Ship simulators are not stimulators!

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September 29, 2009

Simulator are not stimulators!
By John G. Denham

After a career at sea and a period of piloting I tried a tour in academia. I was surprised to find that maritime academies, along with other educational institutions were using classrooms furnished with middle school furnishings and tools. Are we teaching kids or future professionals I thought? Mostly the furnishings are still in use. If you treat students like kids, they will act like kids. Therefore, tools and the environment are important.

Involved in continuing education, simulators attracted me. At Marine Safety International, then the fore runner in maritime simulation the concept of simulation (make believe with electronics) was interesting, but unreal. Nature can not be simulated. For the next 10 years I visited simulators in Kings Point, New London, Piney Point, Toledo and San Diego. Each facility emulated the other and the concept of instruction was the same and teaching was partially effective. A critiques of students indicated, it’s great, but not the same.

Why doesn’t simulation prepare one for the real experience?

Looking at the COSCO BUSAN pilot house I could not recall any simulator with a similar physical arrangement. A collection of students will have a collection of pilot house arrangements in mind and therefore make believe is initiated. The installed bridge equipment in most cases is unfamiliar and therefore another make believe is instigated etc.

Simulation serves excellent purposes when used to rehearse procedures or test theories, things that are not well known, and specially ship characteristics, tactical diameters in specific conditions and human responses to critical situations. Acceleration and deceleration rates/times are not reliable due to the possible human response factor. I found that using simulation to display a critical maneuver as an illustration is excellent. A competent instructor can interject critical information as it occurs (or in advance) and implant a learning experience without the confusion of interpretation. Most want to be as good as the best. An example that I used: “I am about to show you a simulation of how old Charley Brown approaches the turn and rounds the bend at PotreroTurn to Richmond Inner Harbor.” Shown once, or more as needed with some comments on key points, delivered the lesson.

While engaged with a computer driven problem one is constantly shifting from real experience and computer generated displayed data.

For $1,000,000 American President Lines instituted a three day work shop for all ship masters and promising chief mates and invited USCG, educators and lawyers to attend. The attendees (Captains, mates, visitors and consultants) were divided into small groups and each was given a real accident problem to resolve (prevent and analyze). Some simulation was provided by video tape of simulated scenes of the situation. Realism was stimulated because it was factual.

The final critiques of each workshop indicated an awareness that the master and pilot/ watch officer relationship was essential for safety in critical situations and that masters or persons in charge should act responsibly. Simulation training as presently practiced fails in this most important facet of ship operations management; implant thinking as a process and experience by example.

John Denham is a retired USN Captain, Licensed unlimited Master and Pilot, maritime academy teacher,and author with extensive experience as a marine consultant. He is also author of The Assistant and DD 891.

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