Panama Canal tug captains push for more hands

Date: Thursday, May 10, 2018
Source: American Shipper

 Panama Canal tug captains have raised concerns about staffing levels and inadequate equipment for assisting Neopanamax vessels through the waterway.
   The news comes as the Panama Canal has continued to see increasing demand since its expansion was completed in June 2016, when it opened its Neopanamax locks, which include the Agua Clara locks on the Atlantic Side and the Cocoli locks on the Pacific side. Just this Monday the number of reservation slots for its Neopanamax locks was increased from seven per day to eight in order to handle rising demand.
   The Neopanamax locks are 1,400 feet long and 180 feet wide and can accommodate vessels up to 1,200 feet long and 160 feet wide. Two 100-foot tugboats are needed to escort vessels through these locks.
   This tight fit requires updated, fully functioning tugboats and sufficient staffing to operate them, the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots (MM&P) said, adding how that the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) had cut the number of deckhands aboard these tugboats from three to two. In addition, their shifts regularly exceed 12 to 14 hours.
   In regards to crew staffing, a representative of the Panama Canal told American Shipper, “The third mariner was added during the initial stages of operation of the new locks to assure the function of the winches. Now, after more than 3,000 transits in the new locks, we assured the security of these equipment, so the decision was made to return to the normal crew of two mariners. This had been the plan all along.”
   The representative also noted how this “normalization” did not mean a dismissal of any kind, since the sailors who fulfilled this function are simply being assigned to other tasks where they are needed.
   Meanwhile, the MM&P also pointed to two accidents in the past year that occurred while vessels were transiting through the canal. One was the April 2017 collision of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Tampa and the Panama-flagged tugboat Cerro Santiago. Although the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said in a marine accident brief that no injuries resulted from the incident, it said the probable cause “was the failure of the master of the Cerro Santiago to maintain a vigilant watch due to fatigue.” 
   “The master had been working in the wheelhouse alone for a period of time that exceeded eight continuous hours,” the NTSB said. “It was his seventh consecutive day of similar shift work followed by the overtime he was working while awaiting his relief.”
   This past November, Osvaldo de la Espada died from head injuries during a line-handling incident at the Agua Clara locks, the MM&P said. He had 23 years of experience maneuvering ships through the locks.
   The MM&P said that rather than addressing safety issues, “the ACP has begun disciplinary proceedings for 22 Panama Canal tugboat captains who raised questions about short-staffing and crew fatigue.”
   However, the Panama Canal representative said that the responsible parties are being investigated for disrupting vessel operations, which violated the laws, not for “raising safety and security concerns.”
   “On April 12, a brief and isolated service interruption occurred at the Panama Canal’s Neopanamax locks when several tugboat captains refused to comply with mandatory procedures, compromising the canal’s performance and causing economic loss,” the representative said. “The Panama Canal normalized transits through its Neopanamax locks the next day. Operations on the canal’s Panamax locks were never affected.
   “As it always has, the Panama Canal will continue to invest in the resources and equipment needed to meet operational demands in a safe and efficient manner,” the representative added. “This has included, but is not limited to, investing millions of dollars in state-of-the-art training facilities and education programs that provide pilots and tugboat masters with both simulated and extensive hands-on experience.”

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