© Yanik Chauvin panama canal_4243837
© Yanik Chauvin

Two Panama Canal unions disagree over the cause of an incident on 5 March, when the OOCL Utah was caught on video nearly crushing a tug against one of the Agua Clara lockgates.

Since the publication of last week’s article, the Panama Canal Pilots Union (PCPU) has been in contact with The Loadstar, claiming  the Panama Canal Captains and Deck Officers Union (UCOC) mischaracterised the scenario.

PCPU said: “…the stern tug was in the process of making fast to the vessel… an operation which started way before the vessel reached the locks entrance, but for some unknown reason took longer than usual.” 

The PCPU claims The Loadstar had been “caught off guard” by “maliciously intended misinformation” from the UCOC, and that “any assertions that we work without such procedures or standards are unfounded”.

It said: “The lock’s chamber was full of water already and the gates were being opened as the vessel made its approach to the lock’s entrance, but from the video, circulated on social media by the UCOC, it is hard to tell what really happened, because it only shows the bow of the vessel on the starboard side. Despite this, the day of the incident UCOC reached reckless conclusions based on scant information and posted it on social media.”

In a recent interview, two UCOC representatives said the number of tugs in general was woefully short, and that at the very least, it would be necessary to have a second ‘delta’ tug to act as a “brake” for the vessel. UCOC also said a shortage of available tugs and ‘lean crewing’ meant that tug crews in Panama were under exceptional strain, working shifts in excess of 16 hours a day on meagre salaries, with no mandated rest periods or overtime pay, for periods of seven days a week.

But the PCPU claimed the working conditions of tugboat captains and crew were not a matter for pilots.

“If working long hours is a real concern for tugboat captains, to the point that they feel that it poses an unbearable risk to the operation, then they need to solve this issue with the canal ddministration,” said the PCPU, adding that its pilots routinely work “12-to-14-hour shifts”.

According to coverage in Tradewinds from 2012, Panama Canal pilots may owe a sizable portion of their earnings to overtime and voluntary shifts, noting that for a typical senior pilot earning $350,000, additional hours could raise their earnings to $450,000, equivalent to almost $600,000 in today’s money.

Despite the concerns of the UCOC, the PCPU seemed to imply that tugs were generally ‘surplus to requirements’, citing one occasion in which two passenger vessels transited the locks under pilot assistance “safely and expeditiously, without any tugboat assistance or the need of line handlers on board”.

The union added: “Even if it was determined after an investigation that [OOCL Utah] had no tug made fast on the stern by the time it reached the locks… that alone does not constitute a breach in procedures or evidence of a reckless manoeuvre.”

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