CASTINE, Maine — Standing on “the bridge” of one of Maine Maritime Academy’s new ship simulators, it’s easy to become immersed by the sights and sounds of New York Harbor as skyscrapers and the Statue of Liberty roll by on the 12 “windows” surrounding the helm.
In fact, some people find the experience a bit too immersing.
“If you walk by the room and look in, you will see people swaying back and forth,” said Bryan Hammond, an MMA senior manning the helm during a recent demonstration.
“People really can become seasick,” added Capt. Andy Chase, chairman of the academy’s marine transportation department. “Your feet and your brain are arguing with each other.”
Seasickness may not be an official part of the lesson plan, but the fact that MMA’s $1.5 million state-of-the-art shipping navigation simulator can have that effect on newcomers and even some maritime veterans is a testament to the realism of the academy’s newest teaching tool.
The two main simulators are equipped with 12 flat-screen TVs — each measuring 55 inches — hung to resemble the windows of a ship’s bridge. Those windows offer students a nearly 360-degree view of what they could expect to see from the bridge of whatever type of vessel they are piloting in that particular exercise and in whichever conditions the instructors choose. And instructors have plenty of choices — from rain, fog or snow, to pitch dark in 30-foot seas.
This is MMA’s third-generation simulator and was used by students for the first time during the fall semester. By comparison, the first generation depicted waves as white triangles that moved up and down, Chase said.
“The visual imagery nowadays has come along so far,” Chase said. “And all of the advances in that have come from the gaming industry. It is all driven by the gaming industry.”
While impressive to look at, the simulators’ visuals are arguably of lesser importance to students than the accuracy and complexity of the navigation program, called Transas Navi-Trainer Professional 5000.
Instructors can run all four simulators — two large bridges and two smaller — at the same time within the same program. That enables students to not only see and hear the other vessels in the group but also experience things such as how the wake or pressure waves from one ship will affect the others in a narrow channel. The school was able to add a second main bridge during the recent upgrade.
Students can man the helm of tugboats pushing barges, cargo ships, tankers, even Navy destroyers. The simulator also features training in a newer technology called “dynamic positioning” in which thrusters are used to allow drilling platforms, tankers, cruise ships and other commercial vessels to hover in position much more precisely than is possible with an anchor.
And instructors can choose from roughly 15 high-traffic ports around the globe — from Houston to Hong Kong — that are mapped to exquisite detail in terms of everything from channel depth to buoy placement and other aides to navigation.
Steaming through the simulated New York Harbor, Hammond pointed out that, just beyond the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, there is a Toys R Us on the shore that he has used as an aide to navigation during real trips through the harbor. Plus, the simulator allows students to better understand everything else happening when steaming into a busy harbor, including taking a pilot onboard to guide the ship or working with vessel traffic services.
“I think the specific advantage of that is a lot of us have been to these places,” said Hammond, who is in the academy’s vessel operations technology program. “So being able to go here in the simulator takes what we learned while we were on co-op … and now we are realizing everything else that is going on that we didn’t know about at the time.”
Janice Zenter, spokeswoman for MMA, also pointed out that simulators serve an important role in helping students receive the U.S. Coast Guard certifications they need to work in the maritime industry. While the academy owns a small fleet of boats, including the 500-foot T/S State of Maine, the simulators enable students to learn and make mistakes when they can’t actually be at sea.
“It makes it so that we can actually fit their programs into a four-year period,” Zenter said.
Another advantage of a simulator is that, unlike a real-life situation, the program can be stopped, reviewed and rerun if trainees make mistakes.
Chase also said that no one, to his knowledge, has lost their lunch in the simulator yet because, unlike in an actual ship rocking and rolling in heavy seas, those feeling queasy can simply step out of the room.