One century on from the foundation of the Panama Republic and, even more significantly, from the inauguration of the Canal, international trade prepares another phase of international growth, thanks to the expansion of the Canal that bisects the continent and unites the Atlantic with the Pacific.
The expansion programme actually involves the construction of a new Canal alongside the original, opened in 1914, usable by ships 366 m long, with a capacity of up to 12,600 containers – three times the current limit.
It includes several parts, the most significant of which is the Third Set of Locks project, which was assigned to a international consortium called the Grupo Unidos por el Canal (GUPC), made up of leading infrastructure and engineering companies: Italy’s Salini Impregilo, Spain’s Sacyr and Belgium’s Jan de Nul, together with CUSA from Panama.
With 74 million cubic metres of excavations, 5 million cubic metres of concrete, 1.6 million tons of cement and 7.1 million cubic meters of dredging, the Third Set of Locks Project is the biggest feat of human construction to take place in several decades.
Modern ships – known as ‘Post-Panamax’ to mark the start of a new era in shipping, exceeding the limits of the previous canal – cross the Panamanian isthmus using a system of locks delimited by enormous rolling gates designed and built in Italy.
The movement of locks lifts ships a height of 27 m above sea level to Gatun Lake, the world’s largest artificial basin, giving them an easy journey by bypassing the rainforest and the oceans – like a kind of flyover for ships. Having reached the other side, the locks at the entry to the other ocean will return the ships to sea level.
The procedure for getting these new giants of the sea into, out of, up and down the locks requires pinpoint accuracy. Each gate takes less than five minutes to open or close and is expected to remain in service for at least another hundred years.
Indeed, the design and technical skills of the consortium members, found to be far superior to those of its US, French, Brazilian and Asian competitors were some of the key objectives which led to the award of contract to the international consortium in 2009.
American, Asian and European municipalities, port authorities and major shipping companies around the world have invested billions of dollars in their countries in a longrunning competition to take the leading role in the new, super-sized world of shipping.
There is little margin for error: there are only a few centimetres between the gates and their reinforced cement mounts. On average they are 23-33 m tall, 10 m wide, and 58 m long. And each weighs 4,000 tons.
It is a real “masterpiece” of engeneering creativity and technical excellence.