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Huge Backlog of Ships Waiting to Pass Through the Panama Canal (gcaptain.com)
90 points by protomyth on Oct 24, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 44 comments

The panama canal is not only an engineering marvel but a financial one as well. It can cost up to a quarter million for passage if you are a large container ship (such as a panamax class ship).

One thing that I was surprised was that the lateral drift was not computer controlled. Scary that even a small miscalculation can rip a hole in the ship's hull.


Thanks for that. Funny they say the Kentucky Highway makes it to the Atlantic "without a scratch" after it was bounced off the wall of the locks; you can clearly see the huge smear/scratch on the paint in shots after the collision.

That's not a lot of ships. More ships are always waiting near Singapore (zoom in):


Does anyone know why there are so many ships waiting at Singapore? Are they merely idle? Waiting for port access? (if you're not familiar, look where Singapore sits on a map. Every ship between east asia and europe/middle east passes by).

Could still be surplus capacity from the post-GFC slump. From 2009:


> Vessels have flocked to Singapore because it has few storms, excellent ship repair teams, cheap fuel from its own refinery and, most important, proximity to Asian ports that might eventually have cargo to ship.

Singapore is the worlds largest tranship port - and it's just run out of capacity. Lots of big port expansion (and relocation) project underway though.

They don't have enough berths. However they have really fast turnaround, 1-2 days for jobs that for most others take 2-4 days. Edit: this is partly because they have so little space and have to share so much with petrochemical and other bulk commodity ships, while simultaneously being probably the primary shipping hub for Asia.

If you ever get the change, I highly recommend a visit to the canal. The scale is hard to comprehend. Watching container ships pass through is super satisfying from an engineering perspective.

My visit: http://theroadchoseme.com/the-panama-canal

If you are wondering why:

"A statement provided to us Friday from the Panama Canal Authority said that a high level of arrivals during the last in September coincided with schedule dry-chamber maintenance."

Scheduled with who? Obviously not their clients, the shipping companies.

Kind of like ebay not considering their 2-hour Sunday "planned maintenance events" to be outages ... for 2 decades.

What are the shipping companies going to do, use the Nicaragua Canal?

You probably know, but for those who don’t: that still is vapourware, but seems borderline feasible both technically and economically, so we may see it built (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicaragua_Canal).

Dock ships on both sides of land. Truck goods from one ship to the other. Or maybe that would also be too expensive?

There's a railroad. It can carry about 1,500 containers a day[1]. There are approximately 175,000 containers waiting to transit the canal, based on the 33,500 figure in the linked Wiki page and the 5 day wait.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panama_Canal_Railway#2001_reco...

Technically Panama's is the first transcontinental railroad, beating the Union Pacific by fourteen years. Panama's was running in 1855 while the line over the Sierra Nevada opened in 1869.

These ships carry more cargo than you can intuitively comprehend. Transfer to truck would be impossible, to rail would take too long.

Transfer to truck/rail would also require a lot of seaport facilities which simply haven't been built in the area (it's designed as a canal, after all). You'd have to send the ships up to some container port on the Gulf of Mexico and ship them out via train to Los Angeles or someplace with capacity.

I assume someone is running the numbers for fuel cost and time to just sail around South America, it has to break even or be a better deal at some point.

Just add 10,700 miles[1][2][3] (26 days) and sail around one of the most dangerous navigation hazards in the world.

No big deal.

[1]: Assumes turning around on the Pacific side

[2]: Southbound https://www.searates.com/reference/portdistance/?B=23078&E=2...

[3]: Northbound https://www.searates.com/reference/portdistance/?B=20155&E=2...

No kidding. A map of the shipping routes show that effectively no one takes that route these days, nor is there a 5 day detour for any well-trafficked route. (Eg, see https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Shipping_routes_red_... .)

They say that in Chilean waters past 40º S there is no law. And past 50º there is no God.

You have to get to about 57º to pass around the Horn in open water.

I'd be mighty interested in learning more on this. Care to recommend some reading materials?

