Panama is a proud country, and it is even prouder this week in the wake of the opening of the newly expanded Panama Canal. I had the opportunity to visit Panama for the opening ceremonies of the canal. At the same time, I also had the pleasure of speaking with Panamanian officials including the President of Panama Juan Carlos Varela, Canal Administrator Jorge Quijano, and several friends and classmates who are fellow Massachusetts Maritime Academy graduates.
The evening before the newly expanded Panama Canal officially opened, Canal Administrator Jorge Quijano proudly announced that the canal had more than 170 confirmed bookings. He also stated that by the end of July (~July 26) the first liquefied natural gas (LNG) tanker would transit; and that in the next couple of days, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) tankers carrying liquids from the U.S. would transit the canal. Below is a summary of some of the meeting and events I attended during the inauguration week of the newly expanded Panama Canal.
Scale Model Maneuvering Training Facility (1:25 scale)
I first arrived at the ACP Research and Training Facility that is housed in the former Balboa High School. There, I met with the head of the entire training program Captain Peter Pusztai, Supervisor, Maritime Training Unit, Maritime Training, Research and Development Center. Captain Pusztai kindly took the time to explain the operations and allow me to tour the center and view the ongoing simulator training operations. We then headed to the “Summit” where the scale model facility is located.
The Panama Canal Authority has built a ship’s pilot training facility on 35 acres of land that is parallel to the original canal’s transit point known as the Culebra Cut. Coincidentally, my friend and Mass. Maritime Academy classmate Captain Jose “Pepe” Burgos is the Facility Training Officer. He is also an active shipboard pilot on the canal.
Currently, that Canal Authority has two operating scale model ships, one container vessel and one bulker. These scale models cost more than $1 million each. There are also four scale model tugs that cost about $750,000 each. A note about the actual tugs: The actual tugs did not transit the Atlantic Ocean with engines in reverse, as suggested by one news outlet. Beyond this, the tugs are designed to pivot 360 degrees and are each equipped with two fully azimuthing propulsion units.
Captain Pepe Burgos skippered me on a Pilot training revolution around the waterbody and through the scale model Cocoli Locks. The container ship model we sailed on is the MV MAERSK EDINBURGH. Captain Burgos served as the pilot and Captain Fernando Jaen acted as the captain and helmsman. The ship is equipped with a Captain/Helmsman station and a Pilot’s station. These positions act in concert during training missions with the pilot issuing maneuvering commands to the helmsman and the helmsman repeating the commands back to the pilot while contemporaneously heeding to the Pilot’s commands such as “half ahead” and “rudder amidships.”
The vessel’s helm station is equipped with a wheel (indicator to port and starboard), engine telegraph (RPM indicator), whistle control and speed indicator. The pilot station is equipped with bow and stern thruster controls, anchor controls (brake, let go, heave up), whistle control, speed indicator, rate of turn indicator (degrees per second) and wind indicator (real and scale).
This training is not a game or some pleasure ride on a nice lake—it’s real. For instance, we had just passed through the scale model Cocoli Locks and we were set to turn the vessel around and head back up through the Culebra Cut when the wind suddenly picked up. There is not much of a turning basin after the locks, so Captain Pepe and Helmsman Fernando had to act quickly. Using the starboard anchor, engine speed, rudder and the wind—these professional mariners controlled the vessel and spun her around and got us into position. The anchor was heaved up and off we went—and they even paid attention to the “suction” dynamics associated with the vessel’s proximity to the canal wall. It was some quite impressive seamanship.
The Expanded Panama Canal
I had the chance to view many points along the Pacific side of the Canal. There is so much that the new Canal has to offer. The Panama Canal Authority estimates that it will cut sailing times between U.S. Atlantic/Gulf ports and Asia by up to 16 days for ships that previously could not fit through the original canal. Post-expansion, the Canal Authority anticipates that tonnage volumes will rise by an average of 3 percent per year, from the almost 341 million tons in 2015. President Varela and Administrator Quijano are branding (and rightfully so) the “Great Connection” and the “Green Connection.” The Great Connection is self-explanatory; while the Green Connection is so named based in part on the utilization of water saving basins that will recycle more than 60 percent of the water used for each transit.
MV COSCO SHIPPING PANAMA: First Ship to Transit Expanded Panama Canal
On Sunday, June 26, 2016, The 9400 TEU M/V COSCO SHIPPING PANAMA entered Panama’s Cocoli Locks at around 1700 local time. This is the first ship to transit the newly expanded Panama Canal, 102 years after the first ship SS ANCON transited the original Canal. The Panama Canal Expansion finally became a reality after nine years of construction. Panamanians along with the entire world celebrated the inauguration of the third set of locks, Agua Clara in the Atlantic and Cocoli in the Pacific. It was quite a historic event to witness. Congratulations to Panama!
Energy Exports for the U.S.
An important aspect of the newly expanded canal exports from the U.S. Arguably, the main focal point for expanding the canal was to allow larger container vessels bringing goods into the United States from Asia. Indeed, when Panama put forward a ballot referendum in 2006 asking the citizens to vote on whether such an undertaking should be pursued, energy exports from the United States was not a consideration. In fact, most people outside of the U.S. based independent producers had even heard of or “shale.” Well, that has all changed—the U.S. can now legally export crude oil and LNG.
Administrator Quijano wasted little time the evening before the opening of the Canal with an announcement that the first shipment of LNG would transit the Canal in July. I asked Mr. Quijano where the LNG would be sourced – and he indicated that the LNG would be headed to Chile and sourced from Trinidad and Tobago (absent any swaps). I met up with him again on Monday, June 27, 2016 a day after the Panama Canal had officially opened and he was excited about the prospect of ships carrying natural gas liquids (NGL) or LPG produced in the U.S. transiting the new Canal. In fact, two LPG ships were scheduled to transit – one that day. On Monday, June 27, 2016, the NYK Line vessel LYCASTE PEACE transited the newly expanded Panama Canal. The ship had loaded cargo the previous week in Texas and is now heading to the Port of Hitachi in Japan. Later in the day, LPG tanker, the PASSAT, owned by Avance Gas of Norway, followed.
The new locks accommodate modern Very Large Gas Carrier (VLGC) tankers capable of carrying liquids from Marcus Hook (Philadelphia), Pennsylvania and Houston, Texas as well as LNG from ports on the Gulf Coast and eventually from Dominion Cove Point, Maryland.
In closing: Congratulations to all who worked to make the expanded Panama Canal a reality. I visited several construction sites in 2013 and I am impressed with the outcome. To all my friends in Panama – Viva Panamá!
On January 1, 2013, the United States Senate confirmed President Barack Obama’s nomination of William P. Doyle of York, Pennsylvania as a Commissioner of the Federal Maritime Commission. He was nominated to another term by President Obama on January 29, 2015, and unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate on March 23, 2015.