‘Improvisation and lack of preparation’ are causing accidents along the new Panama Canal

The Panama Canal Authority has come in for stinging criticism for its failure to properly prepare for the opening of the expanded waterway, which has seen three scraping incidents within the first month since the expansion was finished.

Last weekend the 8,500 teu Xin Fei Zhou suffered a gash while transiting the canal. It was the third ship to touch the walls of the canal in the space of just four weeks. Canal administrator Jorge Quijano said Tuesday the Xin Fei Zhou accident was down to bad weather and the vessel not lining up correctly – a claim that local pilots in Panama have questioned.

The expansion, ushering in the so-called neopanamax era, has drawn criticism from industry groups that claim its design makes the transit of larger ships unsafe for the vessels and workers with some saying there is now less space for manoeuvres than the original locks.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation commissioned a safety study of the expansion in April, which noted the locks’ dimensions are too small; there are no refuge areas for the tugboats inside the locks; and the bollard pull was deemed insufficient. The Panama Canal Authority dismissed the study as incorrect.

In an exclusive interview with Splash today, Iván de la Guardia, general secretary of the Unión de Capitanes y Oficiales de Cubierta (UCOC), the union representing officers working along the canal, has lashed out at the authority’s failure to acknowledge the problems facing ships transiting the expanded canal, not least the inadequate training of pilots and masters.

“The number of captains available for servicing both sets of locks with safe manning is still inadequate and more people need to be recruited in a hurry. The so-called training has pretty much vanished even though not even half of the captains have been trained. Still, there is no procedure and the trial and error method is still in vogue, by both masters and pilots,” de la Guardia said.

The union boss said last weekend’s boxship accident was “a product of the improvisation and lack of preparation of the administration in getting personnel ready”.

De la Guardia also said the fact that there is no approach wall on the Atlantic locks makes operations more complex.

The Panamanian said he was disappointed too that the authority was “scrambling” to outsource towing services from international companies such as SMIT and Scafi as traffic increases.
“Although the collective bargaining agreement is signed, the administration of the canal is turning a deaf ear to our comments again, as our future seems uncertain with all the outsourcing moves being made,” de la Guardia concluded.

The Panama Canal Authority failed to reply to questions sent by Splash earlier this week.

Earlier this month risk management consultants PGI Intelligence issued a damning report on the new canal. PGI noted that the locks are 427m long and 55m wide, while neopanamaxes reach 366m and 49m in the same categories. That leaves just 6m width and 61m length of wriggle room and tugboats will be used on both ends of these ships to get them through the locks.

The report cited structural concerns exposed in the locks during the rush for completion and it also refers to the occasional need to impose draft restrictions during times of drought.

The $5.4bn expansion project has had more than its fair share of bad news with cost overruns, construction delays, leaking new locks and collapsed walls.


Sam Chambers

Starting out with the Informa Group in 2000 in Hong Kong, Sam Chambers became editor of Maritime Asia magazine as well as East Asia Editor for the world’s oldest newspaper, Lloyd’s List. In 2005 he pursued a freelance career and wrote for a variety of titles including taking on the role of Asia Editor at Seatrade magazine and China correspondent for Supply Chain Asia. His work has also appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The Sunday Times and The International Herald Tribune.
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