The Panama Canal Is 100 Years Old, Just In Time For Its Makeover

The Panama Canal Is 100 Years Old, Just In Time For Its Makeover

One hundred years ago today, the SS Ancon became the first ship to officially pass through the Panama Canal. Because of the outbreak of World War I, there wasn’t a big party for the grand opening. The waterway would go on change the history of transportation, and now it’s time to change the canal itself.

The Panama Canal is simply too small. As ships have gotten bigger and bigger — some are a quarter mile long — the canal’s faced increasing competition from other shipping routes. Since the United States is one of the canal’s biggest customers, the traffic is also being driven by US’ ever-increasing demand for Chinese goods. About $US270 billion worth of freight passed through the canal on over 12,000 ships last year, and that number will only rise in the coming years. Shipping is expected to increase by about 3.5 per cent a year, so that number is constantly getting bigger.

Ships wait to pass through the Panama Canal on the Pacific side.

It makes sense to expand. The canal’s tolls make up one of Panama’s biggest revenue streams — the average fee for passing through the Panama Canal is $US54,000, and a cruise ship once paid $US375,600 — the country passed a referendum in 2006 to start a massive expansion project. Unlike finding a bunch of malarial dudes with shovels to dug the canal, this upgrade has been a massive construction project with backhoes and cranes and everything.

The Panama Canal expansion project largely consists of building a third set of locks on both the Atlantic and the Pacific side. The approach channels will also be widened and deepened to allow so-called post-Panamax ships. The Panamax designation refers to the Panama Canal Authority’s requirements for ships to pass through the canal or, more specifically, to fit into the locks. At present, the limits are 289.5m-long and 32.3m-wide with some exceptions. Since the newest ships to hit the sea are clocking in at 396.2m-long and 54.2m-wide, something obviously has to give.

A 1923 diagram showing the canal compared to the elevation of the mainland.

The expansion has all kinds of upsides. It will double the amount of money the Panamanian government reaps from the ships passing through. It will also make ship captains’ lives much easier since the wait to pass through the Panama Canal is currently about a week long in the busy season. A new system for booking transit will mean that a ship can pass through whenever it wants for a fee. That means you get to enjoy fresher bananas and quicker iPhone deliveries.

All of this comes at a cost, of course. The estimated cost of the job is a whipping $US5.25 billion. Half the price of the original construction’s $9 billion cost. And it doesn’t end there. China wants to invest in a fourth set of locks to keep those trinkets flowing up to the U.S.A., though they might abandon that idea if this crazy Chinese billionaire’s plan to build a rival canal through Nicaragua works out.

Construction of the original locks in 1913.

But 100 years in, the Panama Canal is still a vital man-made artery of South America, even if it needs a little bit of renovation to keep from becoming obsolete. So happy birthday, Panama Canal! You don’t look a day above 30.