Panama Canal Authority Addresses Operational Concerns Facing Expanded Canal

panama canal expansion
Image: Panama Canal

By Captain Guillermo Manfredo,

The Panama Canal Expansion was proposed to increase the capacity of the waterway and accommodate the projected future demand, in an effort to maintain the Canal’s competitiveness and the value of the Panama route for our customers.

Detailed studies were conducted regarding the methodology of transits through the new locks, evaluating the effects and consequences of transits with and without the assistance of locomotives. After extensive evaluation, the decision was eventually made to adopt transits through the locks with only the assistance of tugboats, a method successfully used worldwide at locks in various water routes.

These studies were performed by a multidisciplinary team in charge of the successful management of the Panama Canal operations, a team composed of highly-skilled engineers and pilots. This team has in the past been responsible for several modifications to transit methodologies, which have resulted in an improved efficiency and safety of operations. Eventually, these changes in methodology were implemented and accepted, resulting in improved efficiency in the current transit operations that have benefited our customers directly. These improvements have been recognized and praised worldwide.

In current transit operations, locomotives are used to help maintain the vessels positioned in the locks and avoid contact with the chamber walls. Recognizing that we do not want to have vessels making direct contact with the chamber walls of the new locks, and at the same time addressing the implementation of the new transit methodology, these locks were designed with two continuous rows of rubber fenders capped with an ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene (slippery surface to reduce wear) layer on the walls that will serve to reduce the risk associated with vessels coming in contact with those structures. Additionally, a vertical column of fenders of the same type mentioned earlier were also added every 33 meters to the new lock chambers.

As a further improvement in lock design which is not present in the current locks, the filling and emptying system has a fully balanced water flow concept which was verified through a physical 1:30 scale model built for this purpose in a hydraulic laboratory in Lyon, France and which allows the raising or lowering the vessels in the chamber with minimal lateral forces exerted on the vessel. None of these enhancements are available now in the present lock system.

The Panama Canal recognizes that the transit without the assistance of locomotives constitutes a change for our pilots; therefore, it is committed to provide the necessary training to adequately prepare for the safe transit of all vessels through the new locks. During the past 100 year, the Panama Canal Administration has always demonstrated its commitment to the training of our workforce, by preparing them to adapt to the ever changing vessel size, types and configurations promoted by the maritime industry in its quest for higher efficiencies and safety. The Canal will offer pilots training that will include real-time simulations, manned-scaled models in fast time simulations and practice transits through the locks with a real ship that will be chartered precisely for this purpose once the first of the two locks is available for transit operations.

In addition, recognizing that there will be an increased utilization of tugboats for transits through our new locks, the ACP has invested more than 360 million dollars since 2007, in the acquisition of 35 new tugboats, 27 of which have been acquired only within the last 4 years. These tugs, which have been constructed with state of the art technology, have capabilities of developing from 63 to over 82 tons of bollard pull and will serve to provide for the safe and efficient transits that we have committed ourselves to offer to the maritime community.

Regarding the navigation of New Panamax vessels in our navigational channels, the Canal Administration is aware of the different findings that had been presented in previous studies. These studies had a necessarily conservative position since no models were available at the time to include them on both of our bridge simulators in Panama to perform tests. Over the past two years these models have been developed for our Kongsberg navigation simulator and have been employed to perform further tests with very seasoned pilots and have identified the possibility to further enhance the service we provide to the industry. In the process of adjusting the methodology and restrictions to be applied to the transit of the New Panamax vessels, the Canal Administration has evaluated the operations of other waterways, noting the successful meeting of vessels of proportionately greater dimensions in much more restricted waterways and under conditions that could certainly be viewed as less favorable.

Even though such notification has been sent to the pilot union, the Administration is conscious of the impact such changes can represent and has no intention to implement the full extent of new limits for the channels on the first day of operation. With a clear sense of responsibility and full regard for the safety of transits through our Canal, these new limits in channel navigation will be implemented with a prudent progression schedule that should serve to reduce anxiety and allow for the development of confidence in performing these maneuvers. To further enhance the navigation precision the Panama Canal has invested tremendously in sophisticated aids to navigation including very precise center and sailing ranges with string lights, bank lights and daylight/night sector lights as well as bank lights and lit prism buoys every 152 meters.

Furthermore, the Panama Canal is presently investing in adding precise navigation instrumentation such has Pilot Portable units with extremely precise vessel positioning and course identification which will surely add to the safety of the waterway. One must be reminded that unlike other canals or navigation channels in the world where the pilots only assume an advisory role, in the Panama Canal our pilots assume full navigational control of the vessel thus the responsibility of any mishap not accountable to the vessel or its crew is assumed by the Canal. Therefore you can only conclude that the ACP would never undertake any practice that could be considered unsafe and that could increase its liability.

We remain fully confident that our pilot force will adapt and conquer this new challenge, just as they have done in the past, and thus, guarantee the efficient operation of this new canal in order to maintain the efficiency and reliability that has been a trademark of our service for the past 100 years and has kept us competitive.

Captain Manfredo is Acting Executive Manager for Operations / Canal Operations Captain Panama Canal Authority (ACP).