Loaded with more than 6,000 cargo containers, the ship Ever Living prepared for the final leg of its journey through the newly expanded Panama Canal when things hit a snag: The last of the massive steel lock doors failed to open all the way.
The pilots controlling the ship and the captains of the tugboats tethered to huge vessel opted to continue guiding it through the narrowed passageway, passing nerve-wrackingly close to the side of the locks to avoid running into the stuck door.
“These are things that shouldn’t happen,” tugboat captain Mauricio Perez said. “Sometimes the only thing we can do is pray.”
A little over seven months after authorities launched a much-ballyhooed, $5.25 billion canal expansion to accommodate many of the world’s largest cargo vessels, they have yet to fully work out a significant kink: With little margin for error, ships are still scraping the walls and prematurely wearing out defenses designed to protect both the vessels and the locks themselves.
Even before the canal opened in late June, tugboat pilots had expressed concern about what they said was insufficient training for maneuvers that are now required — and that are a radical departure from the previous system.
In the old locks, which are still in use, ships get tethered to powerful locomotives on both sides that keep them centered in the canal. In the new locks, that responsibility falls to the tugs, one tied to the bow and another to the stern.
“It is like threading the eye of a needle,” said pilot Alvaro Moreno.