Panama tugboat captains “will be sanctioned” over transit action

Operations in the Panama Canal were back to normal by April 16th following the suspension of a group of tugboat captains for allegedly preventing transits through the expanded locks.

On Saturday April 14th nine post-panamax vessels transited the new locks. The original Panama Canal locks, which use locomotives rather than tugs, have been unaffected.

The Panama Canal Authority (ACP) said that the suspension was “based on the fact that these tugboat captains refused to fulfil their duty of assisting the transit of vessels through the Post-panamax locks, which affected the regular operation and caused a negative economic impact on the country as it affected the confidence of our clients and the image of the Panama Canal”.

The ACP had decided to reduce the number of seamen required onboard the Alpha (lead) tugs from three to two. The ACP said that the three-man measure had been introduced on a temporary basis when the third set of locks started operations in June 2016.

Some pilots opted to take Post-panamax vessels through the waterway without the lead tug. Some tug captains refused to work without a third seaman on the tugboat.

Five transits in the new locks that were scheduled for Thursday could not be completed because of the tug captain action.

The ACP said that as-yet-unspecified sanctions would be applied against certain tugboat captains who refused to transit the vessels. The union representing the captains, Unión de Capitanes y Oficiales de Cubierta del Panama Canal (UCOC) said that they refused because of safety issues.

The union alleged that the sanctions were part of the ACP’s plan to privatize tug operations.

Last month, the UCOC and two other maritime unions in the Panama Canal published a plan that sought to improve the operations of the waterway. The unions cited a shortage of personnel and equipment which made some operations of the Expanded Panama Canal unsafe. Worker fatigue was specifically stated to be an issue.

The ACP said that it was aware of its responsibility to guarantee the safety of workers and the reliability of Canal operations, but it decided to take the action “to safeguard the greater interests of Panama and the Canal”.