Lloyd’s Casualty Week for December 10 just arrived this morning at the library. Along with the usual information about vessels grounded, stranded, disabled, sunk, captured by pirates, or embroiled in civil unrest or labor disputes, there was an interesting note about the Panama Canal. Lloyd’s reports that for the first time in 20 years, the Canal has been closed down. Heavy rains filled up the Gatun and Alhajuela lakes, making the transit through them unsafe and forcing traffic to a halt. They are expecting a backlog of 60 ships by Friday, and as much as a two-day wait for vessels arriving without a booking.
This is a bit more than a blip in worldwide sea traffic. The Canal handles up to 5% of the world’s seaborne commerce, according to Lloyd’s. The Panama Canal Authority (ACP), through its vice-president Manuel Benitez, says they are “planning to open flood gates to relieve one of the lakes.”
This closing of the Canal reminded me of an intriguing letter we have in the Archives, part of MS 243, the Clinton Havill Papers. In this July 1915 letter, Havill, then a Junior Officer of the Deck during the midshipmen cruise of USS Ohio (BB 12), describes the passage of Ohio with USS Missouri (BB 11) and USS Wisconsin (BB 9) through the Canal. His sketch of a sectional view of the Canal is below. In his letter, he writes, “All along the Culebra Cut the bank was lined with people, mostly soldiers and marines, who were down to see the first American battleships go through the Canal (his emphasis).”
The Canal has truly proved its worth, not just to commercial fleets but also to the US Navy, since that first passage 95 years ago.