Vessel has near miss with lock, tug, in Panama Canal

A near-collision on Sunday March 5th between the Orient Overseas Container Line OOCL Utah (OIMO 9486087) and a Panama Canal lock gate has caused concerns among experts in marine traffic, reports The Loadstar.

Video footage showed a fore-positioned ‘alpha’ tug almost crushed between the Hong Kong-flagged containership and the canal’s Agua Clara lock gate. Apparently there was no aft-situated ‘delta’ tug to stop the vessel.

Representatives of the Panama Canal Captains and Deck Officers Union claimed that a lack of procedures and under-resourcing by the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) had left pilots – who are paid per vessel – “calling the shots”.

“They [pilots] want to finish fast, because the more assignments they get, the more money they make. The fault cannot be attributed to the ship. [The pilot] was told the [stern] tug was coming from another job… but chose not wait. There are no procedures and no regulation, so [the pilot] can do whatever he wants.”

The source said that “this is the closest call we’ve had so far in a train of incidents over the past two years. In one, a tug was put aground… another put on the rocks and out for repair for three months.”

They claimed that pilots often tried to negotiate the canal at faster-than-safe-speeds, asserting that “the crew [on the tug] was in jeopardy because of the enclosed space and the size of the ship”.

“If the ship strikes the tug …it’s going to go under. There are no ladders, [the tugs themselves] are deathtraps… but if you fall in the water there, you’re going to get sucked under.”

Beyond the danger to the tug and its crew, if such an incident occurred then the Panama Canal could have been closed for months.

In the Panama Canal, the lock gates “…are not like the ones we had on the old locks. These move on rails, and if a gate gets out of that rail because a 100,000 tonne ship moving at 2.5 knots hit it, it’s going to get stuck. And we do not have the equipment to lift that gate right now. Actually, we do not know how they could fix that problem. So, it would be a big disruption for global supply chains.”

The union is asking for an enforced speed limit, a list of procedures for pilots that would specify tugs fore and aft, and better resourcing and better-equipped tugs. The unions claim that there were not enough crew to cover the needs of the canal. It was asserted by one source that crews were working for more than 16 hours a day, seven days a week, with no mandated rest periods. “There is no maintenance of the tugs, there are few personnel… we are not immune to fatigue.”

2015-built, Hong Kong-flagged, 92,111 gt OOCL Utah is owned by FPG Shipholding Panama 16 SA care of OOCL of Hong Kong, China. It is entered with Steamship Mutual (Eastern Syndicate) on behalf of FPG Shipholding Partners 16 SA.