Ilene Little Extended Panama Canal

Barcos remolcadores maniobrando un panamax en las Esclusas de Miraflores.

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On-the-Water by Ilene Little

Ilene Little Extended Panama Canal. Tugboat captains are the wranglers who herd the mega ships through the Panama Canal. These massive craft represent a new business sector for the interoceanic waterway and shipping companies have renewed their interest in the ‘Green Route’, as the waterway is now being called.

The job of the tugboat captain is to guide, yank, shove, push, pull and nudge some of the biggest ships in the world through the Culebra Cut up to and out of the third set of locks between the Atlantic and the Pacific.

The Canal has always provided a steady flow of income, which has benefitted the country’s economy, but now that it can handle bigger ships in the third lane, the tolls paid will be considerably greater than those paid by ships transiting the original locks.

Ilene Little Extended Panama Canal

Ilene Little Extended Panama Canal: Neo Panamax ship moving through the new third lane of Panama Canal at Cocoli Locks near Miraflores Locks.

The new third lane extends between the Agua Clara locks on the Atlantic side and the Cocoli locks on the Pacific side.

Panamax is a term for a vessel close to the maximum that will fit in the old locks. Post or “Neo Panamax” is a term for ships larger than a Panamax that will only fit in the new third lane of the Canal.

The existing and new locks have double the capacity of the Canal. The Panama Canal Authority expects that the third set of locks will be financially viable, producing a 12 percent internal rate of return.

The maximum toll paid by a Panamax was around $500,000. Most of the fully-loaded container ships pay tolls in the range of $400,000. In comparison, a record toll has just been esablished by the container vessel “ Mol Benefactor” which recently paid $829,468 to transit through the new set of locks.The comment of one tugboat captain was, “The Canal just keeps giving. It’s the goose that lays the golden egg.”

Tug boats maneuvering Panamax ship up to Miraflores Locks.

Tug boats maneuvering Panamax ship up to Miraflores Locks.

According to hotel concierges in Panama City, tours of the Panama Canal are the most requested by visitors. How could anyone visit this country, and not see this marvel of the world?

What visitors want to see is how the locks work and to watch vessels move through the waterway. They want to be close enough to wave, talk to the people on the craft and watch the tugboats at work.

So what’s different about the third locks? What will people see, and where are the best observation points on the Atlantic and Pacific side?

The obvious differences people will notice are the size of the ships in the third locks and the fact that the vessels are not being moved through the locks using the locomotive system as in the older locks. The new locks use tug boats to safely maneuver the vessel from chamber to chamber.

On the Atlantic side, the Visitor Center at Agua Clara provides the best view of Neo Panamaxes being handled in the new locks. The Visitor Center’s observation deck is on a hill right over the lake, where you look down into the chamber and down through all three steps of the locks as the ships approach from either the North or the South.

On the Pacific side, the popular destination for people watching ships move through the Canal is the Miraflores Locks. There, you should be able to see in the near distance the Neo Panamaxes in the third lane, but you won’t be close enough to wave and talk to anyone on the vessels. The Panama Canal Authority has plans to build a Visitor Center for the Cocoli locks which is expected to open in 2018.

In the meantime, if you want to see Neo Panamax ships transiting, the best place is to go to the observation deck at the Agua Clara Locks on the Colón side.

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