On Sunday, June 26, 2016, the first inaugural passage of a freight ship passed through the third set of locks in the Panama Canal, thus opening the canal once again to cargo ships. On June 11th, the COSCO Shipping cargo vessel set sail from the Port of Piraeus in Greece to make the two-week journey to Panama to be the first ship to enter the third set of locks and cross from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The Original Panama Canal

On August 15, 1914, the original Panama Canal opened so ships could cross between the two oceans. In 1881, the French attempted to build a canal linking the Atlantic with the Pacific but faced many set backs due to design flaws, engineering, injuries, and illnesses. The United States took over the project in 1903 and opened the canal a bit over 10 years after. The original Panama Canal had three locks, several channels, and several reservoirs, both improved and manmade. When a ship enters Balboa Bay on the Pacific Ocean side, it travels into the Miraflores Locks which fill and raise the ship to Miraflores Lake, which is higher than sea level. The ship crosses Miraflores Lake and enters Pedro Miguel Lock that raises the ship to Gatun Lake. The ship traverses Gatun Lake to the Gatun locks which lowers the ship to Limón Bay on the Atlantic Ocean side. The former Panamax, which is the restriction of the vessels’ size is 1,050 ft long, 110 ft wide, and 110 ft deep.

Panama Canal Expansion Project

The Panama Canal Expansion Project, or the Third Set of Locks Project, started in 2006. The goal was to install a pair of locks that would allow bigger ships, dredge and increase the operating level of Gatun Lake, deepen and widen channels, and dredge the bays on the Atlantic and Pacific sides. The expansion was clearly needed as the Panama Canal was projected to reach its maximum capacity by 2012 and would not allow almost 40 percent of ships operating today to pass through due to the Panamax restrictions. The upgraded locks would allow ships nearly three times the size as the Panamax sized ships.

Why the Panama Canal Expansion Project is Important

The Panama Canal expansion project is particularly important to companies in the freight management industry. Before the Panama Canal, ships were forced to travel through the Straits of Magellan on the southern tip of South America. The 48 mile canal not only cut thousands of miles from trips, but also weeks of travel. Much of the goods the United States receives comes from the Pacific Rim which is brought to West Coast ports and then shipped across land via truck or train. By enabling ships to travel from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean with relative ease, East Coast and Gulf Coast ports can receive Pacific Rim products from the ports, rather than by land.

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