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Expanding Our Maritime Terminal

Published May 28, 2008 - (Updated Dec 19, 2012)

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If you think Puerto Vallarta’s increasing parking problems have been limited to our city streets, you’ve been missing the bigger picture. All around the world, business is booming for the cruise industry. Passenger numbers are increasing all around and, in terms of new ships, “bigger is better” seems to be the norm, according to “Cruise Industry News.” New ships are being built larger, not only in size but also in amenities; however, the size of new ships largely depends on the infrastructure ashore. And with a 223% increase in cruise ship arrivals here in Puerto Vallarta over the past decade, the cruise industry’s message has been loud and clear: the time has come to expand Puerto Vallarta’s Maritime Terminal.

Cruise ships began visiting Mexico’s Pacific Riviera long before Captain Stubbing and his Love Boat crew of misfits appeared on our TV sets in the late seventies. “Puerto Vallarta is a very attractive destination for cruise travelers,” according to Francisco Martinez Narvaez, general manager for Administracion Portuaria Integral, or API, the company that oversees our Maritime Terminal. “And since other destinations on the Pacific Riviera depend on this popularity, the efficiency of our terminal affects the entire cruise circuit.” An experienced engineer, Martinez Narvaez came to Puerto Vallarta from Mexico City seven years ago to administer API. Under his skilled supervision, the expansion of Puerto Vallarta’s Maritime Terminal, a gargantuan project full of technical and logistical challenges involving hundreds of workers and specialists, was begun in September 2005 and is expected to be completed this coming November.

At present, the Maritime Terminal has two docks, capable of handling ships of up to 300 and 250 meters long (984 and 820 feet) respectively. Whenever longer ships arrive or when there are more than two simultaneous arrivals (we had nine triple and seven quadruple arrivals in 2005), ships have to remain anchored offshore. This decreases the number of passengers who disembark, and consequently the financial benefits that our stores, restaurants and businesses receive through cruise tourism. Additionally, the Maritime Terminal must accommodate the myriad bay cruises that depart from the terminal on a daily basis. These vessels may be much smaller, but last year alone an estimated 480,000 Puerto Vallarta tourists took a day cruise. So on any given day, between multiple cruise ship arrivals and departures and bay cruises, up to 10,000 people, passengers and crew included, use API’s facilities one way or another, a tremendous logistical and security challenge.

The expansion project calls for partially demolishing, redesigning and lengthening Dock 2, and constructing an entirely new dock, along with specialized facilities for day cruises. It is expected that, once completed, the project will generate a 30% increase in cruise activity along the Pacific Riviera, not to mention the Maritime Terminal itself.

But how do they actually undertake such a project? Driving by along Fco. Medina Ascencio on a daily basis makes it easy to take for granted the many logistical, legal, ecological and engineering hurdles involved, not to mention the hundreds of people required to address them.

Securing the permits

While API is in charge of the Maritime Terminal, its initial project, along with all the necessary permits, had to be approved at federal, state and municipal levels by the proper authorities. From the Communications and Transportation Secretary to Semarnat, Mexico’s environmental resources agency, the success and profitability of the project had to be verified. A piece of land adjacent to the Terminal had to be purchased to allow for the expansion. At a cost of over $273 million pesos, approximately $24 million dollars, it is expected that the project will pay for itself within the next eight years, extending the Terminal’s usefulness for 50 more years.

Refining the project

Looking at the artist rendering on page 26, it is easy to appreciate the challenge of actually docking not one, but three full-size cruise ships in such a small area. Doing so requires the collaboration of the experienced captains of each ship, along with the port pilots, who are most familiar with local currents, weather and the depth of the main basin, where incoming ships usually do a 180-degree turn before docking. Every time a ship docks, the port pilot on duty has to travel by boat to the arriving cruise ship while it is still two miles offshore. With both vessels moving side by side, the port pilot must literally jump onboard the cruise ship through a sea-level hatch and proceed to the control room, where he shares docking responsibility with the ship’s pilot.

So, while the initial project looked great on paper, API relied on the world-renowned Star Center’s expertise. Based in Florida, the Star Center is a specialized maritime training center recognized by industry professionals throughout the world. Using project measurements and photographs provided by API, the Star Center took advantage of its state-of-the-art immersive simulation facilities, where they were able to virtually recreate our harbor, not to mention the actual experience of docking just about any major cruise ship. This sophisticated environment allowed Puerto Vallarta’s port pilots to “dry run” the project long before actual construction began.

Harnessing the land

Creating jobs for hundreds of Vallartenses, the actual project is being undertaken by two separate construction companies, Tradeco Infraestructura and Innovaciones Técnicas en Cimentación. Day-to-day operations at the construction site are overseen by Edmundo Nochebuena Ortiz, a 33-year-old civil engineer from the state of Mexico. A National University (UNAM) graduate, Nochebuena Ortiz has already overseen maritime constructions from San Felipe, Baja California, to Mazatlan, Sinaloa. Away from his wife and three children since the project began, he won’t be reunited with them until the project is completed in November, only to be once again relocated to his next assignment.

While it may seem like a contradiction, building the new docks on land was a more feasible option for the project than actually working on water. A stretch of land that eventually will be dredged separates the ocean from the 33-foot-wide docks. Their underwater walls are built using a system of 56-foot-long interlocking planks strengthened by 98-foot-long piles that must be buried deep into the land, one by one. All planks and piles are cast on site and then positioned in place with huge cranes. Piles are inserted diagonally to provide strength against the ships’ lateral pull while they are docked. Over 690 concrete piles will be positioned by the time the project is completed, each one taking four hours to bury, injecting pressurized water through their hollow cores to remove the sand, and then using a hammer that exerts 3.5 tons of pressure with each blow. Finally, massive concrete cubes are cast and positioned underwater at the base of the dock to prevent ship propellers from lifting the surrounding sand as they dock.

Maintaining quality control

In order to resist ongoing seawater corrosion, a special type of concrete must be used. Additionally, the structural strength of the docks must be able to withstand the huge forces exerted on them by the cruise ships, even while they are not moving. Concrete samples are tested on an ongoing basis at an onsite quality control facility, where a chemical process is used to measure the mixture’s resistance to corrosion. The samples are then positioned in a press capable of applying up to 120 tons of pressure, a standard superior to that required by the project specifications. Finally, the sand and gravel mixture used to produce the concrete is constantly monitored for quality.

Digging the hole

Since construction of the docks is done on land, all the land separating them from the ocean must be removed. Dragamex, a Veracruz-based company that specializes in maritime dredging projects, will be called upon to undertake this final task, which should begin by the time this publication reaches you. It is expected that this stage of the project will take three months to complete, using specialized equipment capable of removing seven cubic meters of soil with each scoop, roughly the equivalent of a city bus.

Wrapping things up

Francisco Martínez Narváez is proud to say that the Maritime Terminal expansion project is presently on schedule, thanks to a carefully orchestrated workforce of talented individuals fully committed to it. In the end, it’s hard to imagine what the maritime terminal will look like for the average passerby. But envisioning three massive cruise ships docked at the same time, two of them barely 35 feet away from the sidewalk, one word comes to mind: majestic.


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