Over seven months have passed since Panamanian officials launched an expansion of the world famous Panama Canal.
Officials agreed to the expansion so that many of the world's largest cargo ships could easily pass through the canal. Yet the Associated Press reports the $5.25-billion project has problems. It says ships continue to rub against the canal's walls and wear out defenses designed to protect both shipping and the waterway.
The Panama Canal has been in operation for more than a century. The United States completed the canal in 1914. The waterway remained under U.S. control until the end of 1999, when it was given to Panama.
A dangerous system
The canal links two oceans – the Atlantic and the Pacific -- through a system of locks. The locks are like steps. They raise and lower ships from one part of the waterway to another on their trip from ocean to ocean.
With the old locks, which are still in use, large ships would be tied to powerful locomotives on both sides. These engines help to keep the ships in the center of the canal. In the new locks, the ships are tied to tugboats. One tugboat is tied to the front of the ship, with the other tied to the back. These boats then guide the ships through the canal.
At first, pilots of the cargo ships and tugboat operators would sometimes try to rub the boats against the canal walls as a way to keep the ships straight. But this caused damage to rubber padding lining the walls.
In one case, a ship called "Ever Living" tried to pass through the canal when one of the massive steel lock doors failed to open all the way.
The ship's pilots and tugboat captains decided to continue using the tugboats to guide the ship through the narrowed passageway. But to avoid the stuck door, the ship came dangerously close to the side of the lock walls.
"These are things that shouldn't happen," tugboat captain Mauricio Perez said. "Sometimes the only thing we can do is pray."
Not enough training
Even before the expanded canal opened in June 2016, tugboat operators had expressed concern about the new system. Many asked for more training.
"The fears and dangers remain, although the boats are going through," Perez said.
The Panama Canal Authority reports that, between June and January 2017, there were only 15 incidents that resulted in damage to locks or ships. That represents about 2 percent of the 700 times ships have sailed through the expanded canal. Officials say the first seven months have been a learning process, but they remain hopeful.
Manuel Benitez, deputy administrator of the canal, said it has been "pretty positive the way our people have been able to navigate that (learning) curve." Benitez felt that the problems that have been reported were not enough to affect the operation of the locks.
Still, many ships are carrying containers with goods, and any delay because of an accident can cost them money.
In perhaps the most serious incident, a Chinese ship hit a lock wall a few weeks after the expanded canal opened, and made a hole in the side of the ship. This forced a delay in the trip.
The Canal Authority did not say how much money is being spent on repairing the new rubber bumpers.
Captains who navigate the canal say the defenses were expected to last at least a few years before they wear out. Pilots have argued they should be replaced with a system of floating bumpers like those used in some European locks.
Officials say they plan to continue operating with the current system of defenses, but changes could happen in the future.
"Thanks to the expertise of our practices, these incidents are happening less and less," Benitez said.
A delicate operation
There have been important improvements to operations at the Panama Canal, according to the Associated Press. Tugboat pilots say average travel time through the canal has dropped to two-and-a-half to three hours. It was four hours when the locks first opened. With experience, captains have become more at ease taking ships straight down the center of the locks, especially when weather conditions are good.
But it's still a delicate operation.
As the 334-meter-long Ever Living moved into the 426-meter lock chamber, workers tied the ship against the walls to keep it in place while it waited to move to the next lock. The tight space left little room for the tugboats, both in front of and behind the ship.
Tugboat captains still fear their boats could be crushed against the walls if things get out of control during bad weather.
Captains also regret that no wall was built at the entry to the Pacific Ocean side. They say such a wall would help to keep the ships straight and protect them from fast water currents. This is where the Chinese ship had its accident.
I'm Phil Dierking.