Exclusive: Panama Canal to use up to five tugboats

Exclusive: Panama Canal to use up to five tugboats
A vessel being manoeuvred by tugboats into the existing canal

The Panama Canal will use up to five tugboats to ensure safe navigation for vessels once inaugurated on June 26, according to captain Miguel Rodriguez, chairman of the board of inspectors at the Panama Canal Authority (ACP).

Although it was previously considered that the canal could use up to four tugboats, Rodriguez said in an interview with CM: “We could go up to five tugboats depending on the size, weight and manoeuvrability of the ship.”

“However the procedures we have prepared to take vessels through the new locks are not written in stone,” he added. “If we need to change them, we’ll change them.”

The scenario involving five tugboats would position one boat in front of the vessel, two boats behind it (including the extra one), and in the same manner as done today in the existing locks – two on the sides assisting.

While the canal’s existing locks use locomotives to help position the vessel in the chamber, the new locks will use one tugboat in front of the vessel and one or two behind it to assist the vessel during the lockage.

The canal had faced criticism over its safety procedures from an independent study commissioned by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) although the ACP since dismissed the claims as lacking “scientific accuracy and credibility”.

Rodriguez expressed appreciation for the ITF’s concerns regarding the safety of the Canal, but said that while the study had used a similar simulator, it lacked the amount and quality of input data required to produce highly accurate conclusions.

“You can have a very good simulator, but if you want quality results, you need to have very good data of the canal itself, of the shoreline, the bank effects, suction, cushion, currents, winds, to make the simulation is realistic,” he stated. “On top of that you need good models of the ships to interact with the data from the bank and the terrain. Plus good data of the locks. They would not have the data that we have collected during many years of studies, tow tank simulations, and real life measurements.”

Rodriguez reiterated that the ACP had undertaken hundreds of studies over the past 10 years, which were used to design the locks and navigational channels. This data was fed into simulators and was used to design and build the recently inaugurated US$8m Scale Model Manoeuvring Training Facility, which complements training completed at the canal’s Centre for Simulation, Research and Maritime Development.

He further disputed inferences that the locks’ dimensions are too small for safe operation, stating that 1,500 ft is adequate to accommodate a vessel with the maximum allowed dimensions and its accompanying tugboats.

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.

According to Rodriguez, the biggest ships allowed to transit the new locks will be 1,200 ft long, allowing 150 ft of open space behind and in front of the vessel, for each 95 ft-long tugboat.

Regarding the ITF-commissioned study’s appraisal that there were no refuge areas for tugboats inside the lock, he said: “I can tell you that our system is the same type of system that everybody else has meeting the industry standard.”

Rodriguez also disagreed that the bollard pull of the tugboats would be insufficient, noting: “Our tugboats are 82 tonnes of bollard pull, and we’re requiring ships to have chocks and bitts with at least 90 tonnes of safe working load in order to qualify for the new locks.”

In addition in preparation for the inauguration of the expanded canal, the ACP has chartered a Neopanamax dry bulk vessel, which is scheduled to arrive at the canal the week of June 7.

“The vessel, which is 43 m in beam 255 m in length, will be utilised to train pilots, tugboat masters, line handlers and locks personnel on-site, while performing several lockages per day, up and down the Atlantic-facing locks,” Rodriguez said.

This will further prepare the canal for the “reliable, safe transit of vessels and canal workers”, he hopes.

However, this does mean that the inauguration will not be the first transit through the expanded waterway.