Congestion hits Panama Canal as ships wait up to 11 days for passage

Panama Canal


The Panama Canal is still dealing with a high backlog of vessels waiting to pass through the waterway, leaving ships, crews and cargo waiting for days before making the roughly 12 hour transit.

According to the Panama Canal Authority, a perfect storm of increased arrivals of large and deep draft vessels, continued water conservation measures, fog, and maintenance work has created waiting times of up to 11 days at the canal.

The congestion has been getting progressively worse since late September when a high number of arrivals coincided with scheduled dry-chamber maintenance of the locks. Combine that with heavy fog and low water levels in Gatun Lake caused by drought due to El Niño, the Panama Canal is now faced with a backlog of ships not seen in long time.

In a recent advisory to shipping, the ACP reported that in October, 107 vessels were delayed due to fog, while average percentage of “supers” passing through the canal, ie larger draft ships that take longer to transit and typically have longer waiting times, increased to more than 74% of transits per day during the month.

In order to reduce the backlog, the ACP it is taking measures such as postponing maintenance work and assigning more crew to tugs, locomotives, and locks in order to increase capacity. The ACP said it was also reducing the number of booking slots (booked vessels transit on the day and time they reserve) to help cut further total transit time, but still the backlogs and delays are nowhere close to acceptable levels.

“Despite all these measures, the in-transit time (currently averaging 12.23 hours), the number of vessels awaiting transit, and the waiting time for many of these vessels, have not been reduced to acceptable levels,” the ACP said in an Advisory to Shipping dated November 8th. “Although there have been three vessels that had 11-days of waiting time, 96% of the arriving vessels have waited eight or less days for transit, and 36% of these have waited four or less days.”

The ACP added that the usual waiting time for regular “non-booked” vessel does not normally exceed three days, but as of November 8th there were two northbound non-booked “supers” that had been waiting for 7 days and 3 southbound non-booked supers waiting 6 days.

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