Panama Canal pilots train to handle massive cargo boats on tiny model ships



Crossing the Panama Canal is no easy task. That’s why, whether you’re on a small sailboat or a gigantic cargo ship, your voyage across Central America's famous manmade waterway is helmed by a member of the Panama Canal Pilots Association.

But now the pilots face a very big challenge.

With the $6 billion expansion of the canal that is underway, canal pilots will soon have to contend with post-Panamax behemoths – modern, super-sized vessels that don't currently fit through the locks of the canal. 

So the Pilots Association is sending some of its members to a special training facility in France to help them learn how to deal with the new locks, tugboat system and channels that they’ll have to navigate on completion of the expansion.

It's a little strange that that facility happens to be in the French Alps near the famed ski resort of Grenoble, but what's truly bizarre is that the pilots will be training on one-25th scale model boats that look like they've been built out of Lego blocks, which may well be like training for a Formula One race by practicing on bumper cars.

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The site is called Port Revel and maritime pilots and captains have been going there since it opened in 1967 to train on a 13-acre, manmade lake using meticulously recreated ships – including tiny cargo boats.

“We concentrate particularly on ship handling in shallow waters, with currents and in emergencies – for example mechanical failures of the engine and or rudder,” Arthur de Graauw, Port Revel’s director, told Wired.

Port Revel, however, is a temporary solution for the Pilots Association. The country plans to build its own training center complete with a lake and 1:25-scale boats.

“At this time we have selected the area, and plans for construction are being made,” said Peter Pusztai, supervisor of the training unit of Marine Simulation, Maritime Research and Development for the Panama Canal Authority. “The lake will contain the Culebra Cut [a narrow waterway in the canal where it crosses the continental divide] to scale with one lake at each end, with their respective locks with two chambers and harbors.”

The canal, which opened to traffic in 1914, can currently accommodate ships that are up to around 950 feet long and as wide as 106 feet. After the canal's expansion, ships up to 1,200 feet long and 160 feet wide will be able to use it. A significant number of post-Panamax cargo ships exceed those dimensions. 

The inter-oceanic waterway handles roughly 6 percent of all global trade.

Efe contributed to this report.

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