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This space is not for travelogues, but my recent trip to Panama (a little bit of business mixed with tourist destinations) is worth sharing with Capital Link readers. Shipping permeates everything here; the rainforest (a big tourist destination) nurtures the Canal which provides sustenance for the economy of this small country, with a population of around 4 million. But ships of all types are visible from the shorelines, and what was billed as a cruise to islands (to see monkeys, birds and other inhabitants of the jungle-like area) proved to be a ship spotting expedition- at least for me (with dozens of vessel pictures to prove it). Vessels transit towards the Caribbean in the morning and then, towards the Pacific, in the evenings.  Not surprisingly, there are was a surfeit of car carrier transits,- LNG’s, a trade whose ascendancy was directly based on the new wider Canal locks (which opened in 2016), were also in evidence. LPG tankers, which have a similar story- when it comes to U.S. exports, were also abundant. And, of course, mega-containerships of up to 15,000 TEU were visible transiting the new locks. Panama’s status as a crossroads for the world’s shipping was evident from a ride I took through the anchorage outside Balboa (Pacific side, near Panama City) on ferries to the island of Tobago.  

One of my big issues is the relationship of the maritime business with the rest of the world, existing “outside the bubble.” In my dealings around the States, the docks and supply chains are usually far from the general populous, both physical and mentally. New Orleans and Houston, and maybe Long Beach/ San Pedro, may be exceptions. New York, which historians will tell you was a “hub” for everything in the 1800s, has lost its maritime zest, though organizations like NYMAR (New York Maritime) endeavor to raise its profile around the world (but not locally). At local shipping events, management from the port are invited; when they finish their perfunctory speeches or presentations, they rarely mix and mingle; they are usually whisked away in their waiting limos. Contrast this with Panama, where even the cabdrivers can point at a vessel and correctly identify it as a bulk carrier, tanker, neo-Panamax container vessel, etc etc.   

Shipping’s profile, and ergo its visibility, is changing in all geographies; shipping can no longer hide inside its cocoon. Having been hiding out, when it suited me over my career, I struggle with this. During my Panama adventures, I saw and took pictures of a 2017 built bulker (Far Eastern owned), very conspicuously fitted with a scrubber, transiting westbound in ballast.  I can confirm that IMO 2020 is well known outside the maritime realm (including by at least one of my fellow “shipspotters”- who were actually looking for toucans). I have gotten questions along the lines of “…will the gasoline (petrol) price go up next January?”, and similar, from friends and train-riding or gin-sipping acquaintances far removed from maritime matters. Of course, my answer is that we don’t yet know fully about its reverberations beyond shipping. Tanker markets are on the move; though another one factor I joust with- geopolitics, is playing a big role now as U.S. sanctions have now impacted a broader swath of the crude carrier market. The Baltic Exchange, quoting freight rates and hires for centuries (and in earnest since the mid 1980s), is now going to be facing off against a major fuel price reporting service- which will deconstruct voyage freight rates and create their own indices. That’s a big big deal; until IMO 2020 shakes out, all things fuel-related have the potential to be major disruptors.  Happily my bird watching buddies could not identify the manufacturer of the scrubber (I am guessing Alfa Laval, maybe). 

IMO 2050 (greenhouse gas reductions) is still a work in progress, but as I’ve noted, it looms large when charterers and, now, financiers, will be looking at a vessel, or fleet’s “creds” (a/k/a bona fides) before providing cargo, or financial capital.