Locks and Bungles

On July 25th, SchedNet had this to say about the new Panama Canal: “Panama locks ‘too small for tugs to keep big ships safe in high winds’

“Veteran Panama Canal pilot Jose Claus says the new locks being installed in the expanded Panama Canal are flawed and will cause catastrophic delays in periods of high wind, which are frequent in the dry season.

“‘Instead of an hour and a half transit times, we may be looking at four hours in order to do this safely,’ Capt Claus told Los Angeles area maritime journal gCaptain in an interview about the problem at two locks. He sees the situation potentially more than doubling transit times and halving the number of ships able to transit as well as ruining the business case for the Panama Canal, he said.

“In Belgium where the locks were engineered, maritime activity in rare periods of high winds are forbidden for safety reasons. But high winds are routine in Caribbean waters and cause no delay. But this was not factored in during the design phase in Belgium, according to Captain Claus, who has 22 years’ experience piloting ships through the Panama Canal.

“The problem concerns the canal section where locomotives do not come alongside to tow ships, but in sections where tugs work fore and aft, port and starboard to do the job. Trouble is, said Capt Claus, postpanamax ships need more tugboat room than the locks provide. As it stands, there is only room fore and aft and not enough for port and starboard. And that’s critical when winds are high, when the big postpanamaxes must be secured in the centre of the waterway and not be allowed to collide against the sides. With tugs port and starboard and fore and aft that’s no problem.

“Paraphrasing Capt Claus, the report said: ‘In our dry season, 21 knots is normal wind speed, some days it reaches 30 knots. But in Antwerp navigation regulations call for manoeuvers to stop when winds exceed 21 knots.

“‘The dimensions of the locks are critically important because not only do they consider the maximum size of the vessel that will transit, but also the manoeuvering rigs which accompany these vessels. In the case of one lock, the added width of the lock allows much larger postpanamax vessels to transmit through with the assistance of tugs both fore and aft and port and starboard,’ said the gCaptain account.

“Another problem is that the new Atlantic side lock is aligned more in the west-east direction, which puts transiting vessels broadside to prevailing winds. Commented gCaptain: ‘Considering the windage inherent to LNG tankers and large containerships, this is a major consideration.’” —

[No doubt, this “major consideration”, plus the savings in time, distance and expense, will make the completed Nicaraguan Canal a much more attractive proposition for ship owners. And when the Rio Grande Canal becomes available, it will be game, set and match for all North Americans.]