On Sunday June 26, the new locks opened on the Panama Canal. The first freighter to sail through the new locks was the Chinese-owned Cosco Shipping Panama, carrying about 9,000 metal shipping containers. It left the Greek port of Piraeus on June 11 headed for a port in Asia. The second commercial ship was the liquid petroleum gas (LPG) tanker Lycaste Peace (pictured on right), owned by Japanese shipping company Nippon Yusen Kaisha (NYK Line). Originating from Houston, Texas, the Lycaste Peace is en route to the Port of Hitachi, Japan. The Panama Canal provides a far shorter sailing route for ships sailing between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Built in 1914, the original canal accommodates freighters carrying about 5,500 containers. The new locks, built along side the existing locks, can accommodate ships carrying 13,000 containers. The $5.25 billion canal expansion project included the new, larger Agua Clara locks on the Atlantic side, and a similar set on the Pacific side. The older locks, still in use, accommodate ships -- referred to as "Panamax" -- measuring up to 106 feet (32.3 meters) wide by 965 feet (294.1 meters) long with drafts up to 39.5 feet. The newer locks accommodate ships -- referred to as "neo-Panamax" -- measuring up to 160 feet (49 meters) wide by 1,200 feet (366 meters) long with drafts up to 50 feet (18.3 meters).
The Cosco Shipping Panama freighter is one of the newer neo-Panamax sized ships.
The locks raise and lower ships by 85 feet, using gravity-fed water stored in Gatun Lake, a man-made reservoir. The older locks include Gatun (on the Atlantic side), and Pedro Miguel and Miraflores (on the Pacific side). While far bigger than the older locks, the newer locks use less water due to water-savings basins (details in diagram on right) that recycle 60 percent of the water used.
The Panama Canal Authority (ACP), an autonomous legal entity of the Republic of Panama, operates and manages the canal and the Canal Zone: the land area adjacent to the waterway. 75 percent of Panamanians approved the expansion project in a nation-wide referendum in 2006. Construction began in 2007. The ACP employs about 10,000 persons.
During the inauguration ceremony on Sunday, Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela and Panama Canal Administrator and CEO Jorge L. Quijano spoke before a crowd of 25,000 jubilant Panamanians, ACP employees, foreign heads of state and dignitaries, canal customers, and shipping executives. Mr. Quijano said:
"More than 100 years ago, the Panama Canal connected two oceans. Today, we connect the present and the future... It is an honor to announce that what we did it together: providing this great connection to the world. This is the beginning of a new era."
About 40 cargo ships sail daily through the canal. Experts say that will increase to about 55. Most major cruise lines offer passenger ships sailing through the canal in either direction. The Panama Canal Railway operates passenger service along the canal.