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Containerships largely unaffected by Panama Canal delays

Photo: ACP An HMM containership transiting the Panama Canal
An HMM containership transiting the Panama Canal
The number of vessels waiting to transit the Panama Canal has grown, however, containerships with reservations have seen minimal impact in terms of waiting times.

The restrictions on transit numbers and draught put in place by the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) due to an ongoing drought and water shortages have not resulted in the supply chain chaos which was feared with potential disruption to the waterway which links Asia to the East Coast of the Americas.

The number of vessels waiting to transit the Panama Canal on 30 August was 127, considerably more than the normal number, which according to the ACP is around 90. Of these 127 vessels 50 had booked reservations while the remaining 77 had not.

Figures from the ACP for August 2023 showed an average waiting time for all vessels northbound of 9.72 days compared to 2.73 days in June, while southbound the average waiting time in August 9.01 days compared to 2.37 days in June. However, the picture was very different for containerships, which usual reserve a transit slot, with an average northbound waiting time of 4.7 hours in August, and 3.5 hours waiting time southbound.

The authorities have been prioritising vessels with reservations, which come at considerable extra expense - the tariff for a neo-panamax with a beam over 42.67 metres is $85,000. Container lines with fixed schedules to keep normally make reservations, unlike vessels on tramp trades.

According to a weekly update from the ACP last year 57.5% of cargo transported in containerships from Asia to the US East Coast transited the Panama Canal and this figure has not reduced despite the restrictions that have been put in place.

“In the first nine months of the fiscal year 2023, 69.6% of the neo-panamax container ships have a draft less than 44 feet. Many of the remaining vessels continue their transit through Panama, leveraging the multimodal system the route offers,” the authority said.