New Panama Canal, New Problem
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GEORGE H. LIVINGSTONE

GEORGE H. LIVINGSTONE

New Panama Canal, New Problem

07 August 2014 - 21:54

Mules leading a ship at Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal
Mules leading a ship at Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal


To the relief of much of the world’s trading nations, the Panama Canal expansion looks to be on track for a finish in 2015.  The Panama Canal Authority webpage states the following “The Panama Canal Expansion is the largest project at the Canal since its original construction. The project will create a new lane of traffic along the Canal through the construction of a new set of locks, doubling capacity and allowing more traffic. The existing locks allow the passage of vessels that can carry up to 5,000 TEUs. After the expansion the Post-Panamax vessels will be able to transit through the Canal, with up to 13,000 TEUs. The Expansion will double the Canal’s capacity, having a direct impact on economies of scale and international maritime trade.

The project is bold and in no way for the feint of heart saying much about the long term plans of Panama and where it sees itself in future global trade.  It is the culmination of Panama’s entrance into 21 Century and follows a very safe and successful 100 year model that has virtually made the country what it is today.

Quoting from the August 2014 magazine, “Insurance Journal”  –“Panama Canal 100: Shipping Safety and Future Risks” – marine Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty (AGCS), concluded that the “value of insured goods transiting the canal zone may increase by over US $1 billion per day following completion of the ‘Third Set of Locks Project,’ which will see two new sets of locks constructed, creating a third transit lane for larger ships.”  The report notes that every year, “Over 12,000 oceangoing ships navigate the canal, a figure which could increase significantly following the anticipated opening of the new locks in 2015. It is forecast the expansion will enable between 12 and 14 larger vessels per day (approximately 4,750 additional ships per year) to pass through the canal. 

“Captain Rahul Khanna, AGCS’s Global Head of Marine Risk Consulting, explained the potential risk management impact of this expansion. He said: “Larger ships automatically pose greater risks. The sheer amount of cargo carried means a serious casualty has the potential to lead to a sizeable loss and greater disruption. For example, a fully-loaded new-Panamax 12,600 teu container ship is as long as four football fields with a beam of up to 160 feet and could have an insured cargo value alone of $250 million.”  Obviously there is much to gain…or perhaps much to possibly lose.”

The new locks will take ships up to 160 feet wide and 1,200 feet long, the old system of using mules or trains to pull ships through the locks has been eliminated.  In its place, tractor tugs will be used to assist and safely see ships through the locks.  The planning for this is long over as the project is nearly complete but there have been recent rumblings regarding the system to be used to transit ships in the new canal. The rumblings are coming from people who know something about the subject at hand, the mariner; the individuals who will man and will take these giant ships through the new canal.  And the mariners, including this writer, are rightly concerned.  Why did the planners think it necessary to change a lock transit system (Mules) that has worked almost flawlessly for 100 years ?  There is an old saying in The United States “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it”.  This project has the markings of planners who were not mariners or pilots, I can assure the reader no pilot or captain with experience would have thought it a good idea to replace the “mule” system in the Panama Canal.  So the question remains why?  Why did a plan this bold and forward thinking go through with a possible major design flaw?  Did anyone ever bring in the Panama Canal pilots for the obvious expertise they have in transiting the locks?  Were those pilots ever seriously consulted throughout the planning and building of the new Canal Expansion?  These are questions that deserve answers, very much is at stake.  As for this mariner, there seem significant questions regarding the transit of Ultra Large Container ships through the canal when expansion is completed next year and the Panama Canal Pilots likely have the answers, if anyone is listening.

To more arrivals than departures...

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