Which Direction Do Ships Move Through the Panama Canal?

Navigating the famed waterway is not a simple East-West journey

High Angle View Of Panama Canal
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The Panama Canal is the man-made waterway that allows ships to travel from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean across Central America. While you may think that traveling through the canal is a quick, straight shot from east to west, you would be mistaken.

In reality, the Panama Canal zigs and zags its way across Panama at an angle. Ships move through the canal in either a southeast or northwest direction and each transit takes about 8 to 10 hours.

The Direction of the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal lies on the Isthmus of Panama which generally sits in an east-west direction in Panama. However, the location of the Panama canal is such that ships traveling through it do not travel in a straight line. In fact, they travel just the opposite way from what you might assume.

  • Ships traveling from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean go in a northwest direction.
  • Ships traveling from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean go in a southeast direction.

On the Atlantic side, the entrance to the Panama Canal is near the city of Colón (at about 9° 18' N, 79° 55' W).  On the Pacific side, the entrance is near Panama City (at about 8° 56' N,  79° 33' W). These coordinates prove that if the journey were traveled in a straight line, it would be a north-south route.

The Trip Through the Panama Canal

Almost any boat or ship can travel through the Panama Canal. Space is limited and strict regulations apply, so it is run on a very tight schedule. A ship cannot simply enter the canal whenever it pleases.

Three sets of locks -- Miraflores, Pedro Miguel, and Gatun (from the Pacific to Atlantic) -- are included in the canal. The locks lift ships in increments, one lock at a time until they go from sea level to 85 feet above sea level at Gatun Lake. On the other side of the canal, the locks lower ships back to sea level.

Locks make up only a very small portion of the Panama Canal, the rest of the journey is spent navigating the natural and man-made waterways created during its construction.

Traveling from the Pacific Ocean, here is a brief description of a journey through the Panama Canal:

  1. Ships pass under the Bridge of the Americas in the Gulf of Panama (Pacific Ocean) near Panama City.
  2. They pass through the Balboa Reach and enter the Miraflores Locks an go through two flights of the lock chambers.
  3. Ships then cross Miraflores Lake and enter the Pedro Miguel Locks where a single lock brings them up another level. where a single lock brings lifts them up another level.
  4. After passing under the Centennial Bridge, ships sail through the narrow Gaillard (or Culebra) Cut, a man-made waterway.
  5. Ships travel west as they enter the Gamboa Reach near the city of Gamboa before beginning to turn north at the Barbacoa Turn.
  6. Navigating around Barro Colorado Island and again turning north at Orchid Turn, ships finally reach Gatun Lake.
  7. Gatun Lake* is an open expanse and many ships anchor in it if they cannot travel at night or carry on immediately for other reasons.
  8. It is almost a straight shot north from Gatun Lake to the Gatun Locks, a three-tiered lock system.
  9. Finally, ships will enter Limon Bay and the Caribbean Sea (Atlantic Ocean).

*Gatun Lake was created when dams were built to control water flow during the canal's construction. The lake's fresh water is used to fill all of the locks on the canal.

Quick Facts About the Panama Canal's Locks

  • Each lock chamber is 110 feet (33.5 meters) wide and 1000 feet (304.8 meters) long.
  • It takes about eight minutes to fill each lock chamber with about 101,000 cubic meters of water.
  • The Panama Canal Authority estimates that each transit through the canal uses 52 million gallons of water.