Q&A: Transiting the Panama Canal

Q&A: Transiting the Panama Canal

In this podcast, Senior Editor Peter T. Leach talks with Managing Editor Dana L. Brundage on location from Panama City, Panama, about his experience riding on a container ship as it sailed through the Panama Canal, which is currently undergoing a massive expansion project slated to be finished by October 2014. This is the second podcast in a two-part podcast interview.

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Dana: Peter, you are currently on location at the Panama Canal.

Peter: I’m here in Panama City this morning having come back late last night from Colón on the Atlantic side of the canal. We went through the canal on a very, very large Panamax ship, about as large a ship that can go through the canal, called the APL Egypt which has a capacity of almost 5,000 TEUs. But in order to get through the canal it had lighten up that load quite a bit, but it was only carrying about 3,750 containers worth about 3,750 TEUs. It lightened its draft to less than 39 feet, which is the maximum that the canal can accommodate. We boarded the ship early in the morning at about 6 a.m. Wednesday morning but we couldn’t pull away from the dock for an hour because we were waiting for a second tugboat and then a line had to be straightened out.

But the one thing I learned -- although I will not describe the transit in detail because it will take me all day --but I learned most of all If you want to be a sea captain you’ve got to have an extraordinary amount of patience. Nothing happens quickly. You have to calculate every inch and that became clear with our captain, who is a Lithuanian by the name of Zalys Kestutis. He was a wonderful man. He took us with great care through the locks. It would take him up to 45 minutes to line the ship up. But it wasn’t just Kestutis who lined us up. A Panamanian pilot who got on board at the pier in Panama at Balboa also helped. Interestingly the Panamanian pilot is the one who rules the roost.

But he cannot direct the crew what to do. He has to relay his commands to the captain who has the option to say, “No, that’s not right,” but of course he never does at least not yesterday. The captain in turn relays that command to the crew who will only obey him, not the pilot. So you would heard “hard a starboard” coming from the pilot, “hard a starboard” coming from the captain, and then a confirmation coming from a mate. And you would hear the same command three times in order to make sure they would obey the line of command. It would take the pilot and the captain 30 to 45 minutes to line up the ship because the tolerance is so small as the ship goes through the locks. There is maybe a meter, but it looks less than a meter, more like a foot, on either side of the ship.

The ship then lines up then the line is passed to a small locomotive on either side of the bow and either side of the stern and sometimes there’s also another locomotive on the side of the ships. Going through each the locks takes up to an hour as they raise the level on the Pacific side up to the next level, and then up to the next level. It was quite extraordinary. It’s an intricate process and it’s a long, long transit, but fascinating every inch of the way.

Dana: It sounds like you’ve already had a glimpse into what this expansion project will mean for the canal.

Peter: At the beginning and end of our transit there was a very vivid translation of the role the expanded canal will play eventually. The APL Egypt on the Pacific side in Balboa unloaded quite a few containers for transshipment down the west coast of South American and then went it got through the canal it did the same thing on the Atlantic side. We pulled in late in the evening and immediately crews went to work offloading 400 containers that would be transshipped onto another smaller feeder vessel, the MOL Universe, which was waiting there for us to take those boxes down to Brazil. So when the canal expands in three years time we’re going to see more and more of that as the ports on both sides of the canal become major, major North and South America.