Panama Canal pilots warn of future navigation risks
Peter T. Leach, Editor-at-Large [B]| Oct 01, 2014 10:34AM EDT
The pilots who guide ships through the Panama Canal fear that the navigation methods chosen to guide post-Panamax vessels into the new expanded locks and through the enlarged canal channels run higher risks of accidents than existing practices.
Under the existing method, two locomotives tow a Panamax ship, a vessel with capacity up to 4,500 TEUs, into the 100-year-old locks, which raise or lower the ship to the level of the water on the other side. Under the new method, the Panama Canal Authority plans to use two or more tugboats to push the much bigger post-Panamax vessels into the new locks — which should open to commercial traffic in 2016 — that will accommodate container ships with capacities of up to 13,000 20-foot-equivalent units. The Panama Pilots Association says the new method will take longer and cost more.
The pilots also worry that even though the expansion project has widened the canal’s narrowest passage at the Culebra Cut, it will still be too tight to accommodate the transit of two post-Panamax vessels at the same time. They say it runs the risk of causing a collision and blocking the canal.
“We can’t afford to make a mistake on this, and the way this is going, that’s exactly what we are going to do,” said Rainiero Salas, president of the Panama Canal Pilots’ Association.
“The point right now is: How do we overcome the deficiencies that the new system has to have a safe and efficient system that is going to be successful not only for the country, but for the shipowners, for the clients, for the pilot, for everybody,” Salas said in an interview with JOC.com.
The pilots complain that the Panama Canal Authority never consulted them when it drew up the operational plans for the new locks. The plans call for the use of tugboats rather than the proved method of using two locomotives on either side of an incoming ship. “It’s less efficient and less safe,” Salas said.
The canal agency said the use of tugs for the transit of vessels is a “known practice” in canals around the world. It said it has been investing in increasing its tugboat capacity, purchasing 14 tugs built in Europe in the last two years at a cost of more than $11 million each. “We have high regards for the professionalism and skill of our pilots and remain confident that the training the ACP has determined to provide them will guarantee that they are adequately prepared to safely navigate the larger vessels through our new locks utilizing tugboats instead of locomotives,” it said in a statement in response to questions by JOC.com.
“The locomotives have been working safely for over 100 years,” Salas said. “Why would you want to do it any other way?” He said the Panama Canal Authority would have to spend much more money on a tugboat fleet than the older, tried-and-true method. Under the current method, each locomotive has an operator who is a member of the pilots’ association. Under the method planned for the new locks, each tugboat would have a crew of five, none of whom is a member of the pilots’ association.
The canal pilots, who are affiliate members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, make an average of $180,000 a year, but unlike other canal employees, their income is variable and depends on the number of ships they pilot through the canal.
Despite their reservations, the pilots did not object to the canal authority’s plan to use tugboats rather than locomotives at the time the plan was drawn up, but decided to protest when the authority said it would allow two ships to pass each other in the Culebra Cut while traveling in opposite directions. Salas said this was not part of the original plan.
“That’s it; I am drawing the line right here, “he said. “When it comes to the navigation of the ship, I am the only one who has anything to do with it. I am not going to put up any more with the administration not taking our input when it comes to the operation of the canal.”
Salas said the pilots’ association is raising the issue now to try to get a response from the canal authority. He said the pilots’ association does not plan any labor action, but that it had filed a notice of unfair labor practices against the agency.
The Panama Canal Authority said it consults with its employees on the canal’s operations. “Decisions made by the Panama Canal Administration regarding the operation of the expanded canal are not made arbitrarily. They take into consideration the very valuable opinion of highly experienced workforce,” it said in the statement.
Salas said that under the original plan for the expansion project, which was published in 2006, the Culebra Cut was widened from 630 to 715 feet, which was designed to allow passage of one ship at a time with a beam of 150 feet traveling in one direction.
“They did a lot of homework and spent millions of dollars on studies and analyses,” Salas said.
One of those studies, the Technical Analysis of the Proposed Panama Canal Post-Panamax Navigation Channel, stated that “if some of the current operating restrictions were lifted once the Cut straightening and widening program is complete, select Panamax ships could be allowed to conduct two-way transits through canal entrances and the Cut.”
Salas said that in May the canal authority notified the pilots’ association that it would allow two ships with beams of 160 feet to navigate the 7-mile-long Cut while traveling in opposite directions. “We are talking about the same channel, the same width, the same depth and the same rocks because the rocks are still there, so what changed? That is the question,” Salas said. “All of a sudden (ships can pass with) a little more than twice as much size as we could do when they first did the study? I have to say it’s irresponsible.”
The canal authority statement said simply that the Culebra Cut is currently being widened to 715 feet, which should allow two post-Panamax vessels to navigate side by side through the Cut.”
When Salas asked the canal authority for studies and analysis showing that two ships could safely pass each other in the expanded Culebra Cut, “the authority said they do not exist,” he said.
“They can increase the throughput of the Panama Canal, but they risk having an accident and shutting the canal down,” Salas said. It’s not my intention to scare the customers away, but we have enough time, but the administration and the pilots have to get together now to work out how this is going to work.”