Ship hits wall of Panama Canal, renews design concerns

HOUSTON (Reuters) - A Chinese container ship hit a wall of the new lane of the Panama Canal, a Canal Authority official and a local ship agent said on Monday, the third such incident since the expanded waterway opened one month ago amid design concerns.

Thomson Reuters ship tracking data showed the Xin Fei Zhou, owned by China Shipping Container Lines, was anchored outside the canal after a photograph published by the maritime online news site showed the vessel with a sizeable gash in its hull. The ship agent said it was undergoing repairs.

The latest incident comes after two other vessels have reportedly made contact with the newly expanded canal since the $5.4 billion project was inaugurated on June 26.

The expansion, which triples the size of ships that can pass through the waterway, has drawn criticism from industry groups that claim its design makes the transit of larger ships unsafe for the vessels and workers.

The Panama Canal Authority said its operations team was investigating the latest incident.

The Lycaste Peace, the first LPG tanker to pass through the new section of the canal, ripped off a fender during a collision in late June, causing some minor damage to the railing of the ship, according to a source familiar with the incident.

The Panama Canal Authority did not respond to a request for comment about the Lycaste Peace.

The Authority has confirmed that the Cosco Shipping Panama, the container ship that made the inaugural journey through the canal, also made contact with its fenders, which a spokesman for the Authority said was normal.

A representative for MC-Seamax Management Limited, the manager of the Cosco Shipping Panama, said it suffered no damage.

While contact with fenders may occur in transit, the three events together are likely to renew concerns about the safety of moving expensive vessels through the expanded canal, which experts say has less space for maneuvers than the original locks.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation commissioned a study of the expansion in response to safety concerns of its members. Among other issues identified in April, the study found the dimensions of the new locks were too small for safe operations and that the design left little room for error.

The Panama Canal Authority dismissed the study’s findings.

Reporting by Liz Hampton, Marianna Parraga, and Eli Moreno in Panama; Editing by Terry Wade and Dan Grebler