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.