Latest tugboat technology provides world-class service



Captain Max Newman, Manager, Tugboats Division, Panama Canal Authority, Panama


When the United States transferred the Canal to Panama in 1999, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) shifted its focus and strategy from a profit-neutral utility to a market-oriented business model. With this in mind, it started a modernisation programme to maximise capacity and enhance customer service. As demand increases and ships become wider, larger and heavier, the Canal is upgrading its machinery and equipment, and streamlining and bolstering overall services to accommodate these larger ships and provide a more reliable service.

Tug upgrades

The Canal’s recent upgrades include eight new state-of-theart tugboats. They are called Z-Tech 6000 and will be delivered between 2007 and 2008. These new tugs support the Canal’s goal of making transits safer, faster, and more efficient. The existing tugs will remain in operation, mainly supporting dredging activities related to the expansion project.

The tugboats’ primary function at the Canal is to assist vessels in and out of the locks. For safety reasons, ships approaching the locks cannot accelerate because acceleration increases the risk of an accident. As a result, vessels need to be manoeuvred with the assistance of tugboats. Vessels coming from the Pacific or Atlantic
first enter Miraflores or Gatun locks respectively. Depending on the size of the ship, one or more tugboats assist in steering the ship toward the lock to position the vessel. These new tugs help to ensure that vessels are aligned with the entrance of each lock, where they are then harnessed to locomotives. A secondary function of tugs is to escort ships along the Gaillard Cut, the narrowest stretch of the waterway, and aid them in case of emergencies.

Each tug usually has a crew of two seamen, one captain and one marine engineer. Seamen support ongoing operations while the engineer is responsible for monitoring daily activities, routine maintenance and repairs. The captain coordinates with the Canal pilot onboard the transiting vessel.

Z-Tech design

Transits of Panamax ships – the widest vessels to cross the Canal – are steadily increasing, and, on average, require the assistance of seven tugs to complete a transit. To meet the growing demand, the Canal has built upon its capabilities updating its technology to better serve the newer and larger vessels that are increasingly transiting the Canal. In 2003, when the ACP decided to upgrade its tugboat fleet, it studied the needs and focus of the Canal. During this process, the ACP reviewed and thoroughly analysed several proposals. The contract was awarded to Cheoy Lee Shipyards, which included the use of the Z-Tech design in its proposal. These award-winning tugboats combine the best of an Azimuth Stern Drive tug with a tractor-style tug.

The key feature of the new tugs is their bollard pull. For the first time, the Canal specified that the tugs have at least 60 metric tonnes of bollard pull, an 82 per cent increase over older models. Increased bollard pull enhances the tug’s ability to transit vesselsin a safe and expeditious manner. If the tugs are not powerful enough, the Canal pilots will take more time to manoeuvre, which can have an adverse effect on the Canal’s throughput.

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