Be PreparedIt was during my first voyage as a ship captain in 2004 when I was approaching the port of Cristobal in Panama, I faced an emergency any ship could face- a main-engine failure! This was a container ship about 211 metres long, equipped with cargo cranes and built in 1977 in Denmark. The ship was since demolished and the aneroid barometer from that ship is now mounted in my living room bulkhead (oops, wall)!



We tested the engines, steering and controls well outside the port, as per usual seamanship procedures. However I found out later that day, that an engine is only good as its last kick!

We were bound to transit the Panama Canal the next day and we were instructed by the Vessel Traffic Services to anchor the ship inside the breakwater for bunkers and immigration formalities. So, having prepared my passage plan and having marked the spot to anchor, we proceeded, with me conning the ship supported by my Chief Mate and Able Seaman as other members of the Bridge Team.


The Panama Canal is a lifeline of world trade. It connects the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean which otherwise could be accessed only through the Indian Ocean or the treacherous Cape Horn, both of which would add several weeks to the voyage. Cristobal is the Atlantic end of the Canal while Balboa is on the Pacific side. Cristóbal Colón is the Spanish translation for Christopher Columbus, the Genovese explorer for whom these places were named. Image courtesy Google Maps.

There is often a strong current flowing across the entrance of the Cristobal harbour, and ships usually need some speed to maintain a steady course while entering the narrow opening of the breakwater.

So we entered at around 5 knots speed, which was minimum for this ship to maintain steerage. As luck would have it, one of the engine liner gaskets burst just as we were entering the breakwater. The Chief Engineer called up the Bridge and let us know it was risky to operate the engines any longer; we could risk damaging the liner surface more and would not be able to transit the Canal tomorrow morning. The precious reefer cargo would get delayed. I told the Chief I would not use the engines to the extent possible; I would use the engines if required for the safety of the ship, which was more important than meeting the schedule. Thankfully, as it turned out later, we found a solution which was both safe and did not affect the ship schedule.

My mind immediately switched to the next gear. I made a quick mental calculation of the distance to the anchoring position and the how much the ship would travel with its current momentum. At the same time I instructed my officer-on-watch to alert the Vessel Traffic Services and the Port of our situation and that a tug could be required.

When I assumed command of the ship few months ago, as a 29-year old ship-captain, one of the first things I did was make myself familiar with the ship. I checked the minimum steerage speed, the residual momentum from various speeds, taking into account different scenarios, how the ship would behave in different wind conditions, and so on, so familiar that that the ship would become an extension of myself. All this information was both in my conscious and subconscious knowledge, and would flash back to me during my current predicament.

My ship still had half a nautical mile to go to the anchoring position, and it would travel just about this distance with the current momentum. Knowing this, I kept my cool and manoeuvred the ship safely between two other anchored vessels, turned the ship’s head with the bow-thruster and dropped the anchor at the precise spot where we had planned. The Vessel Traffic Services were pleased that the incident did not escalate as they did not have time even to dispatch a tug to assist.


Almost 14000 ships transit the Panama Canal annually, making Cristobal a very busy port. The specs seen inside the breakwater are ships at anchor waiting for bunkers and transit convoys. Image courtesy Google Maps.

Many things could have gone wrong that day; I could have panicked and frozen, or worse made a drastic swerve and hit an oncoming ship. I could have used the engines and damaged the engine enough to delay the Panama transit, causing a delay in delivery of cargo. I was quite pleased with the outcome of the situation and reflecting back, can confirm the following mind sets are important for not just a navigator, but for any person: