Simulated crises handled

School: At the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies in Linthicum, mariners upgrade ship-handling skills on simulators.

May 06, 2002|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

Kim Krueger's usual job is to perform routine deck maintenance and stand watch. An able-bodied seaman, Krueger only occasionally works inside the wheelhouse of the ChevronTexaco Corp. tanker she sails aboard.

But last week the Jacksonville, Fla., resident found herself in command of a cargo ship being hit by thunderstorms and snow in the waters off Hong Kong.

"Hard right rudder, please," Krueger called out to her helmsman as the crew began the first of a series of maneuvers.

The ship, loaded with liquid natural gas, made a wide turn as Krueger peered at a bank of electronic displays detailing the vessel's heading and position. "You've got 337 at 3.1," she said to her two navigators, who studied a table of charts.

The circular maneuver took less than 15 minutes and would have been unremarkable, except that the four-person bridge crew never left dry land. The whole exercise was conducted in a ship simulator at the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies in Linthicum.

The MITAGS ship simulator recently underwent a nearly $3 million upgrade in software and equipment, making it one of the most sophisticated in the world. It is one of two simulators the institute operates. The other uses older equipment and less realistic graphics.

The new technology is one of the reasons mariners from throughout the United States and around the world come to Maryland to upgrade their ship-handling skills.

It's all part of a lifelong learning process that is becoming increasingly important as the international maritime community adopts new minimum training standards that cover everything from ship handling and management to first aid and firefighting. MITAGS offers courses in all of the above.

Proponents say the training is essential to keeping the nation's waterways safe while ensuring that American mariners are worth their wages, which are higher than those paid in most other countries.

"If I'm going to test somebody's competency in ship handling, there's really only two ways to do it," said Glen Paine, MITAG's executive director. "Go buy a ship, which is very expensive, especially if you screw it up, or you go to electronic simulation."

Electronic simulation has never been so realistic. Through the windows of the institute's mock bridge, mariners see seas churning below as the ship approaches Hong Kong, one of 17 ports and waterways programmed into the simulator.

The vessel passes skyscrapers and piers positioned just as they would appear from the deck of a ship. The images are compiled using digital photos of the port coupled with satellite data pinpointing the precise location of each.

In a separate control room filled with computers, an instructor can program in oncoming vessels, wind, currents, fog, rain, snow, turbulent seas, icebergs or floating debris.

Complex mathematical models tell the ship simulator how to react under each new condition. For example, the ship will respond differently depending on whether it is in shallow or deep water, or experiencing strong currents and stiff winds.

Even motion is simulated. Though the bridge remains stationary, the digital images projected in front of and behind the simulator make movement feel real. The effect is especially pronounced when heavy seas are part of the program.

"We can make you seasick with this," said Capt. Craig Thomas, business development consultant for MITAGS.

The bridge sits above the ground on hydraulic arms in the middle of a cavernous room that resembles an IMAX theater. Images are projected onto 40-foot-high white screens that surround the simulator, giving bridge officers a 360-degree view as they make their voyage.

Inside, the bridge looks just like the real thing. The equipment includes electronic displays and controls similar to those officers would encounter on the newest, most technologically advanced cargo ships.

Paine said the design was meant to replicate the bridge of Polar Tanker Inc.'s new Millennium Class tankers, which are used to haul oil from Alaska to the West Coast. The carrier is a key sponsor of the MITAGS program and will send its officers to the institute for training.

"This is very impressive," Krueger said after completing her exercises. "Just watching the gauges and the radars, she definitely feels like a ship."

MITAGS is run by the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots, a union representing deck officers. Tuition is free for members of the union. The school is financed mostly by the shipping lines that employ union labor.

The institute issues about 6,000 training certificates a year in everything from safety procedures to bridge management. Because classes are small, only a few hundred can take ship-simulator courses annually.

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