Reverse Engines! Virtual Land Ahead!

What's it take to pilot a floating city? Our man reports from the (simulated) bridge.

by PhotoSpin

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.

Suddenly the visibility drops to almost nothing. Now what? Oh, good, it’s become a moonlit night with a
dazzling New York skyline (and yes, the Twin Towers are gone). And now a bright sunshiny day again. The simulator can reproduce everything but physical motion beneath your feet, though after an hour or two of watching the world bobbing, pitching, and rolling everywhere you look, you actually begin to feel your sea legs.

Inside the bridge are two bright radar displays, one the standard rotating-beam, phosphorescent analog screen and the other a color digital display with our future track generated across the harbor. (We’ll soon take out the Hoboken railroad station if we don’t change course.) Two data screens display dozens of parameters of the ship’s speed, powerplant settings, loading, trim, position, nav frequencies, and, for all I can tell, Broadway ticket prices and availability. The fifth panel is a moving map, a perfect digital replica of a classic hydrographic chart, the yellow landmass featureless but the sea stippled with soundings, buoys, and beacons.

Voyager-class bridges have two comfortable chairs, for the bridge officer and the conning officer, and gone is the avast-me-hearties helmsman heaving at a wheel while watching the compass repeater that I’d stared at for endless hours. Course commands are typed and punched into a humming auto-pilot, and even during close-in docking and maneuvering, a conning officer’s palm on the throttling-and-vectoring control does it all.

Mariners come to STAR to train because technology continually ad-vances, and they need to keep up. One of the most important recent advances is podded propulsion.

Typically, big ships have anywhere from one to four screws in the stern driven by engines amidships through long shafts. The ship ponderously changes direction in response to rudders flapping and screws pushing forward or pulling aft in a variety of combinations, plus the help of bow thrusters that are essentially sideways screws. Now, however, some of the most modern vessels have done away entirely with rudders and fixed screws and instead have propulsion units that are huge versions of the bottom end of an outboard motor, driven by vertical shafts direct from the engines. They rotate 360 degrees, put out enormous power, and do all the steering as well. But they require brand-new ship-handling techniques, some of them the exact opposite of what a conventional ship requires. A cruise ship, for example, can go from full ahead to dead in the water in several lengths of its own hull and then immediately begin to back up.

On a wall of one of STAR’s many corridors-there are a number of bridge simulators plus several huge engine-room sims and cargo-unloading trainers, which can be linked together in a huge multi-sim, make-believe ship-there’s a poster that says, “If you think training’s expensive, try an accident.” The aerial photo is of two ships well and truly stuck into each other. Airline pilots train on simulators to keep their passengers alive. Mariners do it to keep their companies afloat. For the true cost of marine accidents is not lives lost in a quick fireball, but endless environmental impact, particularly if the misstep takes place close inshore, as it well might with an island-hopping cruise ship.

The total loss of a liner, which is wildly unlikely, might cost from $200 million to $500 million. The simple holing of a tanker like the huge Sea River Mediterranean, whose photo is on another wall nearby, can cost billions.

In fact, it did. The Med used to bear the name Exxon Valdez.