Expeditionary Transfer Dock vessel USNS Montford Point (T-ESD 1) became the first Military Sealift Command ship to transit the Panama Canal’s newest locks during a trip from Portland, Oregon, to Norfolk, Virginia, Sept. 4.
In 2017, Panama Canal Authority completed construction on an expansion on the Pacific and Atlantic side of the canal to increase waterway capacity for larger cargo and container vessels. With a length of 785 feet and gross tonnage of more than 61,000 metric tons, Montford Point was able to enter the Cocoli Lock on the Pacific side and the Agua Clara Lock on the Atlantic side.
“This class of ship has never been through the Panama Canal because they were too large for the old locks,” said Montford Point Master Capt. Ryan Arnold. “Before, we would transit around the tip of South America to get from the Pacific to the Atlantic Coast. Now, we can cut our transit in half, which makes us more efficient and allows us to respond faster.
Planning for the transit began nearly three years ago when MSC began collaborating with the canal authority and Montford Point’s operating company, Ocean Shipholdings Inc., to make modifications aboard the ship that would accommodate the capabilities of the new locks.
“The main difference is the old locks used locomotives, and wires were connected from the shore to the ship and then the ship was physically pulled through,” said Arnold. “In the new locks, you have a tugboat on the forward end and aft end that helps navigate the ship through. The ship remains under its own power, and uses its own lines to hold itself through middle of the locks.”
During overhaul at Vigor Shipyard in Portland this spring, Montford Point underwent several modifications required by the canal authority. This included the addition of dutch bollards, an extra chock on the stern and several electrical upgrades to allow the ship to make the transit safely.
While most of the structural modifications were completed by the shipyard, Arnold said the ship’s crew completed the electronic modifications that included installations on the bridge and bridge wings.
“My electronics officer ran cabling so we could install monitors on the bridge wings that will allow us to see what’s going in the engine rooms, and they had to install a new pilot plug assembly suite so we could have a pilot on station forward and mid-ship,” said Arnold.
When the ship arrived in Panama Sept. 2, the canal authority conducted inspections to ensure the modifications were done to their specifications. Once the transit began, it took more than 12 hours to navigate the vessel through the canal.
“Even in the new locks, we only had about four feet on either side,” said Arnold. “It was stressful, but the pilots were phenomenal and they did an excellent job taking us through and kept the ship well-controlled. Our merchant mariners operated flawlessly and the helmsman was excellent.”
Montford Point, along with USNS John Glenn (T-ESD 2), are in reduced operating status on the East and West Coasts. The vessels serve as transfer stations to facilitate the delivery of equipment cargo to areas with limited or unavailable port access.