Wash Damage and Speed Regulation in Parana River

Standard Club and UK Club have highlighted to members the situation relating to low water levels in vital South American waterway the Parana River.

The Parana Coast Guard has established that, due to safety reasons, vessels should navigate cautiously and reduce to the minimum speed compatible with the good steering whenever there are other vessels moored, manoeuvring or under lightering operations nearby berths and port terminals.

Correspondent Pandi Liquidadores has issued an update on the situation in the river (see link at end).

The Parana is an alluvial river of about 4,880 km with ocean-going vessels normally reaching up to the Km 550 mark. It is formed by sharp bends, strong currents, shifting sediments and limited navigational width. It also experiences heavy traffic and various other factors which make the river a restricted and challenging navigation.

There are more than 60 Port Terminals on the River. Using Port and River Pilots is mandatory and essential for safe passage.

However, Pandi Liquidadores said that it often saw wash damages affecting berths and ships alongside that have been caused by excessive speed of vessels sailing either downriver or upriver – incidents that tend to repeat over time and that otherwise could be avoided.

The correspondent also said that there was too often no thorough navigational plan discussion between the Master and the Pilot, which was frequently limited to exchanging basic information in the Pilot Cards. “We have found that safe speeds and speed limitations are not usually discussed, and the Masters tend to be over-reliant on the Pilots”, Pandi Liquidadores said.

UK Club noted that the Paraná River provided an entrance to inland South America through Argentina from the Atlantic Ocean and acted as “a grain super-highway” for much of South America. It is the second longest river system in South America, second only to the Amazon River. From the confluence of the Paranaíba and Rio Grande rivers in Southern Brazil it flows generally South for 3,030 miles to the Río de la Plata estuary, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean near Buenos Aires, Argentina.

However, ocean freighters are not the dominant vessels far beyond Santa Fé (150 miles upstream from the River’s Río de la Plata delta) due to the River’s varying depths. Instead, tugs and mass convoys of barges travel the River and its tributaries, which touch Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and ultimately Bolivia.

The Paraná’s flow and depth is at its greatest during its rainy season (peaking in February and March) and is at its lowest during the dry season (peaking in October). 

Fractioned convoys of grain barges traverse the Paraná with as many as five barges across, and the same (or more) vertically below.  A convoy of 40 barges can be pushed by only a single tug, which barges are connected to each other in groups via cable (i.e. “fractioned”) rather than all to the tug.

Heavy weather, with violent winds, are common on the Paraná.

Heavy weather, in addition to possible cable failure, can result in barges breaking free from their fractioning and/or mooring.  Due to the current in the River, the barges will frequently race downstream, colliding and alliding with other barges and tugs moored along the coast and under way.

UK Club said that, while cover was fact-specific all convoys are deemed under Argentine law to form one “vessel”. Thus, neighbouring tugs will often assist in recapturing the loose and drifting barges, and will later seek a salvage award from the vessel. Additionally, tugs and barges that are hit by a drifting barge can seek damages for said collision from the tug the barge was originally attached to, regardless of any diversity in ownership between the tug and barge.

Heavy weather and low river depth can both contribute to groundings in the Paraná.  In some cases, tugs and barges run aground but manage to refloat with no serious damage. The Paraná’s bottom is not heavy with rock/anchor hazards and has considerable current, which provides a sandy sediment topography for its bottom.

When groundings are caused by heavy weather, as in the rainy season, refloating may have to wait until a storm system passes or clears. In such scenarios, ingress of water poses a threat to both tug electrical equipment, and cargo in barges.

UK Club noted that ocean going vessels in particular were known to have issues grounding in the Paraná River, despite the presence of pilots onboard.

The Argentine Coast Guard relies on daily reports of maximum navigable draft and sailing depths from the Vias Navegables (government Waterways Office). It periodically publishes Bulletins denoting river depths. UK Club said that the constant measurement was necessary because the clay present in sediment deposits ubiquitous in the River prevented any permanent installations of tidal measurement equipment on the riverbed.

Droughts and excessive rains could alter the safe sailing depth dramatically and could result in impermanent sediment build-ups.

UK Club said that, “unlike in other jurisdictions, errors in navigation committed by a Pilot onboard in Argentine waters will result in fault attributed to only the Master/Shipowner, as legally an Argentine Pilot’s services are considered only advisory”.

2020 had marked a historic year for the River because it was at a near 50-year low due to a drought in southern Brazil and northern Argentina. UK Club said that the extremely low water level had complicated basic navigation more than normal. Draft restrictions had been implemented and had prevented grain vessels from being fully loaded. There had been a record number of ship groundings.

Additionally, low water conditions had left loaded barges trapped upriver, and led to controlled water releases from both the Itaipú and Yacycretá dams, which had done little to alleviate the River’s low condition.

UK Club said that it had seen various groundings resulting from these unprecedented conditions. It recommended consulting with local port agents, or local correspondents, prior to loading any cargos in the Paraná. “While these conditions are historically short-lived, or confined to the dry season, additional precautions should be taken from these lessons learned and experiences in the future”, UK Club concluded.