Men dreamed of building a canal across Central America hundreds of years before the Panama Canal was completed. In 1517, Vasco Nunez de Balboa, the first European to reach the Pacific ocean, saw the possibility of such a canal which would connect the Pacific with the Atlantic. During the 1800s, efforts to build a canal between the two oceans were centered in Nicaragua.
One of man's greatest engineering achievements is the Panama Canal. The waterway connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and shortens a ship's voyage between New York City and San Francisco by 5,200 miles.
The Atlantic is to the east and the Pacific is to the west, so your first thought, most likely, is that the direction of the Panama Canal's flow is from the east to the west. This is not the case, however.
The Panama Canal runs from the northwest to the southeast across the Isthmus of Panama. A ship sailing from the Atlantic to the Pacific actually leaves the waterway 27 miles east of where it entered. Generally, the direction of the Panama Canal is from north to south.
A trip through the canal starts in a southerly direction through Limon Bay on the Atlantic side. After a seven mile long cruise you come to the three pairs of Gatun Locks which will lift your ship 85 feet from sea level to Gatun Lake.
You continue in a southerly direction across 163 square mile man made lake for 22 miles, and then go another eight miles through the Gaillard Cut in a southeasterly line.
Your ship comes then to the Pedro Miguel Locks which lower the vessel 31 feet in one step to man made Miraflores Lake. Your ship sails on for a mile and a half to the Miraflores Locks, lowering you to the Pacific's sea level. Tides on the Pacific side rise and fall about twelve and a half feet each day while on the Atlantic side there is only a change of two feet daily.
Once your ship is out of the locks, you sail eight miles in a southeasterly direction past the towns of Balboa, Balboa Heights and La Boca. The trip usually takes about eight hours.
Your ship will have traveled a bit over 50 miles from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
Each year about 14,000 ocean going ships move through the Panama Canal, which averages out to about 38 ships a day. About 10 percent of the vessels are from the United States.
More than 160,000 tons of cargo pass through the Panama Canal each year. It is one of the world's most important waterways.