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Shipping gears up for historic Panama Canal expansion inauguration

Shipping gears up for historic Panama Canal expansion inauguration
When the aptly renamed Cosco Shipping Panama transits the expanded Panama Canal on Sunday, the world will get a relatively small preview of the huge things to come for one of the globe’s key strategic seaborne routes.

The inauguration of the estimated $5.25bn expansion will begin on the Atlantic Ocean side of the supersized canal when Coco Container Lines’s trailblazing neo-panamax enters the new Agua Clara Locks around 7am GMT -5. The official inaugural ceremony, to be hosted by Panama President Juan Carlos Varela Rodriguez, is scheduled after Cosco Shipping Panama transits the Cocoli Locks on the Pacific side (3pm GMT -5) before a crowd including heads of state, government officials, canal customers, special guests, and proud Panamanians.

Seatrade Maritime News will be reporting on the ground with our Panama correspondent Michele LaBrut.

Nearly 10 years in the making, the new third set of locks and widened and deepened canal will enable significantly larger ships to transit the key man-made route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and is designed to double capacity for the Panama Canal Authority (ACP).

At 300m in length x 48 m beam, the 9443 teu capacity - Cosco Shipping Panama is almost twice the capacity of Panamax ships. But she is only a fraction of the size of ships, and thus trade, to come in what shapes as a milestone development set to have a significant impact on a number of shipping sectors.

The expanded canal officially opens to commercial traffic on Monday 27 June and will be fully verified by Maersk soon afterwards when boxships such as the 13,092 teu Maersk Edinburgh are poised to transit. At 366m in length and 48m wide, she is right on the edge of what can be handled by the new Panama Canal.

In its former configuration, the canal could host panamax vessels with a length of 294m, a beam of 32m and a 5,000 teu capacity. Thanks to new locks and the widening of existing canals, including the raising of Gatum Lake to its maximum operational level, passage is now possible for ships measuring 363m LOA, 49m in width, 15m draft, and carrying a maximum 14,000 teu.

Nearly 14,000 vessels carrying 230m tonnes of cargo transited the Panama Canal in 2015. While that only represented 2% of global seaborne trade, it is nonetheless a vital corridor which revolutionised maritime transport when it was opened in 1914 by slicing 11,000km off the route via Cape Horn.

Trade is only set to grow with between 10-12 neo-panamax size vessels predicted to cross the canal daily, increasing the overall number of transits to approximately 50 per day.

Indeed, on the basis of the ‘neo panamax’ dimensions, 79% of the dwt tonnage in the world fleet will be able to pass through the new locks. This compares to 45% of the world’s tonnage which is capable of transiting the old locks.

It is expected to shape significant changes in containership deployment, in particular on the Transpacific trade lanes. On a global level, the containership fleet consists of 5,217 vessels of 19.9m teu carrying capacity and moved 175m teu of container cargo in 2015, 22.8m teu of which were on the Transpacific trade lanes.

More than 1,400 containerships of 12.5m teu capacity in the world fleet are too large to transit the old locks today, but only around 200 of 3.0m teu capacity will be too large to pass through the new locks. The boxships sector traditionally accounts for around one third of all canal transits and about half of the annual toll revenue.

In addition, the opening of the new locks is likely to have an important impact on the gas, both LNG and LPG, and car carrier sectors. The first transit from a VLGC is already booked, but an LNG carrier transit, a key new target for the ACP is still the works.

The Panama Canal Expansion is the largest construction project undertaken in the waterway since its opening in 1914. Considered and analyzed for a decade with more than 100 studies, construction on the first-ever expansion began in 2007 to provide shippers, retailers, manufacturers and consumers with enhanced shipping, maritime service, logistics and supply-chain reliability.

Watch the official inauguration celebrations here

Or via the Panama Canal Youtube channels: (Channel in English language) (Channel in Spanish language)