Are there issues navigating the new locks in the Panama Canal?

Posted by PortVision

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During the first ship's inaugural transit through the newly expanded canal, a navigation error caused a crash, as reported by the New York Times. The Cosco Shipping Panama, a Chinese container ship, scraped along a canal wall.

On June 27, the Lycaste Peace, the first LPG carrier to navigate the new canal, also hit fenders on the wall. Both of these incidents were described as routine by the Panama Canal Authority, which explained that is why the fenders exist in the first place. One hundred buffering plastic fenders (meant to protect the canal's sides) have been severely damaged by ships attempting the transit of this new channel, in three short months.

Since the June 26 opening, only a few reported accidents have occurred due to the width of the new course and the method used to guide ships through the canal. As mentioned in an August 2 article in Maritime Executive, since inauguration 69 Neopanamax vessels have transited the canal. Forty container ships, 24 LPG carriers, three vehicle ships and two LNG vessels have utilized the expanded canal. The Authority has 250 reservations (seven for cruise ships) and counting.

Marine Executive notes that on July 21, the Xin Fei Zhou, an 8500-TEU Chinese container ship, hit a lock wall at Agua Clara on the Atlantic side. The resulting tears in the hull took it out of service for several days, and cost a few hundred thousand dollars to repair. The Panama Canal Authority cites bad weather as a contributing cause to this accident.

To move ships through the new canal the Authority employs tugboats; the two original canals continue to operate with train engines running beside the locks that pull vessels through. The Panama Canal Authority has indicated that the tugboats are less expensive to operate and also are more effective for the much larger ships that now move through the new canal. An approach wall, present at the entrance of the older locks was not included in the design of the new locks. At Agua Clara on the The New York Times postulates that it is the lack of this wall that hampers safe navigation at the entrance of the new locks.

A study by the International Transport Workers' Federation, which was released in April before the canal opened, claims some safety concerns. Their findings included these safety factors: The dimensions of the locks are too small for safe operation when both gates are closed; there are no refuge areas for tugboats while inside the locks; the lower power of the tugs and the bollard pull is insufficient. It recommended specialized training.

The Authority dismissed these considerations and indicated that training is being done and is ongoing. The Authority's tugboat captain training facility includes a 35.3 acre replica featuring docking bays, locks, gates and chambers at 1:25 scale.

A recent article in the Journal of Commerce mentions that the new canal is designed for ships with 50 foot drafts; however, a current drought situation has initially limited water use to only 44 foot drafts due to Lake Gatun's depth. The older locks have a maximum 39.5 foot draft and are 1,000 feet by 110 feet. The new locks are wider and deeper than the old locks (1,200 feet by 160 feet). They can accommodate container ships carrying 13,000-TEUs in normal weather. That is almost three times the 4,500-5,000-TEU capacity of current Panamax vessels. In anticipation of the new canal coming into operation, some vehicle carrier firms have added ships with wider beams, thus requiring less ballast for stability and allowing increased cargo capacity.

The new canal expansion has affected shipping business world-wide. In July, the Journal of Commerce reported the the Panama Canal has moved past the Suez Canal as the leading container ship route between the Far East and the US East Coast. Its share of total global volume increased from 48 to 57% since January. Major shipping lines are rerouting service to take advantage of the time savings involved in avoiding longer trips around the southern tip of South America. Ports around the world are ramping up services to accommodate the larger ships that will now be able to transit the canal.

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Posted on Sep 27, 2016, 6:07:00 AM

Topics: News, Tankers, Supertankers, Shipping