The Panama Canal: 100 Years Old and Growing

By Tracy Murrell

This past Friday, August 15, 2014, marked the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal, the waterway between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

NTSB's Director of the Office of Marine Safety Tracy Murrell at the Panama CanalI recently visited the Canal in connection with a meeting of international maritime accident investigators as part of the Marine Accident International Investigators Forum, or MAIIF. It gave us all a chance to reflect on just what a feat it must have been to build the Canal, and to wish her an early happy birthday.

But she’s not just getting older, she’s getting better. We also had an opportunity to see the work underway on the Panama Canal Expansion, sometimes called the Third Set of Locks Project. The expansion, scheduled for completion in December 2015, will create a third lane through the Canal functioning alongside the two existing lanes.

The original construction of the Panama Canal was costly, in terms of both money and lives.

The French first attempted to build a canal beginning in 1881. The effort failed, and along the way cost a reported 22,000 workers’ lives. The successful U.S. project that followed saw 5,600 fatalities. Accidents, Malaria, and Yellow Fever were the culprits in both instances.

During the U.S. effort, new equipment and new knowledge about mosquitoes as disease vectors helped keep casualties down, relatively speaking. But the U.S. also took a new engineering approach.

A section of the Panama CanalInstead of crossing at sea level, as the French envisioned, ships would rise to the canal’s main lake elevation and descend again. Lock chambers would fill with water in sequence, elevating ships level by level to the canal’s main elevation, about 85 feet above sea level, then lowering them to the opposite ocean approach.

As I viewed the new locks in the humid (but relatively mosquito-free) heat of Panama in August, it was impossible not to reflect on the progress that safety has made over the last century. The current construction project has had an impeccable safety record with very few accidents.

It was also remarkable to take in the ambitious scope of today’s project. The Canal’s new locks will be capable of accommodating ships with greater beams, lengths, and drafts, allowing the waterway to keep pace with global shipping traffic and increasing vessel size.

Present Panamax (the term for the size limits for ships traveling through the Canal) ships are built to fit through the lock chambers along the Canal’s two existing lanes, which are 1,050 feet long, 110 feet wide, and 41.2 ft deep. These dimensions limit them to about 5,000 Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEUs) of cargo.

The new lock chambers are 1400 feet long, 180 feet wide, and 60 feet deep. New Panamax vessels will be able to carry up to 13,000 TEUs – the size of some of the larger container ships now in use.

Instead of “mules,” tug boats will guide ships through the new lane. Instead of the hinged miter gates so familiar to Canal mariners, the new lane will use a system of rolling gates, as well as a system of parallel water saving pools that will re-cycle much of the water used in the operation of the locks.

But the locks are just one aspect of the project. It also includes deepening and widening the Atlantic and the Pacific entrance channels and the present navigation channels, and creating new approach channels for the post-Panamax locks near each ocean.

Of course, larger ships and changes to the Canal’s lane structure make for potential new risk, as traffic and congestion in and around the canal increase.

To help mitigate the risk, the Panama Canal Authority is sending their pilots to simulator training. In addition, the Authority will lease a tanker to test the new lock system and give the pilots and employees practice in using the new lane.

The world has learned a lot about preventing accidents in the last hundred years. As the new locks come closer to their grand opening, I’m struck by how much more can be achieved in the years – and the century – to come.

Tracy Murrell is the Director of NTSB’s Office of Marine Safety

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