Source: Lloyd’s List
May 19th 2016
Delegated and dignitaries, including form US president Jimmy Carter, will descend on Panama at the end of June for what will mark a major change in the patterns of world trade, when the Panama Canal formally opens its new locks.
After nearly nine years in construction, and running two years behind schedule, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) will open its third set of locks on June 26, when Cosco’s 9,443 teu Andronikos, which will be renamed Cosco Shipping Panama to mark the event, becomes the first neo-panamax vessel to transit the canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
The Cosco vessel, which was chosen in a lottery by the ACP, will not, however, be the first to utilise the locks.
The ACP has chartered in the 114,248 dwt bulker Baroque to test the new locks and to train pilots and tug masters ahead of the new locks’ commercial opening. It will start using the Atlantic locks from June 7.
“We need to be ready by June 26,” says ACP chairman of the board of inspectors Miguel Rodriguez. “We need to test everything before the inaugural voyages.”
Baroque, at 255 m long and with a beam of 45 m, is slightly smaller than Cosco Shipping Panama, but will allow the ACP to begin trialling the locks using real vessels near the maximum size permitted in the new locks. Due to the requirement for a turning circle, the vessel will only use the Gatun locks on the Atlantic side of the canal, and will not make a full transit.
Testing and training has been an important part getting the canal ready for transits, Capt Rodrigues says.
As well as scale model simulations and tank tests, the ACP has been using manned models on a special side canal dredged to simulate the locks and the approach channels.
The $8m project follows the same compass headings as the canal, so models are affected by the same winds as vessels in the main canal, and is dredged to give varying drafts so pilots will feel the same suction and cushioning effects from navigating close to the canal banks.
Concerns over the safety of the new locks were raised in a study published by the International Transport Workers’ Federation. The ITF called for the shipping industry to do a safety analysis of the locks after simulator studies found that the new locks too small for the safe operation of tugs under certain conditions.
Capt Rodrigues says while the ACP appreciates and welcomes the ITF’s concerns, the simulations were inaccurate.
“Their concern is the same as ours: the safety of people,” he says. “But we have spent 10 years on this project, and we didn’t just invent the systems in place. We took the best practice from around the world.
“The [ITF] study has a good simulator, but simulators are just computers. What comes out depends on what goes in, and they do not have the same data as we do.”
The results of the ITF study were based on the canal using two tugs in the lock with a vessel, but in practice the ACP will have five tugs: one ahead, two alongside and two astern.
“We don’t really want two tugs astern, but we will try it that way to see how it works,” Capt Rodrigues says. “The ITF is happy with four tugs.”
Moreover, Capt Rodrigues points out that with two of the four gates open in the lock, there is sufficient room for a vessel and the tugs. At 1,500 ft, the locks were more than adequate to accommodate a vessel with the maximum allowed dimensions.
If the two sets of gates in front of and behind the ship are closed, the space in between them is 1,400 ft long, he said, but the locks will operate with one gate at the back open, leaving 1,500 ft of open space.
The biggest ships allowed to transit the new locks will be 1,200 ft long, Capt Rodrigues says, allowing 150 ft of space behind and in front of the vessel, for each 95 ft-long tugboat.
Nor is there any risk of tugs being crushed inside the locks, he says, as while they were of shallow enough draft to ride over the sill, the towed vessel would hit the sill before hitting the tug.