Mississippi River pilots add to realism of simulator training

Capt. Christopher Johnson, a ship pilot, was guiding the 952-foot Carnival Conquest up the Mississippi River in fog that limited visibility to less than half a mile. His radar showed that he was coming up on a tug and its tow, also headed upriver.

Capt. Richard Beadon, an instructor at MITAGS, in the simulator control room. He set up the scenarios to which the trainees had to react.
   Image Credit: John Gormley

As the cruise ship approached the Belle Chasse anchorage, Johnson called the captain of the towboat to arrange a passing maneuver “on two whistles.�

As Conquest bore down on the tug and tow just to starboard, an anchored ship became visible off the port bow. Then, complicating an already delicate situation, a cruise ship headed downriver showed up on the radar. Emerging from the fog, the cruise ship slipped through the space between Conquest and the anchored ship along the west bank.

If Johnson was at all fazed by the experience of four vessels squeezing by each other at almost the same point in the river, he did not betray it in his voice or his demeanor. Instead, he calmly turned to discuss the next potential hazard on the foggy river with Conquest’s master, Capt. Domenico Tringale, who stood a few feet away on the bridge at the ship’s propulsions controls.

The ship was now approaching the Belle Chasse ferry crossing. “Captain,� Johnson said to Tringale, “when we get to the ferry crossing, we’ll reduce speed to 10 knots.�

While the fog and heavy traffic on the river all seemed real enough, in fact they were the creation of the bridge simulator at the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies (MITAGS) outside Baltimore. Johnson and Tringale were there for a weeklong course in bridge resource management. What set the training apart was not so much the complexity of the situations, but the presence of both Johnson, a pilot, and Tringale, a cruise ship bridge officer.

Johnson belongs to the Crescent River Port Pilots Association, the group that guides ships along the lower Mississippi as far north as the Port of New Orleans. Tringale is Carnival’s senior port captain. The Crescent River Pilots wanted to find a way to make their training more realistic, more representative of the ways things actually occur on the bridge of a ship. One way to do that, they decided, would be to invite cruise ship captains to participate with the pilots in their simulator training. That way the training could replicate the kind of interchanges that occur between the pilot and the bridge crew during an actual pilotage. Six Crescent River Pilots took part along with three Carnival captains.

Carnival became the first cruise line to participate in the joint training with the pilots at MITAGS. Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean are expected to take part in future joint training sessions with the pilots.

The combination of pilots and ship’s officers for simulator training is unusual, perhaps even unique, according to the participants. Walter Megonigal, MITAG’s director of training, said he thinks the combined training reflects the growing acceptance of change by a tradition-bound industry. Some of those changes are driven by technology, which in turn is creating an increased awareness of the importance of cooperation and communication.

“Technology coming onto the bridge forced people to realize the times are changing,� Megonigal said. “I call it integrated training. Maybe it’s just the evolutionary outcome of an industry that’s changing.�

Capt. Daniel E. Hoobler, the chairman of continuing education for the Crescent River Pilots, said the motivation is to improve safety while providing good customer service to their cruise ship customers. “The whole purpose is to get the bridge team on the same page,� Hoobler said.

The risks of navigating the Mississippi are considerable given the currents, bends, traffic congestion and difficult weather. “It’s the most dangerous river in the U.S.,� Hoobler said. “It can be touchy; it can be stressful.�

To promote better communication and understanding between the pilots and the bridge crews, the training included some role reversals in which the pilots took the part of the ship’s bridge crew and the crew acted as pilot. The idea, Hoobler said, was “to help you understand what their problems are and to help them understand yours.�

While safety concerns are paramount, economics also play a role. Before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans last year, cruise ships represented the fastest growing shipping sector in the port. “We were on track to hit one million passengers,� Hoobler said.

The pilots want to see that business return. In fact, Carnival is planning to resume cruises out of New Orleans this fall.

“It’s important to the port of New Orleans,� Johnson said. And the traffic is beginning to return, albeit gradually. “It’s going to be a domino effect,� he said. “Cruise ships, hotels, airport flight.�

By Professional Mariner Staff