ITF raises concerns over tugboat safety in expanded Panama Canal locks

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) has commissioned a study into the maneuvering feasibility of the new Panama Canal locks following concerns of serious deficiencies in the fleet of tugboats that will be used to move ships through the new locks.

In a deal signed in Limassol, Cyprus last Friday, the ITF agreed to employ the Brazil-based Fundação Homem de Mar (FHM) to construct a mathematical model to analyze the maneuverability considerations for the safe transit of the locks.

The new locks will call for fundamental changes to canal operations. Most notably, the larger locks will require the use of tugs to maneuver ships in and out them, not locomotives (or mules), as is the case with the existing Panama Canal locks. This new method of navigation has been a cause of serious concern among Panama Canal pilots, who argue that the new method is significantly less safe and less efficient – even fundamentally flawed – compared to the current system using locomotives.

Ivan de la Guardia, general secretary of Panama’s Tugboats Masters and Mates Union, said: “We have, for several months, asked to have a proper engagement to draft a new set of procedures for the new locks. This has constantly being denied by the canal administrator. Even members of parliament have pointed out that the tugboat fleet has serious deficiencies that have to be addressed”.

Luis Yau, general secretary of the Engineers’ Union added: “Even if the locks were ready today, one year after the original scheduled delivery, we would not be ready to operate safely and efficiently. We want the Panama Canal Authority to understand that our lives are at stake if we lack the proper operational procedures.”

Severino Almeida, a council member of the FHM foundation, explained: “We have developed a series of services in our simulation center, we are capable of making mathematical models of all kind of vessels, terminals and navigational channels in order to simulate the maneuverability and the feasibility of all maritime operations. We have decided to offer our solidarity and expertise to support our Panamanian colleagues and the ITF. The Panama Canal has a special meaning for all of us as seafarers and we are eager to support a better understanding of the operation of the new locks.”

Delivery of the Third Set of Locks, the main component of the $5.25 billion expansion program, was originally scheduled for 2014 to coincide with the 100 year anniversary of the existing canal, but cost overruns and delays have pushed the opening to April 2016. There’s also the possibility that the opening could be delayed even further after cracks were discovered in one of the chambers of the new locks on the Pacific side – an issue that remains unresolved.

ITF president Paddy Crumlin, who was present in Limassol to commission the study, stated: “The ITF is committed to using all means, including the most advanced mathematical models, in order to ensure that operations are safe for the tugboat crews and for all canal users. Any inadequate operation could have a serious impact on the international maritime trade and also on the seafarers we represent.

“We want to support the Panamanian authorities and the international maritime community to make the new locks a success, both in terms of safety for seafarers and Panama Canal workers, but also in terms of profitability for the Panamanian government, which has made an incredible investment,” he added.

The expanded Panama Canal’s new locks will allow the transit of larger ships, effectively doubling its capacity, and open up the canal to new market segments, such as Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), for the first time. 

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