Mindi is no more

Mindi at work in the Panama Canal. Credit: Tony Slinn

The world’s oldest cutter suction dredger (CSD), the Panama Canal Authority’s (ACP’s) Mindi, sank about 161 km off Balboa as it was under tow to a new owner.

Built by US-based Ellicott Machine Corps, a predecessor of today’s Ellicott Dredges, which supplied all the CSDs used in building the Panama Canal when the US bought the rights from France in November 1903, Mindi was added to the ACP’s dredging fleet in 1943. With a total installed power of 7,460 kW and cutter power of 745 kW, the 120.5 m long, 15.75 m wide vessel had a dredging depth of 21.95 m and was a key component in the Panama Canal’s maintenance and widening.

“We are very sad about the Mindi, it was really a part of Ellicott history,” Paul Quinn, sales vice president of Ellicott Dredges, told DPC. “I go by pictures of it every day – as I have for 18 years – and it’s sad to know it ended its life in such an unfortunate way after being such a productive tool in a prestigious application for 74 years.

Following the handover of the Panama Canal by the US to Panama on 31 December 1999, and with the accession of dynamic ACP administrator Alberto Alemán Zubieta, plans to expand the Panama Canal – backed by president Martín Torrijos – received an overwhelming vote of support from the Panamanian people in October 2006.

The writing was on the wall for Mindi, and that was confirmed in 2008 when ACP awarded a contract to Netherlands-based IHC Beaver for a new 12,000 kW CSD to replace it. Named Quibián I, the new CSD was delivered in 2011. It has a 25 m dredging depth and can tackle all sections of the Panama Canal.

Although updated and re-engined over the years, and with a history of reliability, Mindi was no match for Quibian I. ACP then awarded IHC a USD43 million contract to build a new backhoe dredger – named Alberto Alemán Zubieta, it was commissioned in May 2013. Including the giant dipper dredger Rialto M Christensen, ACP’s new modern dredging fleet was complete.

Still, ACP kept Mindi dredging until 2016, taking part in the expansion, before announcing it would be honourably retired. All that changed in October 2018 when Mindi was put up for sale.

Quinn commented, “Back in 1941, Mindi cost USD1,525,500 and delivery to Panama, from Baltimore, was initially delayed by the US Navy upon its completion in 1942 due to fears it would be targeted by German U-Boats along the US coast and the Caribbean.”

Personally, I can’t understand why ACP decided to sell such an evocative part of the Panama Canal’s history. The vessel should have been placed at the Miraflores Locks visitor centre for grizzled dredgemasters to relive their youth and grandchildren to crawl over.

“A museum would have been very appropriate and interesting end for Mindi. It’s been done a couple of other times, with the William M. Black for example. A steam-propelled, sidewheel dustpan dredge built in 1934 for the United States Army Corps of Engineers, it was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1992 and now serves as a museum ship at the Ice Harbor in Dubuque, Iowa.” Quinn concluded.

The final film shows Mindi listing to starboard before sinking. If ships have feelings, I like to think it was taking a last look at the Panama Canal and country it had served so well and for so long before deciding to end it all.

This article has been updated and was originally published on 21 January 2020.