The long-awaited expansion of the Panama Canal has taken a somewhat different course from that initially proposed, according to the Panama Canal Pilots’ Union, and as such, may pose significant threats to the safety of navigation in the Canal.
In 2006, the Canal Authority determined that, in order to continue providing a quality service and to remain competitive, a Canal expansion was needed. A Master Plan was designed, after spending millions of dollars in all sort of studies.
Many of those studies were used to determine the channel dimensions required for vessels of certain length and beam to safely navigate in the narrow channels of the Canal.
“Today, the Canal Authority has radically deviated from their own proposal, without making a single hydrodynamic study to back up such decision,” according to the Union.
Captain Rainiero Salas, Secretary General of the Pilots’ Union, in reference to the proposed lockage procedure that uses tugboats instead of towing locomotives to move vessels inside the locks, said that this system is not as safe and expeditious as the one with locomotives which has been used in the Panama Canal for 100 years.
The Union said that despite the pilots’ proven experience their opinion was never sought nor accepted by the Canal administration in the design and development of the expansion project.
Salas also stated that they have not yet been presented with a well structured training program for pilots to prepare for when the new locks enter into service.
Nevertheless, he acknowledged that no training program will fully prepare them for a lock which is unique in the world.
He explained that there are no other Post-Panamax locks with more than one chamber. The new Panama Canal locks will have three chambers each, and to prepare for that operation a unique training program, validated by the professionals who have been succesfully transiting vessels through the current locks, is needed.
The Panama Canal Pilots’ Union is an organization representing 256 professional pilots whose main responsibility is the safe transit of vessels through the Panama Canal.
Pilots’ Union released a video showing some of the many challenges they will face when the expanded Canal opens to commercial traffic in early 2016. The video also explains some of the meeting rules proposed by the Canal Authority in critical areas, like the Gaillard Cut, and which the pilots have regarded as “irresponsible”.
Press Release; Video: Panama Canal Pilots’ Union