China Cosco Shipping was the first company to have a vessel transit the expanded Panama Canal on June 26, but it also has had a vessel collide with the canal wall and suffer damage. The 8,500 teu container ship Xin Fei Zhou hit a wall while transiting the locks at Agua Clara on the Atlantic side of the canal last month. The ship’s hull was damaged, but traffic was not affected, and the wall suffered only minor damage.
That hasn’t been the only accident since the expanded canal opened. The Lycaste Peace, the first LPG tanker to pass through the new section of the canal, ripped off a canal wall fender during a collision in late June, causing some minor damage to the railing of the ship.
The Panama Canal Authority has confirmed that the Cosco Shipping Panama, the container ship that made the inaugural journey through the canal, also made contact with the canal’s fenders. A spokesman for the Canal Authority said that is normal, and also claims the way incidents involving the Lycaste Peace and Cosco Shipping Panama were reported was incorrect.
“In both of these cases, neither is considered an incident or accident,” according to the Authority, Maritime Executive reports. “In fact, contacting fenders during approaches to the locks or inside the chambers of the locks is normal, expected and is the reason for installing fenders on areas where contact is expected.”
It is interesting to note, however, that other vessels have not only had contact, but have sheared or badly damaged up to 100 buffering fenders that are supposed to protect the lock walls and ship hulls should they come into contact, according to interviews with canal workers, a New York Times article reports. Canal workers interviewed for the story expressed concern about whether the plastic fenders on the lock walls would be adequate and whether tugboat captains had received the proper training in how to guide giant ships through the chambers—a procedure that differs from the one used in the original canal.
The original canal, which remains in operation, uses locomotives that run alongside the lock walls to pull the ships. The expanded canal operates differently: Tugboats push and guide the ships. According to the Panama Canal Authority, tugs not only are cheaper, but are the only practical way to move the newer giant neo-Panamax ships.
That may be the case, however, in a 2014 report, written well before the expanded canal opened, global insurance company Allianz wrote that the change to using tugboats brings with it “a greater potential for damage,” the New York Times reports. Allianz further wrote that the tugs will be sufficient, but training is the key to mitigating the risks.
It is a challenge, tugboat captains say, made more difficult because so many of them have not been fully trained in the new system, said Iván de la Guardia, who heads the tugboat captains’ union, in the NYT article. After three weeks of operation, Mr. de la Guardia said, 60 percent of his members had yet to be trained.
None of this seems to have had an impact on shippers’ plans to use the expanded Panama Canal, which can shorten the one-way journey by sea from Asia to the U.S. East Coast by roughly five days while also eliminating the need for a trip around Cape Horn to get to the Atlantic. Indeed, the expanded Panama Canal has transited 69 neo-Panamax vessels since its inauguration on June 26. Specifically, 40 container ships, 24 LPG carriers, three vehicle carriers and two LNG carriers have transited the expanded canal. In addition, the Panama Canal Authority notes that it has received 250 reservations—and counting—for ships to transit the expanded canal, including seven cruise ship reservations.
It will be interesting to see if the number of times ships collide with canal lock fenders decreases as tugboat captains are trained and become more familiar with the new expanded canal and the larger neo-Panamax vessels.