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Battle of the Shipping Routes

Updated: Sep 24, 2022

Suez Canal and Panama Canal are not competitors (Suez Canal mainly transits oil from the Middle East to Europe while Panama Canal mainly transits containerized cargo from Asia to North American East Coast) but it is interesting to compare since they are both massive engineered projects that significantly shortened global trading routes. Here are some high-level statistics for comparison.

Suez Canal

The sea-level waterway in Egypt connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea and provides a shorter route between the North Atlantic and Indian Oceans. It can reduce up to 8900 km (depending on where you are shipping) or 10 days at 20 knots by avoiding having to sail around the south tip of Africa. Over 20,600 ships transited through the canal in 2021. (source:

The canal allows passage of ships with up to a 20 m draft (vertical distance between waterline and bottom of the hull), 240,000 deadweight tons, 77.5 m beam (width), and 68 m in height. There are current plans to increase this capacity.

Panama Canal

This man-made waterway in Panama connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. It can save up to 6500 km for shipping between the two coasts of the Americas or about 3700 km between Europe and Asia/Australia by avoiding sailing around Cape Horn (southern tip of South America). In 2021, there were 13,342 transits through the canal. (source:

New Panamax (Neopanamax) is the term for ships at the size limit and possessing design requirements that can travel through the Panama Canal. Details are published by the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) titled “Vessel Requirements”. Generally, the maximum size is as follows: 15.2 m draft, 120,000 deadweight tons, 51.25 m beam, and 57.91 m height. It is the smaller of the two canals.

Arctic Passages: Competitors to the Suez and Panama Canals

With climate change, the Northwest and Northeast Passages are on the radar of many countries as possible alternatives to the Panama and Suez Canals respectively. The Northwest Passage route is up to 7000 km shorter than Panama Canal, and the Northeast Passage can be down to one-third of the distance of the traditional Suez Canal route (see image below). The future of these passages is still unknown as there are very complex climate, political, economic, and technological dynamics at play but I included a mention because of the potential these routes may provide.



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