Tugs and infrastructure problems hampering new Panama Canal locks

Only about 50% of the projected number of ships per day are transiting through the locks of the recently widened Panama Canal because of a lack of staff and infrastructure, reports the American Journal of Transportation.

Larger Neopanamax vessels were expected to visit ports on the Eastern Seaboard this year, bringing shipping containers from Asia through an expanded Panama Canal, but a lack of operational resources within the Panama Canal has meant that far fewer ships than had been anticipated have made the passage. Shortages of tugs and trained crews have restricted the Panama Canal Authority’s ability to move the larger ships through the locks, with only a maximum of six transits a day being completed, rather than the expected 12.

Captain Don Marcus, the President of the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots, said that “this is like building a massive office tower without sufficient elevators to carry workers quickly to their offices”.

The old locks rely on locomotives moving on the side of the canal to tow vessels, while the new third set of locks that serve the neopanamaxes are moved by specials tugs in a complicated process. It was estimated that the canal would need between 70 and 90 of these more powerful tugs, but, even on a good day, only 33 of 46 tugboats owned by the Panama Canal Authority are operational. PCA-employed tug captains have reported that many of the canal tugs are not suitable to handle large container ships. Eight of the tugs, bought from China, have performed poorly and are not fully used, while least 10 other tugs are not operating at all. Harbour pilots worldwide have reported that neopanamaxes have manoeuvrability limitations that can make them hard to control.

The Panama Canal’s surrounding waters contain difficult currents and tight manoeuvring into locks. The neopanamaxes and LNG carriers generally require at least two tugboats to move through the new locks, but ever since the opening there have been reports of vessels scraping the walls of the locks, causing wear to the newly constructed walls and doors.

Marcus warned that “bringing in a Venezuelan company to provide tugs and crews who lack sufficient training and English language skills, unlike crews employed by

the canal authority, is not a solution. It will create greater problems. The Venezuelan company´s employees do not go through the rigorous 2.5-year training and certification process that is required for captains employed by the canal authority. And, for the first time in the canal’s history you will have these sensitive operations conducted by an outside Venezuelan company rather than direct employees of the Panama Canal Authority, thus creating safety and security questions.”