Clash to the Max

Post-Panamex Age

The widening of the Panama Canal will see a new class of ships visiting the Dominican Republic's regional hub ports.

In 2006, it was announced by the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) that a new third lane would be built on the Panama Canal, and on September 3, 2007, work began on the $5.25 billion project. For the Dominican Republic, this will mean larger ships will need to be accommodated at its ports if it wants to retain its status as a regional transshipment hub.

The canal was first opened in 1914, and since then it has been largely dictating the size of cargo and cruise ships that want to operate in the region. The sizes of the locks on the canal are what define the size of the ship that can pass through—currently 294.13 meters in length, 32.31-meters in width, 12.04-meters in draft, and with a cargo capacity of 5,000 TEUs. The ships that fit these vessel requirements are known as Panamax class, and the ships that are larger are most commonly known as Post-Panamax class. The largest Panamax class vessel to pass through was the USS Missouri, an Iowa-Class battleship, which left just a 15 centimeter gap for the captain and pilot to play with in 1945, and since the Idemitsu Maru was launched in the 1960s, no supertanker has been of the Panamax class. The increasing frequency of the Panamax class being built to the maximum specifications means an extremely tight fit for the ships, which in recent times has created more time being spent in the locks and traffic jams. The new specifications of the canal will allow for more space and depth for ships passing through, which in turn allows for extra capacity. The cargo capacity per ship will more than double to 12,000 TEUs, and ships that are able to pass through will now be known as New Panamax class.

With these larger specifications, it will mean more traffic for the Dominican Republic, which will mean more business. “We are dredging up to 15 meters, building another 400-meter pier, and installing an additional 4-5 cranes, which comprises Phase III of Caucedo,” Teddy Heinsen, President of E.T. Heinsen told TBY. The Port of Caucedo is more than doubling its capacity as well from its current 1 million TEUs to 2.5 million TEUs. It will be the only port in the Dominican Republic that will be able to host the New Panamax and Post-Panamax class vessels. Many other ports and shipping companies in the Dominican Republic are preparing in different ways for the opening of the new canal in 2015.

With only a few ports in the whole of the Caribbean able to service the huge New Panamax and Post-Panamax class ships—including Colombia, Jamaica, and the Bahamas—the Dominican Republic can seize upon an opportunity to become a major hub for all cargo passing through the Panama Canal. The importance of this opportunity has not been lost on the local shipping community. “Those who choose not to expand are committing commercial suicide. If we intend to remain a hub, we have update the port and take care of everything,” said Heinsen.

Although cargo ships are a large majority of the traffic through the canal, another type of ship to transverse the canal daily is the cruising vessel. The expansion will allow many more cruise ships to pass from the Pacific to the Atlantic and vice versa. At the moment, there are only two cruise ships that will not be able to meet the New Panamax specifications; however, many cruise ships and possible cargo ships could fail to pass under the Bridge of the Americas. At high tide, the maximum clearance of a ship would be only 61.3 meters, which would mean many cruise ships may not be able to “do the limbo” underneath.

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