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How tiny ships could help prevent crashes on the Panama Canal

A Panama Canal tugboat captain maneuvers a miniature tugboat as he trains at the scale model maneuvering training center on the outskirts of Panama City. Under the new system, tugboat captains will have to engage in tricky maneuvers in a confined space inside the locks themselves, trying to keep bulky post-Panamax ships from banging into the walls or even crushing the tugs if they lose control.
A Panama Canal tugboat captain maneuvers a miniature tugboat as he trains at the scale model maneuvering training center on the outskirts of Panama City. Under the new system, tugboat captains will have to engage in tricky maneuvers in a confined space inside the locks themselves, trying to keep bulky post-Panamax ships from banging into the walls or even crushing the tugs if they lose control. AP

It looks like some glorified amusement park ride. Small ships modeled after container vessels, bulk carriers and tugboats maneuver around a 35-acre lake complex, practicing docking and easing through narrow canal locks.

But the small ships and scale-model course, constructed at a 25th of the size of the real Panama Canal and the vessels that transit it, are anything but child’s play. The course gives canal pilots a change to practice under real life conditions before they’re called upon to help guide mega-ships through the new locks of the Panama Canal.

The first official transit through the $ 5.5-billion canal expansion is scheduled Sunday and the new locks, which will allow bigger ships to transit the canal, will open for commerce the next day.

In addition to using navigable miniature ships for training, tests of the new locks also have been carried out using the Baroque, a rented post-Panamax bulk carrier on the Atlantic end of the 50-mile-long canal. Canal pilots also have run the Oceanus, a crane ship that belongs to the Panama Canal Authority, through the new Cocoli Locks on the Pacific side of the canal.

When dealing with ships longer than two football fields carrying tens of thousands of cargo containers, there is no margin for miscalculation. Canal pilots and tugboat captains must be ready to guide today's shipping behemoths through the new locks with precision, preventing them from crashing into the gates or banging into walls.

Unlike the system in effect for most waterways, the captains of vessels traveling through the canal turn control of their ships over to canal pilots for the transit.

The new locks have many innovations, but one of the most important ones for canal pilots and tug captains is that the electric locomotives, called mules, and the guide wires that help ships navigate through the locks of the original canal, will no longer be used on the expansion. Instead, tugboats will nudge towering post-Panamax ships into position for their journey through the locks and keep them in place as water levels are raised or lowered in the three chambers of each lock.

 

Some tug captains have expressed reservations about the new system. Since the tugs will actually be in the confined space of the locks with the huge post-Panamax ships, they worry that even the new locks won’t be large enough to comfortably accommodate a container ship up to 1,200 feet long and 160-feet wide and tugboats, which are around 90-feet long and will be positioned fore and aft of the big ships.

The chambers of the new locks are 1,400 feet long, 180-feet wide and 60-feet deep.

Even though it takes years of training for a canal pilot to navigate the currents, the changing weather conditions and the tricky curves of Culebra Cut and the docking angles along the route of the canal, navigating a huge ship potentially loaded with 13,000 containers through the expansion requires some extra hands-on training.

Since the opening of the Scale-Model Maneuvering Training Center in March, about one-third of canal pilots have trained at the facility and more pilots and tugboat captains are scheduled to be trained in coming months.

The training center “will allow us to continue providing world-class service to the global maritime industry, while guaranteeing safe and efficient transits through the soon-to-be inaugurated expanded canal,” Canal Administrator Jorge L. Quijano said when the center opened.

Pilots and tug captains also train at a computer simulation center but the scale-model center gives them a better feel for wind and currents. Pilots sit or stand on the small ships and operate the controls as they would on a much larger ship.

The center has two lakes connected by a channel modeled after Culebra Cut, three-chambered locks with rolling gates that are smaller versions of the new locks, replicas of the existing locks, and docking bays where pilots practice tying up. Even the angles of the sloped sides of the scale-model of Culebra Cut are the same.

Different scenarios can be created with wind and wave generators. Two-scale model post-Panamax ships, for example, recently simulated passing each other from opposite directions — a risky maneuver on the real canal.

“You get too close, you could get back suction,” said José Burgos, a canal pilot who has trained on the small boats. As they passed each other, the stern of one ship flared out toward the bank.

“The most difficult part of the canal is the wind,” said Fernando Jaen, a canal pilot instructor. “The ships that will be used on the expansion are bigger and heavier and that will be challenging.”

The miniaturized ships were built in France and modeled on real ships: the 820-foot Nord Delphinus, a bulk carrier, and the Maersk Edinburgh, a 1,161-foot-long container ship. To simulate the weight of real cargoes, steel plates are stacked aboard the faux ships, and tiny tugs, controlled by remote control, push the models into position. A model of a liquid natural gas (LNG) vessel is scheduled to be delivered to the training center in September.

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