Expanded Panama Canal Fundamentally Flawed Says Veteran Ship Pilot

panama canal expansion
Image: Panama Canal

Captain Jose Claus, a Panama Canal pilot with 22-years of experience guiding ships along this vital passage, strongly believes the locks for the new Panama Canal have a fundamental design flaw that may have extraordinarily far-reaching and highly negative implications. In short, he believes they are under-engineered for the task they are about to perform.

Initial engineering studies for the new Panama Canal brought engineers to Port of Antwerp to visit the largest Post-Panamax locks in the world, Berendrecht and Zandvliet.  At these locks, tugs are used maneuver the ships in and out of the locks rather than locomotives (mules).  Both locks measure 1,640 feet long and are 223 feet wide and 186 feet wide, respectively.

The dimensions of the locks in Belgium are critically important because not only do they consider the maximum size of the vessel that will transit, but also the maneuvering tugs which will accompany these vessels alongside.  In the case of Berendrecht, the added width of the lock allows much larger Post-Panamax vessels to transit through with the assistance of tugs both fore-and-aft, as well as port and/or starboard.  Under flat calm conditions, a Post-Panamax ship could probably transit through the Zandvliet lock as well, however they don’t because of the difficulties in keeping the ship laterally centered in the lock while hooked up to the tugs fore-and-aft.

This is the situation facing the new Panama Canal which will measure 1,400 feet long and 180 feet wide.  With new Panamax-sized ships designed to have a maximum beam of 161 feet, that leaves only 19 feet to spare on either side of the vessel, which is about half the beam of a typical tugboat.  Tugs will simply not be able to operate alongside Panamax vessels transiting the new Panama Canal.

There are other consideration as well, notes Captain Claus.

“The new Panamax lock on the Caribbean side is aligned more in the west-east direction which puts transiting vessels more broadside with respect to the prevailing winds.  In our dry season, 21 knots is normal and some days reach 30 knots, however in Antwerp, the navigation regulations note that maneuvers should be postponed above Beaufort Force 5, or 21 knots of wind.”  Considering the windage inherent to LNG tankers and large containerships, this is a major consideration.

Without the use of locomotives such as those currently being used, Captain Claus is deeply concerned the new Panamax ships will not be able to be safely maneuvered through the canal.  “Instead of an hour and a half transit times, we may be looking at four hours in order to do this safely,” he notes in a phone call.

More than doubling the transit times would subsequently half the number of ships that are able to transit and potentially ruin the business case for the canal, he notes.

“Major delays on the Panama Canal would be catastrophic to Panama,” notes Claus.

And indeed the entire shipping industry.  In speaking with a shipowner today, the biggest industry question is,  “What will the rates be to use the canal once expanded?”

If Claus’ warning comes true, transits through the canal will fall while rates rise proportionally.