Cal Maritime simulators train tugboat captains alongside harbor pilots


A classic scene from a World War II movie about a naval battle in the South Pacific or North Atlantic will show admirals and others shifting around models of their fleet and the enemy’s fleet on a scaled-down simulation of the area involved. Longtime Long Beach/Los Angeles Jacobsen pilot Capt. Vic Schisler uses similar wooden models on a vertical white board to illustrate piloting and ship handling with tugs. 

His models are built at a scale of 1 inch to 80 feet. With a range of ship types from bulker to LNG tanker to containership, he can demonstrate the position and their turning moment to a group of students. One of the models has a wire running from stem to stern, which allows him to show the ship’s pivot point by sliding the bead fore or aft. The model ships offer a simple, but effective, simulation of reality.

Schisler recently retired from a career that began with his graduation from Kings Point 50 years ago and moved through docking master in San Francisco among other maritime experience. He began helping on the simulator program at the California Maritime Academy in 2010 and became director in 2012. Prior to 2010 he had worked 40 years as a Long Beach pilot, a period of time that included the transition from single-screw assist tugs to twin-screw, azimuthing stern drive (ASD) and Voith Schneider technologies. The progression from conventional propellers to azimuthing and Voith drives led to communication issues between pilots and tug operators. Schisler helped develop standardized communications between pilots and tugs that took these various technologies into account.

Communication in a maritime environment is a passion for Schisler. He is equally passionate about the need for appropriate training not only for new people in the industry, but also as refresher and upgrade work for those with years of experience as tug captains and pilots.

A simulation of two z-drive tugs working in tandem pulling a ship to starboard.

As director of the simulator program at Cal Maritime for Sponsored Projects and Extended Learning (SPEL), Schisler has some pretty spectacular equipment with which to indulge his passion. A nearly new facility on the shore of San Francisco Bay, just west of the Carquinez Bridge, contains three bridge simulators and eight single-purpose stations driven by Transas simulator software. These are primarily tasked with teaching cadets under several dedicated instructors. The school’s training ship Golden Bear has had a simulated ship’s bridge added behind the main bridge for the use of students when at the home berth and when underway during their summer cruise.

Working around the cadets’ class schedules, Schisler is charged with providing programming for working mariners who return for a variety of two- to 10-day courses. “Over the past year, participation in these programs has been about equally split between tanker companies and pilots,” Schisler explained. “I hope to see more participation from tug companies in the future.”

He recently had a query from a towboat company on the Mississippi that would be getting a z-drive tug and was interested in training. In most cases, a training request such as this will result in a course tailored to the specific requirements of the group. Another set of users are lightering pilots and mooring masters from Southern California and Hawaii. In this instance, a 1,090-foot tanker is set up with Yokohama fenders and a 950-foot lightering ship is brought alongside.

The Bridge No. 1 simulator, acting as a lightering ship, can be brought alongside the larger ship. The simulator operator, working from a separate location, can then add variables for the lightering pilot to cope with. For example, if higher wind forces are added, the ships may be required to adjust their headings into the weather in unison, or different emergency situations can be introduced.

Each simulated vessel exists as a programmed object that as nearly as possible replicates the actual ship’s size and handling characteristics. Like the simulators, the models are designed and supplied by St. Petersburg, Russia-based Transas Marine International. Cal Maritime now has about 75 models on file for use in the simulator. These range from a single-screw tug to a 126-foot Crowley 5000 Voith-drive tug and on up through a comprehensive range of models of real ships to the 14,000-teu MSC Beatrice that Transas developed in cooperation with the ship’s naval architects.

“We excel in pilot training and bridge resource management,” Schisler said. “But now we are also building a program with Homeland Security and Golden Gate Ferry for the ferry boats in San Francisco Bay. It will include crowd control and emergency situations such as hitting a submerged object.”

A forward view of a Cal Maritime bridge simulator. The academy has developed a program that has pilots and tug captains conducting simulation exercises together.

One of the largest simulator firms in the world, Transas Marine has worked with Cal Maritime on all of its hardware as well as the programs. All of the simulators, along with briefing and debriefing rooms, are located in the spectacular glass-fronted building overlooking San Pablo Bay. Two simulators are in circular two-story-high copper-clad spaces. After entering and closing the door, a continuous projection screen surrounds the actual simulator bridge deck. Simulator No. 1 has an elevated deck with most of the equipment of a typical ship’s bridge. More than 20 PCs are teamed to operate the 360-degreee projection, radar and ECDIS display. With 15 of these projectors located below the elevated deck, the effect of being on an elevated ship’s bridge is further enhanced by a pair of 60-inch digital flat-screen monitors mounted out from the bottom of the port and starboard bridge windows, so that the trainee can look down and see a dock or another ship that they are maneuvering alongside.

Depending on the program, the ship can be anything from a Panamax bulker to a 1,200-foot-long containership. A growing library with a variety of ports or lightering simulations  is available. A pilot plug is provided so that a trainee can plug in his or her actual portable pilot unit (PPU) for the exercise. A binocular view of apparently distant objects can be achieved with a knob on the dash. From a separate booth, the instructor can conjure up wind, heavy seas, tide, rain, snow, fog or clouds, as well as adjust for day and night navigation.

In a recent training session for Chevron pilots, tug captains were brought in. The ship pilot would work on one simulator while the tug operator was on a separate but linked simulator. They then worked the ship with the usual voice commands over the radio and could see each other’s vessels projected on their respective screens.

Simulator No. 2 is located in the other two-story-high, copper-clad surround-screen space. Here the bridge deck is low and the projectors are located on the roof. When simulating a shiphandling tug, it is possible to look up to the hull of the ship. 

“This is a place where we can use three-dimensional projections to good effect if the tug is right under the bow of a ship,” Schisler explained. “But when you are showing the ship or an object any distance away, 3-D has limited value.”

Schisler uses wooden scale models on a vertical board to teach his academy students concepts including the vessels’ turning moments and pivot points.

The controls on the dash can be changed to replicate a twin-screw, ASD or Voith tug propulsion system. Additional software has been added together with a Navis Engineering system for dynamic positioning to an offshore supply vessel. However the system and curriculum have not yet been certified. This can be done by either the Nautical Institute or Det Norske Veritas. “First they certify our hardware, curriculum and then our graduates,” Schisler said. “We want to certify all cadets to basic level one and the potential to upgrade to DP-2. In time we hope to add DP-3 training capability.”

Another training option that is in demand by pilots is the e-pilot system. It is a set of navigation electronics and digital charts that is carried on board a ship by a second pilot. This is to ensure that very precise electronic position, heading, speed and other information can be made available to the lead pilot. California pilot groups have availed themselves of this training.

Schisler sees his job as promoting and responding to the training needs of industry and operating ship pilots. He stresses that the facility’s primary function is to serve the cadets at Cal Maritime, which is the only degree-granting maritime academy on the Pacific Coast.

“When I was a pilot, I liked to spend time with the tug operators to see shiphandling from their perspective,” he said. “Here with the simulators we can react to demand and let tug or shiphandlers experience a wide variety of situations at a reasonable cost. With an electronic simulator, if you break a line it is only a simulated line. If you have a grounding, it is not a disaster, it is a teaching moment.”

By Professional Mariner Staff