Cape Horn to Starboard is the story of a guy doing it on a small sailboat: http://www.amazon.com/Cape-Horn-Starboard-John-Kretschmer/dp... Here's a shorter, more recent report of a rounding: http://www.cruisingworld.com/destinations/cape-horn-starboar... And a series of articles/videos about how it's done on a sailboat: http://www.yachtingworld.com/video/skip-novaks-storm-sailing... Not for the faint of heart. Tradewinds crossings like Mediterranean to Caribbean are much easier since the weather is generally tamer, more predictable and behind you.

ETA: The southern 40s are known as the roaring 40s: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roaring_Forties There's not much land to stop the winds from ripping around the planet.

So what happens if there's a 1 year backlog at the Panama canal? Still not worth it?

Explain how you expect that would happen. What specific, reasonably plausible events would have to occur? Remember to take into account the fact that the canal will be adding capacity shortly, with the addition of the new bigger locks.

What I'm trying to get at is that, unless the canal was shut down completely for months at a time, there is no economical situation where it would make sense to round the cape instead of just waiting it out.

It's likely that this is due to corruption in Panama with pressure from Nicaragua and Hong Kong. The official reasons given don't make sense:

> Marine Traffic Control said the backlog is primarily due to weather conditions, including several days of fog at the canal. But we spoke with a canal insider, who said that in his decades of experience he has only seen it like this when there is some other issue going on – not one that’s weather related.

Thus, something is happening behind the scenes that they don't want to talk about.

Maybe there is political pressure from Nicaragua/Hong Kong proponents of the Nicaraguan canal. The biggest reason cited by the WSJ not to build the canal is lack of demand:


It's quite possible that Nicaragua/Hong Kong are putting pressure on Panama to increase the wait times. Perhaps they scheduled the "Dry chamber maintenance" during a high-shipping seasons on purpose:

> A statement provided to us Friday from the Panama Canal Authority said that a high level of arrivals during the last in September coincided with schedule dry-chamber maintenance.

Why would Panama willingly do anything to encourage the Nicaragua Canal? It poses a huge competitive threat (if it were likely to be built).

Unless they were colluding to increase wait times to get the Nicaragua Canal built and then share the profits (unlikely). More likely is Panama isn't doing this to encourage building the Nicaragua Canal but instead is just doing this to increase premium slot prices.

Could Magic Mountain and Knott's Berry Farm run more roller coaster trains and decrease wait times? Sure, but then there wouldn't be as much incentive for people to buy flash/front-of-the-line passes. I'd be willing to bet the waits are at least partially artificially created to support the flash passes as yet another source of revenue.

Speaking from experience, The waits at magic mountain in the 80s ran upwards of an hour+, and that was prior to flash/front-of-line passes, so I don't think there is a correlation.

An hour wait at Magic Mountain nowadays seems to be the norm moreso than the exception. Have you been there in the summer when X2 has had waits in the 2-3 hour range WITHOUT a Flash Pass? This still occurs and the ride is over 12 years old now. I'd argue it is somewhat due to incomes rising enough to allow more people to attend MM. MM has responded by offering Flash Passes but what I've yet to see is even on the busiest day, running multiple cars at a quick enough clip to minimize wait times. With this kind of demand, they really don't have to minimize wait times since as much as people complain about the times, they still go.

Furthermore, the Flash Pass isn't so much a front-of-the-line pass as it is a bypass-most-of-the-line pass. It still deposits you in the loading/unloading area so you could still hypothetically have a 15-20 minute wait depending on how many riders are already in the loading/unloading area.

Edit: Goliath (built in 2000) still routinely has 1-2 hour waits and might even rival Tatsu for most Flash Passed coaster given that X2 was, up until recently, not even able to be added to the standard Flash Pass unless you upgraded to the Gold or Platinum Flash Passes.

Tell me that doesn't smell like an incentive to increase waits to drive sales of Flash Passes in lieu of outright raising prices to control demand.

It would be easier to just raise prices then to do all the hullaboo.

They would get so much pushback for artificially raising prices, with the increased demand they can claim innocence/market forces - this seems like the most logical explanation to me, also don't think they'd want to collude with a potential competitor for profit-sharing that seems a little conspiracy theorist...

Because of corrupt officials, bribed with money to schedule a maintenance during a busy season.


"Thus, something is happening behind the scenes that they don't want to talk about."

Which is explained later in the piece.

