Panama has sent a giant, Neopanamax-class cargo ship through its canal to test expansion work costing billions of dollars and whose official opening is to be marked with a ceremony late this month.
"The tests are going very, very well. We're pleased," Giuseppe Quarta, head of the Grupos Unidos por el Canal (GUPC) consortium behind the nine-year expansion project, told reporters.
The vessel used, the dry bulk carrier MN Baroque owned by SwissMarine and registered in Malta, is 255 metres (837 feet) long and 43 meters (141 feet) wide.
That puts it into the Neopanamax, or New Panamax, class of ships that are significantly bigger than the older Panamax ones used up to now.
As the names suggest, the class of ships are designed specifically to fit into the Panama Canal’s locks.
The older Panamax freighters had maximum dimensions of 294 metres in length and 32 meters in width, to fit the original canal built a century ago.
Neopanamax ships are significantly longer and wider for the new locks - and more importantly can carry more than twice as much cargo.
- Over budget -
The mammoth project to expand the Panama Canal far exceeded its original US$5.3 billion budget - perhaps by as much as 60 per cent, though a final figure is not yet available - and came in two years late.
Labor disputes, legal rows between the Panama Canal Authority and the GUPC consortium made up of Spanish, Italian and Panamanian companies, and repairs to fissures found in a lock wall last year all contributed to the overruns.
But now it is complete, the inauguration ceremony is to take place on Jun 26, led by Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela and with 70 heads of state and government invited to attend.
A Chinese-owned freighter, the Andronikos, has been selected to steam through the Panama Canal on the day of that event.
Panama's vice president, Isabel De Saint Malo, said on Twitter on Thursday that the Jun 26 ceremony would be an "historic moment" symbolising Panamanians' pride and "confidence in global trade."
Hundreds of workers who carried out the expansion work took photos of MN Baroque as it moved through the canal.
"This is historic, yes sir," said one of them, Bernabe Caceres, who added he felt "a sense of satisfaction in a job well done." A colleague, Jorge Rodriguez, said: "I'm proud to have worked here. This will go down in history."
The expansion involved making a third lane for ships in the canal along with a new set of locks.
The canal already accounts for five per cent of world maritime commercial traffic.
With the expansion, Panama expects to triple the US$1 billion it already receives in shipping fees for vessels passing through.
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