Training at Port Revel
The Shiphandling Training Centre

Françoise Massard

With maritime safety being a current topic for discussion, and the responsibility of captains and pilots constantly increasing as ships become bigger and bigger, I felt it was important that I should visit France’s centre for training bridge officers in crisis management. I am referring, of course, to the Port Revel Shiphandling Training Centre. I spent a fantastic week there, from 23 to 28 July 2006, along with six students (four pilots and two captains) from America, Australia and Russia (the only common language during both sessions and free time was that of the maritime world: English).
Many thanks to
Arthur de Graauw, manager of Port Revel, Jean-François Masson, Michel Sabatier and Michel Vallette, our instructors, and all the staff at the Centre.

General background to the course

Since the course was to take place from Monday morning to Friday evening, we all met up on the Sunday evening at the hotel that is frequently invaded by Port Revel students: the Hostellerie de Chambaran (former Hotel Bonnoît) in Viriville (Isère, France), about 15 km from Port Revel.

An aperitif followed by a friendly dinner gave us the opportunity to get to know each other: both our fellow students and our two instructors, who came to join us: Jean-François Masson (a former pilot from Brest) and Michel Sabatier (a former pilot from Sète). After the usual introductions the conversation quickly turned to… ships and harbours! Surprise, surprise...

Instructors and students (and one student’s family) get to know each other

The evening is in full swing, but we are going to have to get some rest as the “watches” to come will be long and the days will be action-packed and quite stressful ... even though the course is also meant to be fun. A minibus from the Centre picks up the students at the hotel at 7.30 each morning, so that they are ready to start at 8.00 sharp.

The minibus patiently waiting for
the students at the hotel …
… to take them to the headquarters
of Port Revel, a former
hunting lodge
A quick tour of the Centre, not forgetting the cloakroom where
we are all kitted out with the indispensable hats
Everyone listens carefully as the instructor presents the port,
the model ships, etc.

A typical day begins with an hour and a half of theory and briefing on the exercises to be carried out on the lake, and around 9.30 it’s all aboard for the practical sessions. After three hours of navigating it is time for a friendly lunch shared with the rest of the Port Revel staff, and for the students (and the instructors!) to recover from their voyage taking in Cape Horn, the Suez Canal, the Manhattan channel, etc. We soon forget that we are on a lake in the middle of a huge forest on the Chambaran plateau in the foothills of the Dauphiné Alps, half-way between Lyons and Grenoble!

At lunchtime, the classroom turns into a friendly dining room where lunch is served and discussion topics range from maritime facts and figures to places to visit in the area ...

Straight after coffee it’s back to the lake for three and a half hours of navigation and debriefing (a classroom discussion of the day’s exercises with the instructors), and then back to the hotel around 6.30 pm. Some take a rest, while others go for a dip in the pool (or enjoy a drink by the fire, depending on the time of year), before everyone meets up for dinner and then gets a good night’s sleep to recover from an exciting day!

But before taking a closer look at the lake and its facilities, here is a short description of how the Centre came into being.

The birth of Port Revel

And, first, of SOGREAH...

Hydraulic engineering has been a major activity in the Grenoble region for almost a century. In 1917, Ateliers Neyret, Beylier et Piccard-Pictet created the Service d'Essais et de Recherches Hydrauliques which, in 1923, became the Laboratoire Dauphinois d'Hydraulique - Neyrpic, one of the world’s first laboratories to use the scale model technique. The technique was first applied in the early 1920s to hydraulic machines and then, in 1925, to hydroelectric schemes, while the first "miniature" maritime studies were performed in the 1930s. SOGREAH (Société Grenobloise d'Études et d'Applications Hydrauliques) was founded in 1955, taking over the activities of the former Laboratoire Dauphinois d'Hydraulique. In 1991, Sogreah Consulting Engineers expanded by joining forces with the LCHF (Laboratoire Central d'Hydraulique de France), created in 1946, to become the present-day SOGREAH Consultants. After remaining part of the Alsthom and Alcatel industrial group for many years, Sogreah became completely independent in 1998 following a management buy-out. The group now has a workforce of 800 spread throughout France (in some 30 offices) and abroad (with some twenty subsidiaries), generating 35% of its turnover on international markets.

Some of Sogreah’s recent maritime engineering projects: working designs for the breakwaters of Port 2000 (Le Havre), the hydro-sedimentary impact of this port on the Seine estuary, and the navigability study of barges transporting sections of the Airbus A380, the Pauillac terminal and the Langon lock near Bordeaux, and many projects abroad including the new Ras Laffan extension.

Creation of Port Revel

Aerial photo of Revel Lake
(photo: Port Revel, 1991)
Map of Port Revel
(photo: Port Revel, 2000)

Lake partially dried out, on Sogreah Bay side
(photo: Port Revel)

Sogreah thus has a long history of working in the field of scale models and numerical simulation applied to the maritime and rivers sector. Its mottos include “the cost of a scale model is generally just a small part of the savings that it brings about”, and “a scale model makes a project safe”.

So it seemed entirely natural that the owner of the Suez Canal should appoint Sogreah in 1958 to study the problems associated with the handling and behaviour of its largest tankers in the new bends of the Suez Canal, which had just been widened and remodelled. So tests were performed using a 1:40 scale model, the PEMBROKE, piloted by one person on-board on a portion of scale-model canal 200 m long by 7 m wide.

The PEMBROKE in the " Suez Canal"
modelled at Sogreah’s Laboratory
(photo: Sogreah, 1960)

The same PEMBROKE, renamed KIEL for a study
of erosion on the banks of the Kiel Canal
(photo: Sogreah, 1965)

The PEMBROKE during tests performed to convince Esso
to launch Port Revel
(Photo: Sogreah, 1966)

Since the laboratory tests were conclusive, the American company ESSO - at that time owner of a large fleet of oil tankers - appointed Sogreah a few years later to design and build a shiphandling training centre for the captains of its future supertankers, the VLCC (Very Large Crude Carriers, 200 to 300 000 t), using large model ships capable of carrying their pilots on-board. The site selected by Sogreah in 1966 was a small lake at Revel, near Saint-Pierre de Bressieux in the Isère department. It was dried out and reshaped in order to recreate real navigating conditions (areas of different depths, confined waters, etc., with the depths and widths obviously at the same scale as those of the model ships).

Revel lake is partially emptied…
… and the works to reshape the bed
and banks begin (December 1966)
The contract binding Esso and Sogreah (for 3 years)
is signed on 9 March 1967
June 1967: Revel lake is ready
3 July 1967: the Port Revel opening ceremony
(Photos Sogreah)

Thus was born Port Revel, owned at that time by ESSO. The company sent around 350 of its captains and officers there between 1967 and 1969, and then sold the Centre to Sogreah in 1970 (no money was exchanged, but the centre provided free training for a few years).

Click on the photos to enlarge them

Translation by Suzanne Bréant – Sumner English Translation Services

Centre de Port Revel 38870 Saint-Pierre de Bressieux (France) –
Tél. 33 (0)4 74 20 02 40 – Fax 33 (0)4 74 20 12 29 –


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