"A statement provided to us Friday from the Panama Canal Authority said that a high level of arrivals during the last in September coincided with schedule dry-chamber maintenance."

Unless you think that's a bogus reason too?

Did you read my whole comment? I addressed that.

I still don't understand why anyone building a new canal through Central America would not be trying to maximise the effectiveness of their work by building a sea level canal wide either enough for continuous crossing in both directions or dig two canals and make each one continuous flow in a single direction.

Yes it's a bigger challenge, but these projects are some of the few remaining opportunities in modern economics to say "we expect payback time of two decades" and not get laughed at. No locks no lock maintenance, continuous flow, more ship, more money.

It's also possible to use novel techniques from the last hundred years of progress to "dredge forward" using water itself as an an active tool to wash away all but any hard rock terrain that needs clearing. The rain and loose soils that hurt the first attempt at the Panama Canal could be turned into a positive factor with today's technology.

a) You can not escape the need for locks because there is a 8" height difference of the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean. Additionally you have tidal variation.

b) The Panama Canal locks are already in pairs to allow simultaneous bi-directional traffic. They are currently building a third set of larger locks that will increase maximum dimensions of vessels transiting the Panama Canal.

They are nearly finished with the third locks (operation expected in 5 months). They are now contemplating a fourth set of locks, which would provide competition with a pending Nicaragua supercanal at a small fraction of the price, and provide room for the sort of ships that are launching now.

Cargo and cruise ships ships got very big, very fast this century amidst the sustained high oil prices. 20 years ago the record holder was around 5k TEU, the current Maersk Triple E, produced in quantity, runs 18k TEU.

An 8" height difference seems fairly trivial in the broad scheme of things. This would be a very long canal. Far lesser ships navigate rivers against much steeper drops.

Just because there's a height difference with locks, doesn't mean some kind of singularity would develop without them. Either the height difference would disappear, or continuous currents through the canal would maintain it.

In the Panama canal, they benefit from keeping the inland lakes above sea level so that they're deep enough. If they were connected to the sea, they'd lower significantly and even more excavation would be needed to make a path for ships.

There would also be fascinating effects of strong currents through it, sea level changes, fresh water lakes becoming salt water (sorry local people!), and fish migrating.

The average difference is 8" but with tides it can be up to 12' and it changes constantly. It'd be really tough for the ships to handle in the confined space especially when eddies form along the edges and with currents changing over a period of hours. A lot of these ships only travel at 10-15 knots and they aren't very maneuverable.

I was recently on a sailboat going through Hell Gate on the East River in NYC. It has about a 6' tidal range. We can motor at 6 knots. When the tide was at peak flood into Long Island Sound we were doing about 1/2 knot over the ground. You can time an East River transit to work around the tides, the Panama Canal is too long for that to work.

(I don't recommend transiting Hell Gate under those conditions, the UN closed the river longer than they said they would and we only managed because there wasn't any wind. We should have anchored and waited a few hours, we would have gotten through almost as quickly.)

We are apparently just one design for nuclear-powered dredges away from a cheaply constructed Kra Isthmus canal, exactly as you say.


That tech aside, Chinese ventures have had their eyes on the idea of a canal there for a long time. Six months ago they apparently put out a premature press release (as Chinese firms tend to do with construction megaprojects for some reason) in this direction, which was disavowed.


It never ceases to amuse me that the Panama canal runs from the Atlantic in the west to the Pacific in the east.

For the curious - Panama connects North and South America horizontally, thus the Atlantic is to the north of the country and the Pacific is to the south. The canal cuts southeast across the country.

Doubtful that operators of the Panama Canal would be holding up traffic because of the proposed Nicaragua canal. After all construction on that project hasn't even started yet. Furthermore, the new, bigger Panama 3rd set of locks are now being tested, due to open next year.

Doesn't make sense for Panama to slow things down in view of the loss of income, the fees collected are serious money, probably the major income source for the country.

Next year would be a very interesting time to visit the canal re: opening of the new channel. A few years back I was on a cruise that traversed the canal, a highly educational and memorable trip worth doing. The Panamanians we encountered were proud of the Canal expansion project, a significant national achievement, something important to celebrate.

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