Description & main attractions
Panama is a country that lies at the world’s crossroads, a narrow isthmus dividing the Atlantic from the Pacific Ocean and linking the two halves of the American continent. The country is dominated by the Panama Canal, with Cristóbal on the Caribbean side and Balboa on the Pacific being the two main ports and gateways to the canal. The port of Cristóbal incorporates the town of Colón. The recent opening of marinas on both sides of the canal has greatly improved the docking situation and has also allowed sailors in transit to visit the little-known interior of this interesting country.
The name ‘Panama’ means ‘abundance of fish’ in the local Amerindian dialect.
The San Blas coast was discovered in 1501 by Roderigo de Bastidas, and Christopher Columbus visited the islands the following year. It was in 1513, however, that the country’s fate was decided, when Vasco Nuñez de Balboa crossed the isthmus and sighted the Pacific Ocean. Panama City was founded on the Pacific side and became the starting point for Spanish conquests, which fanned out north and south along the Pacific coast. All trade from the Pacific ports had to be taken overland across the isthmus, then heavily escorted ships laden with treasure left for Spain, returning later with European goods. This route was continually being attacked, and finally in the mid-eighteenth century Spain abandoned the overland route for the one around Cape Horn.
During the Californian Gold Rush, the land route was again used for transport and a railway was built across the isthmus, completed in the mid-nineteenth century with a great loss of life.
A canal was the obvious solution. Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had successfully built the Suez Canal, started work in 1882. However, this project failed after tropical diseases killed thousands of workers. In 1903 Panama declared its independence from Colombia, and work on a canal started again under US supervision. The first canal passage was finally made in 1914. The former Canal Zone was a 10 mile wide ribbon of land under US control and included the ports of Cristóbal and Balboa. In 1979 the Canal Zone was transferred to Panamanian sovereignty, and the ownership of the Panama Canal itself was transferred to Panama on 31 December 1999.
The Panama Canal is one of the wonders of the modern world and transiting it is a unique experience. Its total length is 50 miles and runs in a northwest to southwest direction, which means that the Pacific entrance lies farther east than the Caribbean one.
It requires about nine hours for the average ship to transit the canal.
Coming from the east, a Pacific-bound vessel is raised 26m (85ft) in a series of three steps at Gatún Locks. Each lock chamber is 34m (110ft) wide and 305m (1,000ft) long.
Gatún Lake, through which ships have to travel for 23.5 miles from Gatún Locks to the end of the Gaillard Cut, is one of the largest artificial lakes in the world. It was formed by an earth dam across the Chagres river.
At the southern end of Gaillard Cut ships enter the Pedro Miguel Lock and are lowered 9.5m (31ft) in one step to Miraflores Lake, a small artificial lake that separates the two sets of Pacific locks.
Finally, ships are lowered the remaining two steps to sea level at Miraflores Locks, which are slightly over 1 mile in length. The lock gates at Miraflores are the highest of any in the system because of the extreme tidal variations in the Pacific Ocean.
www.pancanal.com (Panama Canal Authority)
Host marina / Port information
Shelter Bay Marina
The Blue Planet Odyssey and Pacific Odyssey yachts will be based on the Caribbean side of the Canal in Shelter Bay Marina, before completing their transit of the Canal.
The marina is located only 70 miles from the San Blas Islands, and is a convenient base to wait for a transit with full services including 100 ton travel lift haul out, onsite chandlery and 24 hour security.
Location on the map
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