Where junior captains learn not to crash

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Emma Teitel
Emma Teitel
Emma Teitel is an award-winning national affairs columnist with the Toronto Star who writes about anything and everything. She got her start at Maclean's Magazine where she wrote frequently about women's issues, LGBT rights, and popular culture.

Once from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf – and back. Who can not pass the Suez Canal accident-free, has a problem-and many others with the same. At the end of March, the container giant Ever Given, lying across the canal, blocked the important waterway for almost a week. And to avoid this, there is a tiny copy of the Suez Canal in the southern French training port of Port Revel. Here, aspiring ship captains learn to steer under the same conditions as those in Egypt on cute mini-freighters. At least almost.

François Mayor, head of the training port: “One small difference is that you can’t simulate sandstorms here. Otherwise, we have strong gusts of wind here, which make you and your boat swing from one side to the other. The temperatures here influence the system. And then there are technical problems like the car: with the transmission, the steering, the engine. Whether Suez canal or another, the special thing about a canal is that you have little space for maneuvers. That’s why you have to be especially focused and prepared for everything.”

Navigating through this waterway model is meant to prepare for the most difficult moments of global shipping – like the real Suez Canal, which is 25 times the size of its replica here at the western foothills of the French Alps.

François Mayor, head of the training port: “What is special is that the water depth, the shore and the shape of the canal correspond exactly to the actual historic canal before its expansion in 2015. So, the trainees learn under very realistic conditions. They work here in ordinary situations and those of danger, where we take away from them a few technical aids.”

During the training, the teachers simulate steering problems and engine failures to see how the apprentices react. There is also a tiny San Francisco Bay and an imitation of Port Arthur in Texas. The budding waterway cruisers learn here the docking and steering of cruise ships and tankers in narrow ports. Underwater turbines imitate currents and waves.

François Mayor, head of the training port: “After every accident of this kind, new customers come to us. The economic effects have convinced them that the training is worthwhile. Practicing here in Port Revel costs almost nothing compared to the blockade of such a ship for just one day.”

The value of goods passing through the Suez Canal on a daily basis was estimated at around eight billion euros. And that’s not enough. After its liberation by salvage teams, the Ever Given drove independently into the Great Bittersee, which lies on about a third of the way from south to north. But although it is seaworthy, the Egyptians put the ship on the chain. They are now demanding damages of around 900 million euros from the owner.

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