With the multi-billion-dollar Panama Canal expansion well underway, Canal pilots will soon have to contend with the enormous post-Panamax vessels, which don’t currently fit through the Canal’s locks.

In response to this challenge, the Pilots Association is sending some members to a special facility in France to train them on how to deal with the new lock system, tugboat system and channels that they will need to navigate once the expansion is complete.

The facility is in the French Alps near the ski resort of Grenoble, but what’s even more unusual is that the pilots will train on one-twenty-fifth scale model vessels. The site, called Port Revel, opened in 1967, and pilots and captains go there to train on a 13-acre lake using painstakingly crafted ships that include tiny cargo vessels.

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

This is, however, a temporary solution for the Pilots Association, which plans to build its own training center and miniature vessels.

According to Peter Pusztai, Supervisor, Training Unit of Marine Simulation, Maritime Research and Development for the Panama Canal Authority, “At this time we have selected the area, and plans for construction are being made. 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 Panama Canal opened to traffic in 1914, and can currently accommodate vessels up to approximately 950 feet long and 106 feet wide.  Following the expansion, vessels up to 1,200 feet long and 160 feet wide will be accommodated. However, many post-Panamax cargo ships are even larger than those dimensions.

The inter-oceanic waterway is responsible for approximately six percent of global trade.

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