Inch by inch

Panama Canal’s journey to receiving ever bigger containerships

By Fotini Tseroni

June 1, 2022

Panama Canal Traffic Containerships Blog (1)

Panama Canal water levels must be managed to ensure sufficient depth for the largest containerships to transit. Photo: Shutterstock

The Panama Canal Authority’s decision to expand the canal in 2006 continues to pay off, with increasingly large vessels making their way through the 83 km-long channel. According to reports, 96.8% of the world’s containership fleet can now navigate this logistically crucial waterway, which enables Asian exports to reach east coast Americas consumers, without the need to go around Cape Horn and transit the treacherous Drake Passage. 

One recent ‘first’ was  CMA CGM Zephyr, which in July became the largest containership by cargo capacity to navigate the canal. 

The MarineTraffic Live Map shows the 16,285 TEU containership starting its journey in New York, before picking up containers in Savannah, both on the US east coast, before sailing southbound through the canal to Qingdao China.
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MarineTraffic data shows that the vessel was at the Panama Canal anchorage on the Atlantic side on 30 June - see Zephyr’s port calls below.

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Seven days later MarineTraffic data shows that it is at the Panama Canal, most likely on the Pacific side, before reappearing again in Qingdao, China, on 22 July. It then called at Ningbo, Shanghai and then Busan (South Korea) before heading back to the Canal and reappearing in New York on the Atlantic on 2 September - see below.
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The MarineTraffic Live Map illustrates both the vessel’s first Atlantic-to-Pacific crossing, and then the Pacific-to-Atlantic crossing, marking the second time the vessel transited the canal.

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The expanded locks which opened in June 2016 were originally expected to accommodate containerships with a maximum of 12,600 TEU. In June last year, however, the Panama Canal Authority officially announced that it would be able to start accommodating slightly larger vessels. Its administrator, Ricaurte Vásquez Morales, said in a statement at the time: “This change was made possible by our team’s experience operating the Neopanamax Locks safely and reliably over the past five years.” 
Similarly, Marine Link said last month of the Zephyr Panama Canal transit, that the “Panama Canal team quickly surpassed this threshold, thanks in part to the experience gained operating the locks and its close collaboration with customers.”

The expanded canal “has exponentially increased connectivity and reshaped trade, with 180 maritime routes now converging through the waterway, linking 1,920 ports across 170 countries. Today, containerships are the leading users of the third set of locks, contributing 45 percent of all transits,” said the authority in a statement on 8 August.

According to MarineTraffic, the 2021-built Zephyr, has an overall length of 366 m and 51 m beam, and could be accommodated in the 54.86 m-wide and 426.72 m- long lock chambers.

But it’s not only width and length that matters on the Panama Canal traffic - draught does too. The depth of the chambers may be 18.29 m deep, but the Panama Canal Authority has introduced water conservation initiatives to increase the draught available, with the current maximum 15.24 m. CMA CGM Zephyr has a maximum draught of 16 m, and so the vessel will likely have transited the canal at less than full capacity to reduce the draught.

Retaining a year-round high water level is intrinsic to the canal’s ability to allow Neopanamax vessel transit. For that reason, when the original set of locks were developed a series of lakes (for example, Lakes Gatun and Alajuela) and were built to capture water during the wet season, typically between April and December, to maintain canal water levels in the dry months and supply water to the Panamanian population.

The severe drought and resultant low water levels seen in 2019 had some considering the future of the canal. An article in the Economist in September that year, highlights the severity of the situation at the time: “If the water level falls below 24.4 metres, the ACP must limit the weight of big “Neopanamax” container ships lest their hulls scrape on the lake bed. Below 24 metres smaller “Panamax” ships would risk bumping on the bottom of the locks reserved for them as they enter and leave the lake. This June, after Panama’s most intense drought since independence in 1903, Lake Gatun fell nearly to that level.” 

Related: Real-time online container tracking with MarineTraffic

In a July statement this year the authority addressed these concerns. It said: “The implementation of various water conservations efforts, coupled with increased rainfall in the canal watershed, has allowed the Panama Canal to offer a 15.24 meters draught (50 feet) since May, the highest permitted for vessels transiting the Neopanamax Locks. The lowest draught level reached this past dry season was 15.09 meters (49.5 feet) in March 2022.”

MarineTraffic AIS data shows that the Neopanamax vessel Zephyr is currently in New York having recently sailed from Busan, South Korea.

Other large containerships to transit the waterway are Evergreen duo, Theseus (which according to MarineTraffic, has a draught of 13.9 m, overall length of 368.99 m and beam of 51.04 m) and the slightly smaller Talos , (which has the same length, but a draught if 12.7 m and beam of 51.03 m). 

The title of the largest vessel by dimension to transit the  canal to date, however, still belongs to the Evergreen’s  Triton. The 2019 sailing of the 369-m-long and 51.2 m-beam containership has not yet been surpassed. 

Related: The ebbs and flows of ULCVs

No doubt that the size of vessels will continue to inch up as shippers continue to be drawn to the logistics advantages the canal offers and economies of scale created by Neopanamax ships, despite talk of significant transit fee hikes.

And as water levels rise, confidence in the canal’s new dimensions will grow.

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Fotini Tseroni

Fotini Tseroni

Content Writer at MarineTraffic

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