Simulator training can be a good alternative to onboard experience

It was a busy morning on the bridge as we were departing Norfolk, Va., bound for sea. I was the helmsman as we transited the Elizabeth River channel. Slowing to allow a departing containership to go ahead of us, we met the first of three inbound ships waiting for our ship to go by. As we were proceeding north past Naval Station Norfolk, all of a sudden heading out fast from Willoughby Bay was a tug — and it was on a collision course! At the same time, the outbound containership ahead of us announced on the VHF radio that it had lost power, and by the Rules of the Road was now “not under command.” We had to keep out of its way, but with the tug closing in on our starboard side and the inbound ships on our port side, our maneuvering options were limited. The captain ordered “dead slow ahead,” told the chief mate on the bow to stand by the anchors and blew the danger signal on the ship’s whistle in hopes of getting the tug’s attention.

Thankfully, someone from the tug finally answered the VHF radio, and a second later the boat veered astern of us. We all breathed a sigh of relief as we maneuvered around the stricken containership safely. Then the lights came on, and the Port of Norfolk faded away…

I was impressed by how realistic the projections were at the Maritime Simulation Institute, formerly known as Marine Safety International, a top-notch facility near Newport, R.I., where I took a couple of classes in January 2009. The bridge simulator was laid out like the wheelhouse of many ships I’ve sailed on, complete with automatic radar plotting aids, radar, helm, and VHF radios. I was tested with two other deck officers at the same time, trading positions as mate, master, and helmsman as the exercise progressed. Two instructors, including our teacher Capt. Rick Comeau, monitored our actions from a room adjacent to the simulator, and acted as the watch officers on the other vessels we encountered during the exercise.

There are many types of maritime simulators. I know engineers who have trained on diesel simulators, and my first experience was on a tanker simulator at California Maritime Academy in the 1980s. It was laid out like the cargo control room of a tanker, with simulated hydraulically operated valves and gauges to monitor the virtual cargo in the tanks. I saw “mistakes” made which would have resulted in oil spills in real life, and once got a 6° list on the ship when I failed to monitor the cargo in two wing tanks correctly. A few years later when I was loading cargo for real on a 900-foot crude oil carrier, I felt far more comfortable having trained on the simulator at school, and was able to avoid making the mistakes I did during the class on the job.

I think that thoughtfully developed simulator exercises, done under close supervision with rigid performance standards, are in many ways as useful as training conducted onboard a vessel. A study by the Japan Institute of Navigation several years ago concluded that simulator training can be used as an effective complement to real-world maritime experience. Recently, the head of the Hong Kong Shipowners Association, Peter Cremers, went one step further by publicly advocating mandatory simulator testing before a mariner is allowed to sail as master of a ship. Both the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and U.S. Coast Guard allow simulator training to replace a limited amount of the sea time required for some merchant marine documents, licenses and endorsements. I think that these allowances are often too narrow in scope and could be broadened.

To work as an officer on a tanker, a TPIC (tanker person in charge) endorsement is necessary. This training requires participating in the loading and unloading of petroleum cargoes — experience that under current regulations must be gained on board. There are far fewer U.S. flag tankers operating today than when I started sailing in the early 1980s, so shipboard opportunities for TPIC training are becoming increasingly limited. As a result, there are cadets at the maritime academies who want a TPIC qualification, but will graduate without one. Allowing the use of simulator training to replace some of the required onboard cargo transfers would reduce the amount of shipboard experience needed, giving more mariners the chance to get their real-world tanker training on board.

For established merchant mariners, simulator training could take the place of onboard testing for more of the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) assessments. One possibility I see would be for the Rating Forming Part of a Navigational Watch (RFPNW) certification, an endorsement necessary to be an unlicensed watch stander on oceangoing ships of over 500 gross tons. This involves assessments like following steering orders, keeping a proper lookout and knowledge of emergency procedures. As it stands now, a mariner cannot obtain a RFPNW endorsement without having completed certain onboard assessments on ships or boats operating on ocean or near-coastal routes. This rule has adversely affected thousands of professional mariners working on inland waters and/or the Great Lakes who want or need to work on commercial vessels offshore.

Richard, a friend of mine who got laid off from his job as an able seaman on the Great Lakes, recently moved his family to the Seattle area looking for work. When he started applying for AB jobs on oceangoing ships here on the West Coast, he soon found out that he couldn’t sail as a regular watch-standing AB on a ship offshore because he does not have a RFPNW qualification. Though he has stood as a lookout and steered 1,000-foot Great Lakes ore ships for years, the catch-22 Richard now faces is that he needs the RFPNW certification to sail as a fully qualified watch-standing AB at sea, but can’t get hired as a regular watch stander on the bridge until he has the RFPNW endorsement! If he were able to pay to take a class and then complete all of his RFPNW assessments on a bridge simulator, it would help solve his problem.

For the last decade, the IMO and U.S. Coast Guard have added requirements for schooling and testing. I have seen this as a positive step toward improving professionalism and safety at sea. Thinking back to the virtual voyage out of Norfolk I participated in several months ago, I can tell you from experience that simulator training is a great tool — and that it’s time for the maritime industry to fully embrace its use.

Till next time I wish you all smooth sailin’. •

Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at

By Professional Mariner Staff