Sailing the Panama Canal

The Famous Man-Made Waterway

High Angle View Of Panama Canal
Marian Stoev / EyeEm / Getty Images

The Panama Canal is a man-made waterway that allows ships to travel from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean through Central America. Many believe that travel through this canal would be a straight shot from east to west, but this couldn't be farther from the truth.

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

The Direction of the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal lies within the Isthmus of Panama, the portion of land that bridges North and South America and contains Panama. The shape of the Isthmus of Panama and the angle at which the Canal dissects it make for a complicated and unexpected trip for ships hoping to take advantage of this shortcut.

Transportation travels in the opposite direction of what you might assume. Ships traveling from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean go in a northwest direction. Ships traveling from the Atlantic 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. Of course, this is not the case.

The Trip Through the Panama Canal

Almost any boat or ship can travel through the Panama Canal, but space is limited and strict regulations apply, so making the trip is easier said than done. The canal runs on a very tight schedule and ships cannot just enter as they please.

The Panama Canal's Locks

Three sets of locks—Miraflores, Pedro Miguel, and Gatun (from the Pacific to Atlantic)—are located in the canal. These 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, ships are lowered back to sea level.

Locks make up only a very small portion of the Panama Canal. Most of the journey is spent navigating both natural and man-made waterways. Each lock chamber is 110 feet (33.5 meters) wide and 1000 feet (304.8 meters) long. Each lock chamber takes roughly eight minutes to fill 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.

Sailing From the Pacific Ocean

Starting from the Pacific Ocean, here is a brief description of the journey ships take through the Panama Canal.

  1. Ships pass under the Bridge of the Americas in the Gulf of Panama, located in the Pacific Ocean, near Panama City.
  2. They then pass through the Balboa Reach and enter the Miraflores Locks where they go through two flights of chambers.
  3. Ships cross Miraflores Lake and enter the Pedro Miguel Locks where a single lock lifts them up another level.
  4. After passing under the Centennial Bridge, ships sail through the Gaillard or Culebra Cut, a narrow man-made waterway.
  5. Ships travel west as they enter Gamboa Reach near the city of Gamboa before turning 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, which was created when dams were built to control water flow during the canal's construction, is the open expanse where many ships anchor if they cannot travel for any reason or don't want to travel through the night. The lake's freshwater is used to fill all of the locks on the canal.
  8. Ships travel in a fairly straight path north from Gatun Lake to the Gatun Locks, the three-tiered lock system that lowers them.
  9. Finally, ships enter Limon Bay and the Caribbean Sea within the Atlantic Ocean.
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Your Citation
Rosenberg, Matt. "Sailing the Panama Canal." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Rosenberg, Matt. (2020, August 27). Sailing the Panama Canal. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Matt. "Sailing the Panama Canal." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).