Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Transiting the Panama Canal

On this day in 1914, the Panama Canal opened for business when the SS Ancon, under the first Panama Canal pilot John Constantine, became the first vessel to complete a passage through the Canal. Since then, more than 800,000 vessels have transited the Canal.

The R/V Alucia had sat at anchor near the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal for nearly 28 hours, and we still had not "cleared in" to the country yet. Even the crew members from Latin American countries, long used to slow-moving bureaucracies, thought things seemed to be moving slower than usual. Then we got the message: we could not clear customs, or book our passage through the Canal, until we anchored in the correct spot: the regulations involving transit of the Canal were very specific.

Our vessel, en route from Seattle, USA, to Recife, Brazil, would have required another 45 days at least to travel the additional 11,000 miles around the southern tip of South America. Transiting the 48-mile-long Panama Canal saved time, fuel, and money, but had requirements of its own:

Priority. All vessels must have an appointment to transit the Canal. Commercial vessels have priority over yachts, and military vessels of the Republic of Panama and the United States have priority over all. Appointments can be made up to nine weeks in advance.

Size. Vessels must be able to fit into the three sets of locks, the smallest of which is 320 meters (1050 feet) long and 33.5 (110 feet) wide. Vessels up to 80,000 tons can fit this description, called Panamax, although not usually when they are fully loaded. Vessels must also be able to fit under the Bridge of the Americas, at the Pacific entrance to the Canal, which has a minimum high tide clearance of 201 feet. A new set of locks, currently under construction and scheduled to open in 2014, would allow ships up to 1400 feet long and 180 feet wide to transit the Canal.

Pilots. Everywhere else in the world, pilots are simply advisors: the master is still the legal authority on board a ship. Panama Canal pilots are the exception. According to the Canal's regulations, "The pilot assigned to the vessel shall have control of the navigation and movement of such a vessel." In effect, the pilot becomes the captain for the duration of the transit. Any vessel more than 20 meters (65 feet) long is required to carry a pilot; boats shorter than that are required to carry a "traffic advisor."

Locking through. Each vessel going through the Canal is required to bring on a crew of Panamanian line handlers. With the assistance of a crew in a row boat, cables are led to the ship from "mules," locomotives on the lock wall that actually pull the ship through the lock.

The Canal's line handlers have an unsavory reputation among mariners. They are frequently forbidden from going into the interior of a vessel. In my own recent transit, I had to stop a line hander from going into crew quarters to conduct his "business" -- selling hats, keychains, and pornographic DVDs.

Cost. The fee a vessel pays for transiting the Canal varies depending on size and type of vessel, and the formula for computing the fee is complex. For a normal cargo vessel over 1600 tons, the fee is between US$3.00 and $4.00 per ton. Thus, the fee can range into the hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single transit.

For more on locks and canals, see my post here.

One of the passengers on board the cruise ship Radiance of the Seas filmed a time-lapse video of the ship's Caribbean-to-Pacific transit in 2008. See it here.

For the complete 112-page document, Regulations of Navigation in Panama Canal Waters, click here.

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