Panama Canal tug captains face dismissal in dispute over crewing
Why would the Panama Canal Authority (PCA) trigger a dispute with its tugboat captains by eliminating the position of one deck hand per tug who earns $9 an hour? What ulterior motives play a role?
Those two questions represent a distillation of the perspective of the Union of Tugboat Captains and Deck Officers of the Panama Canal (UCOC) as expressed by Capt. Ivan de la Guardia, a 1990 graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, N.Y., and secretary of ethics at the union.
In the canal’s third set of locks, open since June 2016, two azimuthing stern drive (ASD) tugs are used instead of locomotives to position neo-Panamax ships in the chambers. The lead tug, known as the alpha tug, initially was permitted to have three deck hands instead of two to reduce the risk involved in making up to an approaching ship “on the fly.” The task is handled as follows: As the ship is underway at 3 to 4 knots, the alpha-tug captain maneuvers his vessel to one side of the bow, a messenger line gets sent down and the attached towline goes up. Then the captain navigates around the bulbous bow, the line on the other side gets made up, and the two lines get cinched with two winches located one deck up from the work deck. One deck hand tends each line, and a third operates both winches.
This procedure of making up to a ship, de la Guardia said, is even riskier than making up to a dead tow, for which the PCA Operational Tugboat Manual allocates a third deck hand. Avoiding accident and injury is essential from the captains’ perspective, and accidents also expose them to civil and criminal liability.
Having a third deck hand on alpha tugs is one example of an understanding between the UCOC and PCA management that was never written into the contract or the manual, according to de la Guardia. This understanding changed on April 12, when captains reporting for the 0000 to 0800 watch learned from the office that they’d get not three but two deck hands, as stipulated in the vessels’ marine safety inspection certificate. No electronic or paper notification of the change after 22 months of operation was received.
Some captains at that moment responded by asking one of the deck hands on the tugboat from the previous shift to stay on and work overtime. Meanwhile, other captains attempted unsuccessfully to contact local and division managers. Unassigned deck hands waited just minutes away by crew boat; when some captains asked for them to be brought aboard, office clerks refused.
According to the PCA, five transits scheduled for that day in the new locks could not be completed because tug captains “refused to fulfill their duty to assist the transit of vessels.” De la Guardia said that only one ship in the system, scheduled for transit the next day, was delayed. Tug work continued as normal in the two original sets of locks.
PCA administration initiated disciplinary action against the captains involved. About 20 captains face hearings for asking for a third deck hand, categorized by the PCA as “refusing to do the job as ordered.” As a means to reduce risk with two deck hands while alpha tugs make up to ships, the pilots, represented by the Panama Canal Pilots Union, have called for ships to be completely stopped during that procedure.
The elimination of a third deck hand is only one challenge to safe operations in the new locks, according to the captains’ union. Another is fatigue stemming from the fact that tug crews often work 60 to 100 hours of overtime per two-week pay period.
“The expanded Panama Canal works on overtime, leading to fatigue,” de la Guardia said. “When TMG (The Maritime Group of Seattle, Wash.) did a study on the canal recently, they were amazed by the number of hours we worked, but theirs was a manpower study, not a fatigue study.” Fatigue of a PCA captain was identified by the National Transportation Safety Board as a contributing factor in the collision of the tugboat Cerro Santiago with the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Tampa on April 18, 2017.
Insignificant savings accrue from the elimination of one deck hand per tug assisting vessels that pay transit fees of $500,000 or more, according to the UCOC. This suggests another motive to the union: The PCA plans to outsource or privatize the tugboat fleet. In fact, a contract was signed in March 2017 between the PCA and tug operator Meyer’s Group, but it was challenged in a lawsuit filed by the pilots union in September. The PCA denies that it intends to privatize the fleet.
As of the end of May, de la Guardia said that five captains (of 142) faced dismissal and 23 investigations were ongoing. When asked about these proceedings, the PCA stated that “responsible parties are not being investigated for raising safety and security concerns but for disrupting vessel operations, which violated the law.”
Esteban Saenz, executive vice president of operations for the Panama Canal, announced in late May that effective July 1, the crew size on all canal tugs would be “normalized, not reduced,” meaning staffed per the marine safety inspection certificate with two deck hands. This normalization, Saenz said, comes after 3,800 neo-Panamax vessels have transited through the new locks and the period of “familiarization” is complete. Normalizing crewing will alleviate the fatigue issues that captains currently report, he said.