Master Mariner Panos Kolokotsas
Master Mariner Panos Kolokotsas

Panos Kolokotsas grew up on the Greek island of Zakynthos. Little did he know, as he played near the stunning beaches and booming caves as a child, that he would grow up to perform a world first.

For Panos has just captained the first liquefied natural gas (LNG) shipment to pass through the Panama Canal.

“The canal is a magnificent technical achievement and it was an honour to be the first to take an LNG ship through it,” said the 39-year-old Master of the Shell-chartered Maran Gas Apollonia. “It is a real milestone.”

More than a million ships have passed through the Panama Canal since it opened in 1914. But many of the world’s biggest vessels were too big to use it, forcing some crews to sail thousands of kilometres to the turbulent waters off the tip of South America, where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans clash off Cape Horn.

Nine years ago work started to build bigger locks for the larger ships that now plough through the world’s oceans. The canal opened its gates to the inaugural large container shipment at the end of June. A few weeks later, the Apollonia sailed through on its way to make a delivery of US gas to China.

Panos has sailed all over the world during his 20 years as a merchant seaman. But the Panama Canal was still a special experience.

“It’s a beautiful place to visit,” he said. “Not that we had much chance to admire the view. We had to make sure everything went smoothly.”

The canal’s two new lock complexes contain more than 4 million cubic metres of concrete and each has nine water-recycling basins to save water. Each lock section – one near the Caribbean coast and another on the Pacific side – has eight sliding steel gates weighing between 2,100 and 4,200 tonnes.

The sheer magnitude of the work left Tasos Loukis, chief engineer on the Apollonia, in awe.

“It’s a technological miracle,” he said. “I’ve been through the old locks seven times before in smaller vessels but this was really exciting.”

He is also relieved to have avoided another voyage through the stormy seas off South America.

“I don’t think anybody enjoys the Cape Horn experience,” he said. “It’s a longer voyage, which is tiring for everybody, and the weather is rough most of the time. The canal is much safer.”

Cutting costs, cutting carbon

After emerging from the canal on July 25, Apollonia’s crew continued their journey across the Pacific.

It is a route that is likely to grow in importance.

The USA could become one of the world's largest LNG suppliers by the end of the decade, due to a surge in shale gas production. The Panama Canal will dramatically reduce voyage times for shipments between new LNG export plants on the US Gulf Coast and the major importing countries of Asia.

The US Energy Information Administration estimates that such shipments could now arrive in the major consuming countries of Asia in around 20 days, about 10 days fewer than the next-fastest route through Egypt’s Suez Canal. The Panama shortcut reduces delivery times for US gas supplies to Chile to as little as eight days, compared to 20 days via Cape Horn.

The new route also shortens voyages from Trinidad and Tobago, another exporter of LNG, to growing gas-hungry cities around the Pacific, and opens up the possibility that Peru could supply consumers around the North Atlantic.

Shorter voyages for LNG tankers as they deliver gas for power stations and other industry around the world should reduce shipping costs and carbon emissions. Better access to cleaner-burning natural gas from the Americas could also help countries in Asia burn less coal, helping to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions more widely. When used to generate electricity, natural gas produces around 50% less CO2 than coal.

“The expanded canal is good news for everyone,” said Steve Hill, Shell’s executive vice president for gas and energy marketing and trading. “And for Shell it will increase our ability to provide a flexible and reliable supply of natural gas to consumers in many parts of the world.”


Story by Dan Fineren


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