By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises
Pelopennesia is the southernmost part of the mainland of Greece.
Although, some might quibble, geographically speaking. You might instead want to call Pelopennesia the largest southernmost island of Greece, because for more than a century it has been cut off from the mainland of Europe by the Corinth Canal.
Ancient Corinth near the canal
The short and narrow canal connects the Gulf of Corinth to the west with the Saronic Gulf in the Aegean Sea.
It’s an obvious place for a canal, since it allows the possibility of saving 185 nautical miles (213 land miles or 343 kilometers) of sailing between the Aegean and Adriatic.
On our crossing today, we avoided the need to sail down and around the bottom of Peloppenesia, saving almost a full day for a sailing vessel or about half a day for a ship like ours.
And even better, it was a spectacular trip, one of the most challenging passages for a ship. Almost anywhere else in the world, the beautiful Silver Cloud is considered a small luxury vessel; here in the Corinth Canal, we are extra-large, right at the limits of width and height.
OUR PASSAGE BETWEEN THE GULFS, 12 MAY 2016
The idea of having a canal here was so obvious that it was pursued way before modern times.
The first serious consideration of a canal cutting across the Isthmus of Corinth was in 602 BC.
Periander, the Tyrant of Corinth and one of the Seven Sages of Antiquity proposed it as a public works project.
But he was not sage enough to figure out how to dig the ditch.
So instead, his engineers produced another great project, the diolkós, a stone road on which ships were transferred on wheeled platforms from one sea to the other.
Stretches of that dry canal can still be seen.
Skip forward three centuries, and in 307 B.C., Dimitrios Poliorkitis, king of Macedon actually began excavation.
But the digging was suspended after Egyptian engineers incorrectly predicted that differing sea levels between the Corinthian and the Saronic Gulfs would inundate the Aegean Sea.
Oh, and also: the experts declared that Poseidon, god of the sea, was opposed to the joining of the Aegean and the Adriatic.
Next up was Julius Caesar in 44BC and Caligula in 37BC; just thinking about it, but still concerned about Poseidon.
In 66 A.D., the Emperor Nero sent war prisoners from the Aegean islands and six thousand Jewish slaves to work on the canal. Nero himself started the work, digging with a golden hoe, while music played.
Nero’s slaves dug a ditch three kilometers or two miles in length and 40 meters or 131 feet wide before Nero had to rush back to Rome to quell the Galva mutiny.
The 19th century, the Industrial Age, was the also the Age of the Canal.
The success in 1869 of Ferdinand de Lesseps’ Suez Canal awakened politicians and engineers and construction companies around the world. The Suez helped bring about the Panama Canal, the Cape Cod Canal, the Corinth Canal and other efforts.
The modern pathway follows—almost to the inch—Nero’s plans.
Sixteen million cubic yards (twelve million cubic meters) of earth had to be removed.
The Corinth Canal was completed and opened on July 25, 1893.
The canal was never a huge financial success.
It was (and is) too narrow for big ships, too difficult in bad weather or tides, and too prone to landslides.
The Canal cuts the Isthmus of Corinth in a straight line about 6 kilometers, or about four miles.
Earthen or rock cliffs flank both sides, reaching a maximum height of 63 meters or 207 feet above water.
It is straight, which is good. But it is relatively shallow: dredged to 6.5 meters or 21.3 feet, in some places just a bit deeper.
Our ship has a draft of about 4.5 meters or about 15 feet.
Next problem: the canal is very narrow: 80.7 feet wide (24.6 meters) at sea level. And down below it is even a bit narrower, 70 feet or 21.3 meters wide. That’s less than two tour buses or coaches in width.
Silver Cloud is 70.6 feet wide.
Like many of us, our ship is widest around the middle and higher. So we have just enough to spare on each side of the ship and beneath our keel.
And memories of a tight squeeze.
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