Students at Maine Maritime Academy get an average of 210 days at sea between their freshman and senior years. One hundred twenty of those days are aboard the training ship State of Maine—just that one ship.

The training cruise and cadet shipping experiences lend a vast amount of knowledge and hands-on learning for students, but how can students get a variety of shipboard experiences? How do they practice in different traffic schemes, different communication areas or varying weather scenarios?

The answer is in the lower level of the Bath Iron Works building in the bridge simulator. This million-dollar piece of technology can put you into any virtual sea-going environment, from a tugboat in a flat-calm harbor to a 1,200-foot, liquid natural gas tanker in a hurricane. The tools and settings available in this simulator create a teaching opportunity unparalleled by any classroom lecture in any school.

Four different stations are built in the simulator: one large ship’s bridge, a tug/barge bridge and two smaller vessel bridges. The features in each help train a student for particular environments. The ship’s bridge is spacious, with a helm on a center console and a dashboard array of instruments for the “officer” of the exercise to use. The tugboat simulator has a pair of controls for azimuth pods, or “Z-Drive,” a technology used on tugs in recent years that empowers them to maneuver in extremely versatile ways. All have radio communications that can be linked to the exercise proctor or the other bridges.

And the scenario? Fog, rain, nighttime, wind, snow, thunder, hail, ice, ten-foot seas or 50-foot seas and rogue waves can all be programmed into this software, the “Navi-Trainer Professional 5000.” Jim Sanders is the king of this virtual realm, and he assists professors in their class exercises for Terrestrial Navigation, Ship Handling, Marine Communications and other classes.

But these simulators have also seen extra use in recent weeks by the training staff and this year’s MMA freshmen.

Austin Bottorf, James Wetzel, and Mikayla Cameron, training officers in the regiment, all began a regular Thursday afternoon session with the freshmen from Alpha Company. Starting with the basics, they have been teaching these up-and-coming sailors the tools and techniques of navigation and handling.

“We were disappointed that nobody did this kind of thing with us,” said Bottorf, referring to our freshman year. “We wanted to show [the freshmen] what being a deckie is all about.”

Many freshmen get a skewed impression of life as a deck officer because of the focus on low-level maintenance and watch-standing during their school year and summer cruise. Many upperclassmen emphasize that to get a better impression, freshmen should look to the junior deck watch-standers on cruise.

Bottorf and the other training staff-members use various settings, including Puget Sound (in Seattle) and Prince William Sound (the site of the historic disaster of the Exxon Valdez) to teach the freshmen about helm watch, taking bearings and making fixes, navigating at night and navigating by radar.

Charlie Company staff have begun this activity with their freshmen as well, and now several of us are discussing the possibility of making it an official club on campus. Such a club would expand the use of the simulator that we invested lots of money in, and is a really cool piece of technology.

After all, who doesn’t like video games? Especially one with such educational power. 

Benjamin Stevens of Islesford is a sophomore at Maine Maritime Academy and writes about his experiences for The Working Waterfront.