As the world watches
Geodis Wilson, the freight forwarding and heavy-lift shipping division of Geodis Group, has begun moving the giant gates that will be used in the new, third set of locks being built for the Panama Canal.
The first four of the 16 gates were scheduled to arrive in Cristobal, Panama in late August, having begun their shipment in July from manufacturer Cimolai in San Giorgio di Nogaro, a river port about 50 kilometers northwest of Trieste, Italy.
Biagio Oro, head of industrial projects for Geodis Wilson in Italy, and Philippe Somers, senior vice president of Geodis Wilson’s industrial projects division, talked to American Shipper about the project for which the company was awarded a $50 million contract by Cimolai last year.
The gates being built for the new locks are large: 58-meters long, 10-meters wide (or thick), and 30-meters high. They weigh 4,200 tons each. They are also quite valuable, collectively costing about 400 million euros ($533 million).
Unlike the existing locks at the Panama Canal, which swing open and close using hinges, the new locks will be similar to packet doors and will slide into position from the side.
As with the existing locks, ships using the new locks will step up or down through three chambers on each side of the isthmus. There will be gates between each of the chambers and at either end of each series of locks. Why 16 gates instead of eight? There are duplicates for each gate so the new locks can continue to operate normally even when a gate needs to be repaired or is undergoing regular maintenance.
While Geodis Wilson has extensive experience moving project cargo for the oil and gas, petrochemical and power sectors, Somers said “this project is in many ways unique” because of the size and weight of the gates, the size of the contract and the project’s high profile, as the Panama Canal extension is watched closely by a worldwide audience.
He said Geodis Wilson’s in-house engineering expertise was a key to winning the work. Normally, a shipper goes separately to engineering, shipping, barging, trucking, and rigging companies and contracts with each one individually, Somers explained.
“Here, it was the freight forwarder who took the lead and subcontracted,” he said. To do this, Geodis Wilson needed technical skill to plan the move and selected the proper subcontractors, including the shipping company STX Pan Ocean, which provided the semisubmersible ship that transports the gates from Italy to Panama and Sarens, the company which provided both the special purpose modular trailers (SPMTs) for moving the gates on land and a barge to move the gates from where they were manufactured to the deepwater port of Trieste.
The movement of the gates has several segments. After being manufactured at Cimolai, they are marshaled on stands, or “stools,” in a yard at Port Novarro. They are then moved using four diesel-powered SPMTs, each with 30 axles. The SPMTs’ axles are highly maneuverable and can be simultaneously controlled with a single control stick.
The gates are rolled onto the deck barge where they are secured onto special stools and then transported – four at a time – to Trieste. There, the barge and STX ship Sunrise are placed stern-to-stern and the SPMTs are used to roll the gates onto the vessel. (By the way, there are numerous videos of the move that can be seen online.)
After traversing the Mediterranean and Atlantic, the gates are delivered to a special yard in Cristobal near the canal’s Atlantic entrance. The shipment of the 16 gates is expected to be concluded next February.
After all the gates have arrived in Cristobal, eight will be transported by barge through the existing Panama Canal and the old locks to another marshaling yard near the canal’s Pacific entrance in Balboa. When the gates are delivered to their respective marshaling yards at each end of the canal, Geodis Wilson’s contract will be finished.
Oro said another tender has been issued for moving the gates from those yards to their final position in the canal, using SPMTs and put in place using another piece of specialized equipment called a strand jack.
Does Geodis Wilson have an interest in trying to win that business?
“Why not? We are participating in the tender, but at this moment we cannot say. There are many technical issues to be discussed,” Oro said.