"This is a very nice ship, with good equipment; it’s my favorite vessel."
For shortcuts in commercial shipping, nothing beats the Panama Canal. We joined the RoRo vessel MV Tamerlane with its crew of 29, making the 12-hour crossing through one of history’s largest works of engineering, and a major crossroads for international maritime trade.
We joined the 67,140-tonne MV Tamerlane early in the morning at Cristobal Port in Colon Province, for the passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific in a lapse of time that would have been unthinkable for any ship 98 years ago.
The captain, Swede Jan Mikael Sigurd, leads a diverse team of 18 Filipinos, four Norwegians, three Indians and three British sailors.
With 40 years of experience at sea - 13 as captain and five leading the MV Tamerlane crew - Sigurd is very familiar with the Canal after more crossings than he can count.
“It’s a long day. We start early in the morning and we hope to be out early evening or late afternoon,” he explains. “We have done this many times. The quicker, the better.”
With its 240.6 metre-length and 32.26-metre beam, the ship can barely fit the three sets of locks of the Panama Canal: Gatun, Pedro Miguel and Miraflores. Passing through the locks is a high precision manoeuvre.
We could see the electric locomotives running on rack tracks, known as mulas (mules), carefully guide the MV Tamerlane just inches from the hull. The cracks on the lock’s walls are evidence of a few previous miscalculations. Most of the time, however, like this one for the MV Tamerlane, it goes safely and almost effortlessly.
Built in 2001 by Daewoo, the MV Tamerlane is a Mark IV generation RoRo ship. On this occasion, it is mainly carrying European cars headed for the Australian and New Zealand markets. “This is a very nice ship, with good equipment; it’s my favourite vessel,” says Sigurd.
To be on board such a huge ship built for crossing the world’s oceans, it is an almost unreal feeling to be gliding through dense jungle. Jungle sounds are not something typically associated with life on board.
During the crossing, we see the on-going expansion works - the multi-million dollar effort by the Panama Canal Administration to create two new post-panamax sized lock complexes.
Across Lake Gatun, one of the largest man-made lakes in the world, the MV Tamerlane was able to increase its speed. By the afternoon, it seemed this crossing would be shorter than average, until the Panama Canal Authority instructed all pilots at the canal to stop for two hours due to heavy traffic. Nineteen vessels crossed the Canal on this busy day.
By the time the ship reached the Americas Bridge and ventured into the open waters of the Pacific, it was dark again.
Looking back to 1974, Sigurd recalled the first time he passed through the Canal as a deck hand: “I just wanted to see the world and have some fun, and here I am, still having fun!”.
The Panama Canal expansion
The increasing numbers of larger ships in the Panama Canal has necessitates changes to the canal. An enlargement scheme to allow for a greater number of transits and the ability to handle larger ships, has been approved by the government of Panama and is in progress, with completion expected in 2014. The project will double the canal's capacity to allow more traffic and the passage of longer and wider ships.
The current plan is for two new flights of locks to be built parallel to, and operated in addition to, the old locks. The Grupo Unidos por el Canal (GUPC) has started the construction of 16 doors – each one weighing 50 tons - for the new set of locks. The concrete work for the new locks started in October 2011. The new set of locks will be 426.72 meters long and 54.86 meters wide, with depth 18.29 meters.