ship simulator underway



Professional boat captains experience handling of mega-ships with virtual simulator facility at Marine Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies [Video]

As a licensed Captain, I have chosen to join the Chesapeake Area Professional Captain’s Association (CAPCA). Part of CAPCA’s mission is promoting the professional development of our members.

Towards that end, there are courses, seminars, and tours scheduled for the benefit of its members and sometimes the public. One such tour was of the ship simulators at the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies (MITAGS) to challenge our skills… and just have fun!



The MITAGS Institute

The Marine Institute offers a wide range of classes from entry level Seaman AB qualifications to upgrades to officer grades and endorsements like STCW and Radar Observer. There are also courses in leadership, management, weather, and ship handling.

It was the ship handling aspect of the curriculum that was the focus of our tour.

The Simulators

There are two full simulators at the facility. One is intended to represent the bridge of large vessels like cruise ships and container ships.  The other is designed to resemble tug boat pilot houses.

simulator bridge cab
The bridge cab as seen from the floor

Prior to my visit to the facility, I was imagining a full motion simulator like the type used to train pilots.  However, the MITAGS simulators are static and the sense of motion and orientation is conveyed entirely through video projected on the 360-degree screen that surrounds the simulated pilot houses.

Do NOT underestimate the effects of this kind of simulation!  Part of our initial briefing include directions on dealing with motion distress.  A number of the CAPCA members where holding on to rails as if the deck of the bridge was really at the 30-plus degree angle indicated by the video.  The effect was quite real!

Instructors monitor the simulators from a common control room below the simulators.  They can select the type of vessel, the area or port to be navigated, and the weather conditions. Instructors can also randomly inject various “obstacles” into the scene.  My group had to deal with mines, fog, snow, icebergs, offshore platforms, and even people in the water.

Simulator control room
Simulator control room

For our “entertainment”, the tour guide instructor made an oil derrick and a landmine in Baltimore harbor.

If you look carefully at the photos here, you can see that the simulator bridge controls are very much like real vessels.

Ship simulator panel
View of panel including RADAR, azipod controls, bow and stern thrusters, and engine panel

There is radar and chartplotters with AIS which shows real-time data that matches the current simulation.  There are throttles for twin screws and controls for azipods. The azipods were not available in the two simulations we experienced.

ship simulator radar
RADAR showing our vessel outbound from Government Cut

Various displays showed longitudinal speed and heading as well as lateral speed of the bow and stern separately. There was also rudder angle, heel angle and throttle level available as well.

The Experience

The sense of motion that we experienced was quite intense, particularly heel angles.  Both in turns and waves, we “felt” the pitch and yaw quite realistically. It has been said that students at the institute have become physically ill during the simulations.

ship simulator underway
View of the passing situation developing

The sense of speed was somewhat suppressed I thought.  For me, the absence of air rushing past the bridge wings and vibrations in the deck somewhat detracted from the sense of motion. Or perhaps the issue was more that the rest of the simulation was so real that missing those aforementioned aspects was just unbelievable!

The crew did well getting the Disney Dream cruise ship (~800 feet long) off the dock in Miami, out Government Cut, and into the Atlantic Ocean…WITH the effects of the Gulf Stream current.  There was even a passing situation in the narrow ship channel.

We were told that this simulator is used by actual cruise ship captains to brush up on their skills or to prepare to enter a new port.

simulator at bridge helm
CAPCA members on the “bridge”

I got my turn at the helm of a 100’ patrol boat leaving Baltimore harbor.  The steering on the simulator was at most 1 foot in diameter and there was no mechanical feedback (resistance) but the steering amid the various ships and obstacles (snow, iceberg, fog, landmines, and oil tower) was responsive and about what one might expect in real boat.

While so fully immersed in the simulation, there is no time for the mind to convince you that this is not real.  Your body leans and your finger grip the controls all the tighter!

Video of Ship Simulator

Here’s a quick video of the simular in action:

Final Thoughts

It was exciting to get to play on the bridge of larger ships albeit in a simulator.  My fellow captains and I were able to reasonably manage ships larger than many of us have ever piloted.  It is good to know that the ladies and gentlemen who drive the big steel do practice and develop their skills in this way.  Given the opportunity, I would do this tour again!

Please note that CAPCA does offer educational opportunities for non-members as well.  Check out the website at https://www.capca.net for more information.

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Capt. Rob is an engineer and owner & operator of Chesapeake Flotillas offering charters, instruction, and vessel relocation. A USCG Licensed Master, Capt. Rob has planned and executed flotilla cruises all over the Chesapeake Bay, Europe, and the Caribbean. Rob holds a 200-Ton Master's license with Auxiliary Sail and Assistance Towing endorsements. He also is certified by the American Sailing Association to teach Basic Keelboat Sailing, Basic Coastal Cruising, and Bareboat Chartering. A self-proclaimed sailor & poet, he operates a 41-foot sloop Bay Poet based out of Rock Hall, MD.

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