Tug captains: New Panama Canal study comes up short on safety

Canal
Courtesy Panama Canal Authority
The Panama Canal Authority tugboat Cerro Santiago assists the containership COSCO Development through the new locks in May 2017. Tug captains have raised concerns about training and the number of tugs needed to service the expanded canal.

The Panama Canal Authority (PCA) has accepted a study of tugboat operations at the new set of neo-Panamax locks, but a captains’ union concerned about safety at the expanded waterway says the review does not go far enough.

The study was done by The Maritime Group (TMG) of Seattle, Wash., which presented it in September. The canal authority asked the consultant to examine shipping, operations and safety procedures at the third set of locks and is considering whether any changes need to be made.

“Our findings will contribute to a quicker, more efficient and safer operation on the canal for the benefit of (the PCA’s) shipping company, military and leisure customers, as well as their employees and suppliers,” said TMG Managing Director Capt. Malcolm Parrott.

“The study is one of the inputs of the canal to improve and make the operations of the new locks more efficient,” said Octavio Colindres, director of international communications for the canal authority. “The findings are being analyzed to make operational decisions such as the recent announcement to increase the daily reserve quotas of neo-Panamax vessels from six to seven.”

The consultant team spent time on PCA tugboats and vessels transiting the canal, including the old locks, and interviewed stakeholders, Parrott said. Team members included Capt. Orlando Allard, former chief pilot of the Panama Canal, and Capt. John Freestone, former chief pilot of the Port of London Authority.

Time also was spent at the canal authority’s new ship-handling training facilities at the Center for Simulation, Research and Maritime Development (SIDMAR). Operational data from other ports handling neo-Panamax vessels in the United Kingdom and Europe was gathered for comparison.

Although the PCA is still reviewing the findings, the Panama Canal Tugboat Captains’ Union said the study does not go far enough. Because of a confidentiality agreement with the canal authority, the union cannot make detailed comments on the review, said Capt. Ivan de la Guardia, secretary-general of the union.

“Our main concern is preventing accidents, and we did not get that from that study,” said De la Guardia.

Tugboat captains say canal officials have not addressed many of their safety concerns, including a lack of training and a shortage of tugs that can handle the challenges of the expanded waterway. They say that with the largest ships and two tugs in the new third lane of locks, there is very little room for the tugs to maneuver. Locomotives called “mules” that help guide vessels through the original locks aren’t used in the new section.

De la Guardia said tugboat captains are working to 15 to 16 hours in a row for seven straight days, which is leading to problems with fatigue.

“What we need here is an occupational health study,” he said, adding that the team from TMG did not “come equipped with any techniques to make human measurements related to occupational health.”

Colindres said the PCA would not comment on the captains’ unions concerns about the study.

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