PANAMA CITY – Panama Canal pilots have to “play” with mini-vessels before taking on steering the huge cargo ships that began traversing the expanded interoceanic waterway almost a year ago.
The Neopanamax vessels are too large for the Canal’s old locks and can transport up to 13,000 containers, almost three times more than earlier ships.
As might be imagined, introducing the monster ships into the newly expanded locks is a delicate maneuver and pilots first need to practice intensively at a training center with ships 25 times smaller.
“All the ships we have here are designed on a 1:25 scale and are exactly equal to the original vessels. We ask the blueprint designers and we build them just the same,” the director of the Panama Canal Authority’s Training Center, Peter Pusztai, told EFE.
Pusztai, with more than 30 years of experience, is in charge of training the pilots who have never maneuvered a Neopanamax and showing them all the techniques to ensure a problem-free transit of the Canal.
“What we do here in 15 minutes is equivalent in real life to an hour of work. Everything happens (about) five times as fast, which helps to develop the expertise and the agility of the (pilots),” Pusztai said.
The Training Center is 15.5 hectares (about 39 acres) in area and includes two artificial lakes, replicating at a smaller scale some of the key stretches of the aquatic route, including the Gatun Locks, the Agua Clara and the Culebra Cut. The simulations even include water currents so that pilots can hone their skills in that area.
“The entry into the locks is one of the most delicate maneuvers. It’s also complicated when two vessels traverse the Culebra Cut,” he said.
The training facility, the first of its kind in Latin America and the seventh such installation in the world, currently has four tugboats and three other vessels, with a fourth under construction and slated to be ready early next year.
The center located along the Canal in the Gamboa rainforest is not open to the public because “it’s not Disneyland,” said Pusztai.
Since it was inaugurated in March 2016, 168 of the 300 pilots who are to be trained there have passed through its program. Right now, only Canal pilots are training there, but the Panama Canal Authority is not ruling out renting out the installation to other customers to train other personnel, Pusztai said.
Some 6 percent of world trade passes through the Canal, and the recently expanded waterway, a project undertaken by a consortium headed by the Spanish firm Sacyr, was inaugurated in June 2016.