Canals are among the most important advancements made in the last 500 years. During the Industrial Revolution, demand was so high for the transit of produce and goods, especially coal, that investors were forced to consider new ideas for transport. Enter the canal.
The so-called “canal mania” took Britain by storm in the 1790s, and by the 1820s, the United States had joined in as well. The Erie Canal in New York was largely responsible for settlement patterns throughout the U.S. and provided critical supply lines during the Civil War.
The Panama Canal
Today, canals are relied upon for world commerce and maritime trade. The Panama Canal, built between 1904 and 1914, shortened the distance by ship between the East and West coasts of the United States by 13,000 km, decreasing shipping time by about 60%.
With a third lane opened in 2016, the Panama Canal can now support container ships, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) carriers, liquefied natural gas (LNG) carriers, and more with traffic increasing exponentially since the expansion’s inauguration. Approximately 3% of the world’s maritime commerce travels through the Panama Canal each year, amounting to $9 trillion.
In recent years, the Panama Canal has been affected by the widespread drought in Central America. Precipitation in the watershed was approximately 90% below the historical average in 2019, and January 2019 was the driest month the country of Panama had experienced in the past 106 years. This not only affects the amount of cargo that can travel through the canal, but it also increases the dangers that offshore workers face when navigating a ship through its waters.
Should a too-large ship attempt to pass through the locks of a canal when there’s not enough water to support it, the ship could run aground and put its crew at risk. The most common causes of incidents in the canal before the 2016 expansion were contact with walls and vessel collisions, together accounting for 60% of accidents. Machinery damage and failure accounted for over 20%.
But it’s not just low water levels that can make canals dangerous to navigate. When there’s too much water, or a strong storm moves through the area, ships of all sizes can be in danger. Flooding can increase silt levels, which can be enough to limit passage. Docked ships may also be at risk of flooding should the water levels rise too high.
The Suez Canal
One of the most notorious canals in the world, the Suez Canal is especially dangerous due to piracy attacks. Connecting the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, the canal opened in 1869 and offered a “shortcut” that reduced the distance between Europe and Asia by about 6,000 km.
The Suez Canal made international news when one of the world’s largest cargo ships, the Ever Given, got stuck in the canal for six days in March 2021. The potential cause? High winds and high speed (the ship may have been traveling at 13.5 knots despite a limit of 8.6 knots). The effect? A loss of $10 billion a day due to the slowing of maritime trade. Fortunately, no one was injured when the Ever Given ran aground, but one person was killed in the salvage operation that was necessary to free the ship.
The Ever Given (and her crew) weren’t allowed to leave Egypt until 3 months later, when a compensation deal was finally met.
The Kiel Canal
A 61-mile-long freshwater canal in Germany’s Schleswig-Holstein, the Kiel Canal is the world’s busiest artificial waterway as it sees approximately 32,000 ships pass through its locks every year. Finished in 1895 and widened between 1907 and 1914, the canal has a long history of serving all types of vessels, from battleships to cruise ships and cargo ships.
To help promote safe passage, larger ships must accept the assistance of pilots and specialized canal helmsmen through the Kiel Canal. Some may even need to request a tugboat.
In October 2013, the canal was closed following the collision of a coastal freighter and a gas carrier. Fortunately, none of the crew members on either ship were injured, but one ship was in danger of sinking and an oil recovery vessel was called to the scene to help prevent an oil spill in the waterway.
In March 2022, the canal was rendered unnavigable, especially by larger ships, due to a glitch in the new software installed to control navigation. Ships of all sizes were unable to use the canal.
Not 10 days after the 2022 glitch, two cargo ships crashed in a head-on collision in the Kiel Canal, causing extensive damage to the ships and sending 3 crew members to a local hospital with severe injuries.
Helping Crews Navigate Rough Waters
Working aboard a ship is a dangerous endeavor. Offshore work requires extensive training, proper protective equipment, and thoughtful communication to keep crew members safe, especially in tricky waterways like canals. Arnold & Itkin has fought on behalf of crews and their families since 2004, representing those who need protection under maritime law. When the worst happens, crews rely on our maritime lawyers to get them the answers they deserve. No matter what.