With the Panama Canal Expansion 79% complete and the end of the project in sight, the Panama Canal Authority has come into conflict with the Panama Canal Pilot's Association due to recently announced navigational changes. The entire project now has a completion date of January, 2016, as reported by Reuters in September.
Due to the additional widening of the Culebra Cut to 715 feet, the Canal Authority states that this will allow two post-Panamax vessels to safely pass each other. The Cut is the narrowest section of the Panama Canal. However, the Pilot's Association contends that no studies have demonstrated that this is safely possible and that they have not been consulted by the Authority on this topic.
The enlarged Canal channels will double ship traffic and be able to accommodate 12,500 TEU container ships as well as bulk cargo ships with up to 140,000 metric tons of cargo. As reported by the Journal of Commerce, previously, vessels were moved through the locks with two locomotives manned by an association member pilot to tow the ship. The new canal locks will utilize two or more tugboats to push the ships instead, with no association pilots aboard.
The Pilot's Association has indicated that in addition to taking longer and costing more to use tugs, the Culebra Cut is just too tight to accommodate the transit of two post-Panamax vessels at the same time, running the risk of a collision and blocking passage of other vessels through the Canal. Their 270 members handle 14,000 transits through the Canal annually per The Maritime Executive.
The Canal Authority states that the use of tugs in canals is a common practice worldwide. They also cite a 2006 study, the Technical Analysis of the Proposed Panama Canal Post-Panamax Navigation Channel, to support their claim that once the straightening and widening program of the Canal is completed, two-way transits will be feasible.
It is unclear whether the dispute pertains more to the fact that this is a change to the old traditions and that no pilots will be required aboard the tugs or to any proven safety concerns. It does seem clear, however, that the Canal Authority may want to update their 2006 study to confirm the safety of the new navigational guidelines.
PortVision has been involved in vessel traffic studies around the world, providing AIS data, ship tracking information, and related services to help port authorities, government agencies, and commercial companies understand the impact of aggregate and individual vessel movements.