Cruise Ship to Colón and the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal not only serves big ships. On the first of June three boats of the Clipper 17-18 Round the World Race made the passage. Here seen in the Miraflores Locks on the Pacific side. Photo by Els Kroon
The new Agua Clara locks for NeoPanamax vessels under construction in 2014. Photo by Els Kroon

The port of Colón is frequently in the news. Located on the bay of Limón, Colón is the gateway to the Panama Canal on the Caribbean / Atlantic side of the isthmus. The city and the port went through dramatic changes in 2016 when the new Agua Clara locks and corresponding channels officially opened. 

When approaching Colón it’s obvious by the large number of ships waiting near the breakwaters of Limón Bay and the container port of Manzanillo that this is one of the world’s great crossroads. 

The canal is often the main attraction for passengers of cruise ships calling at the port. Transiting the canal four years ago passengers could only see the old Gatun locks in operation and view the Agua Clara locks under construction. Today, they can see the new locks in operation. Many of the tours offered to passengers include a visit to this wonder of hydraulic engineering. For those who are not interested in the canal the ships offer tours of Panama City, with its skyscrapers and a beautiful historic center. 

At the Agua Clara visitor center, a series of open platforms and covered terraces, visitors can follow the activities in the new locks and enjoy a beautiful view of Gatun Lake where the ships, including the ‘NeoPanamax’ vessels, continue their journey through the canal.

The colorful urban letters of a gray harbor town. Photo by Els Kroon

The canal was completed by the Americans in 1914 and the opening of the new expansion was planned to coincide with the canal’s centenary. However, construction was delayed by two years. 

Spain explored the possibility of constructing a canal across the isthmus as early as 1534 but it had to wait until the French began construction in 1880. After 20 years the French, overcome by high worker mortality rate and financial and technical problems stopped digging. When Panama became independent from Colombia in 1903, the country signed a treaty with the United States and building continued under the American flag. The canal cost about $375 million to build and an estimated 30,600 lives were lost during construction before it opened on 15 August 1914 with the passage of the steamship Ancón. 

Almost a hundred years later, and with ever larger ships under construction, there was a need for larger and deeper locks. The expansion began on 3 September 2007 with the excavation and dredging of some 150 million cubic meters of soil. The builders faced the same challenges as the Americans a hundred years earlier, with the additional difficulty that the existing channel had to continue functioning during construction.

The new locks work with gigantic steel roller doors designed in the Netherlands and made of special steel in Italy. Photo by Els Kroon

That was not the only challenge. Seismological surveys noted the canal was at greater risk of a catastrophic earthquake than previously thought. Other problems were more tangible. The special concrete used in construction, designed to last for a hundred years, showed cracks before the first ship passed.

Between August 2013 and November 2014, a total of 16 sliding doors designed in the Netherlands and built in Italy, and made of special steel in six different sizes arrived on site.  The largest are 57m (187ft) wide, 33 meters (108ft) high, 10 meters (33ft) thick, and weigh 5000 tons. Built to withstand earthquakes, the doors are said to have cost $3.4 billion, $1.4 billion over budget. 

In February 2016, four months before the official opening, the new water-saving basins were tested. In the meantime, a training facility for employees, such as pilots and tug crews, was built where they could simulate canal operations with scale models of 1:25.

An overview of both the old Gatun locks (background) and the new Agua Clara locks, with the water-saving reservoirs. To the left the visitor center overlooking Gatun Lake. Photo by Els Kroon

One hundred and ninety two tons of steel and 4.4 million cubic meters of concrete were processed to enable the handling (with tugs instead of locomotives as in the old locks) of the NeoPanamax ships.

Spectacular fireworks heralded the inauguration of the new locks and on 26 June 2016 they were declared open. The NeoPanamax ship Andronikos was chosen by lot to make the first voyage and in honor of the privilege changed its name to Cosco Shipping Panama. In the following month, 53 NeoPanamax vessels successfully passed through the new locks, saving more than 7000 nautical miles, compared to the route via Cape Horn. 

The opening of the larger locks marked a new era for the shipping industry and after just one year the number of ships transiting the canal had risen sharply. The first cruise ship, the Disney Wonder, passed the new locks on April 29, and the Caribbean Princess included the Panama Canal in its inaugural route.

The view from the new Agua Clara Visitor Center of the South Korean car transporter Morning Pilot (200 x 35.44 meters) transiting the Agua Clara locks. Photo by Els Kroon

Responding to the rise in traffic, Colón put forward plans for a new container terminal, specifically aimed at NeoPanamax vessels and construction, estimated to be worth around $900 million dollars and supported by Chinese investors, began in June 2017. The China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) will complete the job including storage for 2.5 million TEU and four berths with facilities for LNG vessels.

More than ever, Panama lives up to its motto: Crossroads of the World. On the occasion of the opening of the expansion of the canal, the New York Times looked back at the project and you can see it by following the link:

The Panama Canal authorities maintain an informative website that includes webcams, visit: