Panama Canal Pilots Train With Model Ships On Man-Made Lake

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The completion of the Panama Canal expansion in 2016 will mark a new era for the almost 300 Panama Canal pilots who navigate the ships that transit the canal every day.

The expansion will result in a deeper, wider canal, and a new set of locks. The larger vessels the upgrade was designed to accommodate are known as Post-Panamax ships, and will be guided into the locks by tugboats, as opposed to the electric trains currently in use.

Piloting the immense Post-Panamax boats requires a whole new set of skills. While the Panama Canal Authority began its Post-Panamax training program at the Canal’s Center for Simulation, Research and Maritime Development (SIDMAR), Panama Canal pilots have also been sent offshore for practical training at the Berendrecht Locks, in Antwerp, Belgium and to the Port Revel Shiphandling School in Grenoble, France, featured in a Wired magazine article. 

Pilots at Port Revel captain models of container and cruise ships, which are built to a 1:25 scale and include everything from working anchors to bow thrusters. The miniature vessels are maneuvered around the school’s 13-hectare lake, as wave and wind generators imitate changing climate conditions.

A key advantage of training with model ships is that, due to being lighter, they are faster than full-sized vessels. When pilots face familiar difficulties in real-life situations, they are trained to think fast and can foresee the outcome.  The other obvious upshot of the speed is the number of maneuvers that can be performed in a given period—many more than would be possible in a real ship. Scale-model training is considered much more effective than simulator training used on its own.

Although more than two-thirds of current Panama Canal pilots have been to France to take part in the ship-handling course, the Panama Canal Authority is planning for the future and building its own lake and models for training. The Panamanian facility will include a model of the notoriously narrow Culebra Cut, one of the most difficult sections of the canal to navigate.

In May 2014, Esteban Saenz, the executive vice president of operations for the Panama Canal Authority, announced that a Post-Panamax ship would also be chartered for use in training pilots.

The canal expansion, which began after a referendum approving the project in 2006, will allow for larger vessels capable of carrying 2.5 times the number of containers that current ships are capable of holding. The canal currently handles about 5% of world oceanic shipping. The expansion project is expected to be completed in 2016 and to increase the Panama Canal’s capacity by 20%.

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Rebecca Adams

Rebecca Adams is a New Zealander living in Panama City. She has visited more than 35 countries around the world and is actively working to up that number.