ship wheel

Recently my wife and I rode in the Cape Cod Getaway, a 150-mile fundraiser for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. After the first day of riding, the 2,000+ cyclists stayed overnight at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, an 1100-student state college with such programs as Environmental Science, Marine Safety, Maritime Transportation, International Maritime Business, and Engineering. My wife is an official in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM), and so the Academy was eager to show her its new Library of the Sea, which includes a $2 million simulator of a ship’s bridge that is wicked cool.

Bridge simulator

The simulator is on the top floor of the library in a circular room that’s about 25 feet across. Onto the circular walls they can project a nearly 360-degree view of entering any of 60 different ports around the world; they can also recreate a specific scenario such as the site of the recent Costa Concordia sinking. The bridge itself is a full-size recreation of a ship’s bridge with electronic charts, sonar and radar, and the helm. Right in the middle of it, as if from the 18th century, is a tool for taking visual bearings.

The instructors in control of the simulator can instantly change almost anything:  time of day and year, weather, conditions of the seas; as we entered New York harbor, they simulated a grounded boat with an oil slick ablaze to avoid. It’s really stunning how, even though the bridge does not physically move, you feel as if the boat is rocking when they project high waves. When I left the simulator I even had that feeling of the rocking of the boat continuing, and it took me a few minutes to get my land legs fully back.

Of course this is a great recruiting tool for the school, and Capt. Francis McDonald, the school’s vice president for operations who was giving the tour, said that they include it in all prospective student tours. But more importantly it’s a terrific educational tool. Students do four-hour shifts on the simulator and, Capt. McDonald said, “They come out sweating.” There’s no other way that they could affordably offer that amount of near real-world training.

This is an outstanding use of computer technology, and as computers get even more powerful and graphics sharper, it will only get more realistic. And it’s applicable to other fields. For example, The New York Times recently reported that drivers ed simulators now show the, literal, impact of texting while driving.


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