbers of ships and freighters in transit.
Mira Flores Lock was completed in 1906.
IN VISITING with experts, we learned that continuous dredging is part of the scenario, because of water movement, rains and erosion. After transiting the locks aboard the Legend of the Seas, we wanted a look from land.  A close-up tour, arranged on board through Royal Caribbean International, picked us up at the docks near Colon and took us to a viewing tower three stories up.

WE WATCHED, fascinated, as the lock system worked -- thanks to 50 million gallons of water a day running out of the mountains.
Four new locks, made in France, await installation in the new canal.
A reader of Saturday's part-one piece asked, "Do they alternate days of traffic going east and west?" First, the direction is north and south, even though it would seem that the oceans are on the east and west of the land bridge. And there are locks for two-way traffic.  In man-made Gatun Lake, we Atlantic-bound passengers saw ships coming towards us, going towards the Pacific we'd left earlier in the day.
LARGE SHIPS use the canal during the day, entering in the morning and exiting toward evening. Ships going Pacific-Atlantic go north; those traveling from the Atlantic to the Pacific go south.  Small vessels cluster and wait night when enough traffic accumulates to make passage..... you don't get space in line until you pay. Our Royal Caribbean Legend of the Seas paid nearly $400,000. Years ago, aboard the venerable Queen Elizabeth II, we made international news as the largest ship at the time to transit the canal, with only inches to spare.
WITH THE new addition, ships three times larger will be able to transit.  Many of the new larger mega-ships are too large for the present locks.
CASH ONLY is paid to Panama for passage and our vessel's tab was $400k! (That's why this cruise is so expensive.) The canal and locks are 48 miles long and parts are replaced as needed without stopping traffic, a remarkable feat in this 100-year old undertaking. Canal traffic has only been stopped once, when drought in 2010 failed to supply adequate rain water.  Now, Gatun Lake's level is being raised one foot to store more water.
Water pours into the lock as a "mule" reaches the top, helping the ship.
"MULES" HELP the ships through.  They still call the cars "mules" but nowadays they are diesel powered and hooked to the ship with cables.
The creation of the Panama Canal took 27,000 lives -- mostly from malaria, with some casualties from explosions.
The canal saves 8,000 miles and 71 days of sailing.  Last year nearly 15,000 ships, pleasure crafts and freighters made the remarkable journey.
A Guatemalan woman sells handmade shawls and scarves.
COMING SOON: Continuing our wanderings of the coast of the Americas, our adventures take us to Guatemala, which means "land of trees."  We sample barbecue and purchase gorgeous hand-woven shawls, made by descendants of the Mayan people.  We say “gracias, no” to the man with the drug coat, a dealer’s version of the New York watch seller’s. Our mountain trek takes us through miles of coffee and rubber trees before we embark upon an hour-long boat ride on Lake Atitlan, created from a volcanic crater, to the village of Panajachel, one of 23 ancient villages attracting Guatemalan yuppies and adventuresome Europeans. Remember to explore, learn, live, and check us out Wednesdays and weekends at:

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