Editors note: The following report submitted by the ILWU’s Panama Canal Division explains how members of the Panama Canal Pilots Union have been testing new equipment and procedures at the expanded canal which is expected to become operational soon.
A total of 52 lockages without the use of locomotives were conducted during a five-week period between June 26 and July 29 of 2011. This took place at the locks of Miraflores, Pedro Miguel and Gatun. Different types of vessels were used (except naval and passenger vessels) in tests to prepare for the opening of a third set of locks scheduled to be inaugurated in October 2015.
The parameters of the test were previously established in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed between the administration of the Panama Canal Authority (PCA) and the Panama Canal Pilots Union (PCPU). A group of 8 test pilots and 2 coordinators equally represented both parties.
The test group was tasked with simulating, as closely as possible, the conditions that could be encountered at the third set of locks, as well as preparing a Pilot Training Program for the pilot force. This consisted of:
- A team of two test pilots who boarded the participating vessel prior to its arrival at the locks. They fastened the two “lockage” tugboats, forward and aft of the other vessel, while approaching the designated locks wall.
- With additional help from the “assisting” tugboats, they entered the chamber of the locks where the vessel was stopped.
- The vessel was made fast to the lock wall, after which it is raised or lowered by the water in the locks. The vessel was then moved from this chamber to the following one(s), then finally exited the locks.
Currently, tugs in the canal are mainly used to assist different type of vessels depending on their size and handling characteristics, while approaching the locks wall and then entering the locks chamber. After this, they are normally released and cast-off. Below are some of the conclusions and recommendations we reached during the test:
Assuming that twelve panamax-plus or post-panamax vessels will transit through the third set of locks, on a typical day, and considering the amount of time required by these vessels to lock through, the test group concluded that the PCA’s fleet of 32 tugs when the test took place, will have to be increased to 100 tugs. These tugs are replacing electric locomotives and should be classified as “lockage tugs” or “assisting tugs,” and their usages shall not be interchangeable.
It was concluded that the lockage tugs should be used in the third set of locks to help the pilot position the vessel as they enter the chamber, stop the vessel, remain in the chamber with the vessel as the water is levelled, proceed to the next chamber. This process is repeated until the vessel exits or clears the third set of locks.
The test group estimated the lockage time for this type of vessel, using “lockage” tugs instead of electric locomotives, will require 3.5 to 4 hours, from the time the vessel enters the first lock and departs the third set of locks.
Consequently, an estimate increase of one and a half to 2 hours will be added to the actual standard lockage time of two hours, for scheduling purposes.
In addition, it is important to know that “the lockage tugs used for the test cannot be compared with the effectiveness, positive control of the vessel and safety, that is provided by the use of locomotives,” which have been proven for over 100 years in the Panama Canal.
It should be further noted that on August 29, 2006, the Panama Canal Pilots Union (PCPU) made public a report prepared by a technical committee appointed for that purpose, which, among other issues, the PCPU strongly recommended the PCA administration utilize electric locomotives in the design for the third set of locks. This recommendation, along with others, has not been considered by the PCA administration.
Canal Standard Times
The test group estimated that an additional 1.5 to 2 hours will be needed to schedule a Panamax-plus or a Pospanamax vessel to transit through the third set of locks in the Canal. Actually, it takes two hours for a loaded Panamax to go through Gatun locks, the only one with three chambers until the third set of locks is completed.
In addition to the test of lockages without the use of locomotives per formed on site at the locks, a number of maneuvering exercises executed at the simulator in the Canal installations provided information that allowed the test group to preliminarily conclude:
The standard running time for Panamax-plus and Postpanamax vessels to go across Gatun lake will also be increased by:
- a) a timeframe figure which is directly proportional to their handling characteristic, especially when navigating with a reduced amount of water below their keels (known as under keel clearance (UKC). This increment in the amount of time to navigate Gatun Lake and through Gaillard Cut (the narrowest part of the lake) may suffer an additional
- b) increase in timeframe which has not been estimated as yet due to meeting restrictions that will be necessary to imposed for safety purposes. These type of vessels will be transiting the waterway as part of one of the two semi convoys that travel each day through the Canal in opposite directions (north and south), and which at some point must encounter traffic coming through the canal in the opposite direction. For example, at present with the system that is in place for scheduling vessels, when a Panamax vessel is transiting in the northern semi-convoy direction, it is scheduled for safety reasons to not meet another similar size or a smaller vessel that is navigating in the opposite direction in Gaillard Cut. They normally meet in Gamboa after the vessels exit Gaillard Cut.
However, whenever the third set of locks finally opens to the international shipping industry, transit of Panamaxplus and Pospanamax vessels, may have to be scheduled to meet 2 to 4 nautical miles (3.7 to 7.4 kilometers) further north of Gamboa for safety purposes when they are navigating in the same northern direction. Consequently, the standard running time of two hours for a Panamax vessel will also increase under the same structure for scheduling vessels.
The replacement of the electric locomotives at the present locks by “lockage” tugs will be tasked not only with assisting the transiting vessels to make their approach and safely enter the third set of locks, as they currently do, but in the future they will also be tasked with positioning the vessel’s extremities (bow and stern), as it moves along the lock chamber and is taken to a stop, and moored (or made fast) to the lock wall. This entails a completely new paradigm for the pilots, the tugboat captains and mates, and to a lesser degree, the line handlers of the locks walls and those aboard the transiting vessels. The complete team assigned to the transit of a vessel will be facing this new challenge.
The test group concluded that “expediency in the placement and handling of lines to the lock walls is of the utmost importance.”
This fact is known to the ACP administration, as it came to their attention during the two first weeks of the test. A comprehensive training program should be implemented for all players, including the pilots, captains, and line handlers, in order to deal with this potential problem.
According to the ACP Administrator, the third set of locks will soon be open to transit. When that happens, vessels proceeding to or from the new third set of locks may face delays when the wind increases to 25 knots (46km/ hr.), which happens on a daily basis for approximately three months each year during the dry season. Another potentially serious concern for both the Canal officials and ship owners is the possible damage to a vessel’s hull each time it bumps either wall of the locks when entering or exiting the locks chamber, or when moving from one chamber to the next. This raises the following questions:
- Will insurance companies raise their premiums for vessels that transits the Panama Canal?
- Will the PCA administration reduce their liability limits for accidents or incidents in canal waters?
- Will the PCA administration maintain the pilot’s unique status of “being in charge” of vessel navigation while transiting the canal, or will they take away full control of the vessel’s navigation from the canal pilot?
Our final question is whether these issues will affect the toll paid by vessels to transit the Panama Canal, and how expeditious and safe will this transit be?