Rain Helps Panama Canal Authority Lift Draft Restrictions

The MV COSCO Shipping Panama, measuring 299.98 meters in length and 48.25 meters in beam, departs the Port of Piraeus for Panama to inaugurate the
The MV COSCO Shipping Panama, measuring 299.98 meters in length and 48.25 meters in beam, departs the Port of Piraeus for Panama to inaugurate the Neopanamax locks on June 26, 2016. Credit: COSCO Shipping

Recent rain has helped the Panama Canal Authority lift draft restrictions for vessels after months of drought threatened to pose a long-term challenge for the canal authority, especially as it prepares to open up the waterway to bigger ships later this month. 

Effective immediately, the maximum authorized draft for vessels transiting the existing Panamax locks is set to the standard max of 12.04 meters (39.5 feet) Tropical Fresh Water. Since April 18, the maximum draft had been restricted to 11.89 meters (39.0 feet).

The restrictions were caused by drought in the Panama Canal watershed caused by this year’s particularly strong El Niño, which forecasters declared over this week.

“The weather forecast for the remainder of the rainy season indicates that no further draft restrictions for the Panamax locks will be required,” the ACP said in an advisory to shipping earlier this week.

For the Panama Canal Authority, the rain is coming just in time.

Some wet weather towards the end of May allowed the ACP to suspend implementing a second and even third round of restrictions, which would have limited the allowable draft to just 11.59 meters (38.0 feet). Not to mention with the opening of the Panama Canal’s new locks later this month, more restrictions ultimately mean more problems for the ACP, shippers and industry stakeholders who have invested millions of dollars preparing for the expanded Panama Canal.  

Even with the recent rain, as it stands now the maximum allowable draft for vessels transiting the new Neopanamax locks has been raised to 13.11 meters (43 feet) TFW, an improvement from the 12.8 meters (42 feet) set by the ACP in May but still more than two meters below the advertised 15.20 meter draft that the new locks were designed to accommodate.

Regardless of the weather, inauguration of the Panama Canal expansion has been set for June 26 with commercial operations kicking off the following day. In fact, the ship that is to make the inaugural transit, the containership COSCO Shipping Panama, has just set sail on a 14-day voyage from the Greek Port of Piraeus. 

So all there is to do now is to wait and pray for rain. But luckily forecasters are now calling for an increased chance of La Niña in the second half of 2016, which is known for bringing cool and wet weather to the southern portion of Central America.

“The ACP continues to monitor the Gatun Lake level in order to further adjust the draft restrictions and will announce changes in a timely manner,” the ACP said.