Ship-handling isn't what it used to be. When I was a seaman aboard already ancient Liberty and Victory ships under a variety of flags ages ago, they were 10,000-plus tons of barely controllable iron: steam-powered floating ingots with polyglot half-wits manning the helm. Sometimes, to give you a measure of the situation, you might even find me steering, a 19-year-old who barely knew a hawser from a hoser.
Pushing up the Mississippi in 1957 toward New Orleans to pick up a cargo of Catholic Relief rice bound for Vietnam-talk about your coals to Newcastle-something went wicked wrong as we approached an open drawbridge, and amid bullhorn shrieks from our Greek captain, the bosun dropped the anchor in a rattle of chain and sparks. It was the only thing we had to stop us, but not before we rammed the bridge and dragged loose an underground powerline. It happened to be rush hour, and we spent the remains of the day under the gaze of thousands of parked Cajuns who weren't going anywhere. And when they did get home, they found the electricity was out, courtesy of us.
At STAR Center, in Dania Beach, Florida, they train merchant marine officers who conn ships a magnitude and more bigger than those scrofulous tramps, and they do much of that training with enormously sophisticated simulators-the maritime equivalent of the more famous flight simulators that airlines use. Which makes sense, because a modern ship's bridge is basically a floating glass cockpit with the same kinds of digital displays, joysticks, and power levers that you see when you peek through the door of a 777 on your way to seat 96G.
The pride of STAR (it stands for Simulation, Training, Assessment, and Research) is a dead-nuts accurate replica of the bridge of a typical sophisticated, powerful, maneuverable 21st-century ship. The sim can be configured to handle exactly like anything from a supertanker to a floating-megahotel cruise ship, with a view out the windows to match-360 degrees of computer-generated visuals projected on an enormous screen that entirely surrounds the virtual ship. Software creates the hydrodynamics that make the vessel respond to winds, currents, waves, decreasing keel-to-bottom distances, channel backwash, and all the other factors that act against a huge hull.
STAR has set the simulator up for me to make believe I am aboard a 142,000-ton Royal Caribbean Voyager-class cruiseliner inbound to New York. After the Verrazano Narrows Bridge sweeps slowly overhead, an orange-and-white Coast Guard Dolphin helo curves in across the port bow waiting to drop an inspection team. There's an outbound ship directly to port, two tankers ahead, and a couple of pesky yachts to starboard, pitching as the whitecaps grow in response to somebody downstairs keying commands into the simulator system.