They can carry 13,000 to 14,000 cargo containers, about 2 1/2 to 3 times as many as on vessels that could fit in the previous locks.
A look at the Panama Canal and its newly expanded locks, which were formally inaugurated on Sunday.
Opened on Aug. 15, 1914, the Panama Canal was constructed by the United States between 1904 and 1913 at a cost of $375 million, building on an earlier, French-led effort that fizzled. An estimated 20,000 workers died during French control of the project, many due to tropical diseases such as malaria, and 5,600 more perished during U.S. construction. The canal revolutionized global sea traffic by replacing long voyages around Cape Horn at the tip of South America.
The canal was under U.S. control until a 1977 agreement between Presidents Jimmy Carter and Omar Torrijos paved the way for its transfer to Panama on Dec. 31, 1999. Canal authorities say it generated $10 billion in direct income for the Panamanian state through 2015. With related economic activity, the canal is responsible for about 40 percent of Panama’s GDP. On average, 35 to 40 ships transit the waterway each day, and the canal is estimated to handle 6 percent of world maritime commerce.
The new locks
The $5.25 billion project was initially scheduled for completion in October 2014, roughly coinciding with the canal’s 100th anniversary, but was delayed by slow approvals for concrete to use in the locks, labor strikes and leaks detected late last year. The expansion includes two new sets of lock complexes, one on the Pacific coast on the outskirts of Panama City and one on the northern coast at Colon.
The new ships
The new locks are 180 feet wide and 1,400 feet long, big enough to accommodate New Panamax-class vessels that are seen as the future of global shipping. Those ships can reach 1,200 feet long more than three football fields and are up to 160 feet wide. They can carry 13,000 to 14,000 cargo containers, about 2 1/2 to 3 times as many as on vessels that could fit in the previous locks. The International Monetary Fund estimates the canal expansion will reduce global maritime shipping costs by $8 billion a year.
The first ship
Originally called the Andronikos, the ship making the inaugural voyage through the new locks was renamed the COSCO Shipping Panama by its Chinese owner in honor of Panama and the ceremonial passage. It’s a Marshall Islands—flagged container vessel with a capacity of 9,472 shipping containers and is 158 feet wide and 984 feet long. It entered the Atlantic locks Sunday morning for an approximately eight-hour transit to the Pacific locks.