Fender Benders on Water?

More from the New York Times

It is a section of Panama’s newly expanded canal that has troubled veteran canal workers.

To safely guide the new generation of massive ships through the two sets of locks, tugboat captains and ship pilots rely on an approach wall to properly align the vessels before escorting them into the first narrow chamber.

The wall is an antidote to the currents and winds that push and pull ships into awkward angles, making tugboats wrestle the elements before achieving the proper position.

Each entrance has this structure — except one. And it was at this opening on the afternoon of July 21 that the Chinese container ship Xin Fei Zhoustruck a lock wall, tearing small holes in its hull — canal officials call it a dent — and forcing it out of service. The new canal was not even a month old.

Another container ship had experienced tense moments three weeks earlier as crew members responded to “countless” instructions from a canal employee who was attempting to guide it into the same set of locks.

Ultimately, that transit was successful. But the Xin Fei Zhou’s mishap was not the canal’s only setback. Other vessels have sheared or badly damaged up to 100 buffering fenders that are supposed to protect the lock walls and ship hulls should they come into contact, according to interviews with canal workers.

Several days before the expanded sea lane opened — nearly two years late and with more than $3.4 billion in disputed costs — an examination by The New York Times raised questions about its viability, citing concerns over safety, design, changes in the world’s shipping patterns and demand.

Canal workers had expressed concern about whether the plastic fenders on the lock walls would be adequate and whether tugboat captains had received the proper training in how to guide the giant ships through the chambers — a procedure that differed from the one used in the original canal.

What a mess.  The solution, ban cell phones who take embarrassing photos!

Cosco Container Lines, which owns the ship, said in a statement: “This is a serious matter.”

“Is it a serious marine incident?” Mr. Kinsey asked. “That will depend on the findings and the extent of repairs. Is it a concern? Yes, there’s a hole in the ship.”

Another Chinese container ship, also owned by Cosco, was the first commercial vessel to pass through Panama’s enlarged canal, in late June. At the time, the authority proclaimed a “new era of global trade” that would provide “greater economies of scale to global commerce.”

Witnessing this historic transit, the officials said, were “25,000 jubilant Panamanians,” heads of state, shipping executives and nearly 1,000 journalists. Canal publicists asserted that the ship carried thousands of shipping containers, a load that would not have fit in the smaller, original canal.

But the new canal’s sparkling narrative omitted one important fact: Most, if not all, of the shipping containers were empty. And even with the lighter load, the ship awkwardly brushed against a canal wall, according to photos posted online by canal workers.

Mr. Quijano said some containers had contained cargo. Besides, he said, cargo containers constitute cargo even when empty.

On Tuesday, Mr. Quijano announced that the canal authority was contemplating a ban on cellphones during transits because they were a distraction.