Simulator gives taste of maritime challenges

By Kirk Boxleitner
Posted 12/27/23

It’s one of the Northwest Maritime Center’s more valuable resources, even if it’s kept a relatively low profile over the years, but the NWMC has plans for its Pilothouse Simulator …

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Simulator gives taste of maritime challenges


It’s one of the Northwest Maritime Center’s more valuable resources, even if it’s kept a relatively low profile over the years, but the NWMC has plans for its Pilothouse Simulator that should only serve to boost its visibility.

The Maritime Center scored the Pilothouse Simulator through a Federal Port Security grant in 2012, courtesy of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, that covered 80% of its cost, to serve as an asset for both the state and federal government, including the U.S. Coast Guard.

During emergencies, the Pilothouse Simulator can step in to handle Seattle Vessel Traffic control, as it did when the Seattle VTS experienced issues during a recent earthquake, but for scores of professional ship pilots and bridge officers within the past decade, it’s where they’ve been trained and tested on their craft by experts such as master mariner Capt. Bob Febos.

The Crawford Nautical School has taught radar and ECDIS (Electronic Chart Display and Information System) classes in the simulator for merchant ship officers, while the Black Ball Ferry Line has trained its Coho ferry bridge officers in the simulator, by practicing docking and leaving Victoria Harbor.

And for the Puget Sound Pilots association, the Pilothouse Simulator prepares pilot candidates for their pilots’ exams, as Febos puts them through a veritable Kobayashi Maru of applying the lessons they’ve studied in a physical setting.

“Part of the simulation is recreating a number of the conditions you might experience in the real world,” Febos said. “You have to project your voice within the space, to compete with the various noises that are being piped in, such as fog signals. I train pilot candidates to state every single action, so that everyone can hear it.”

Not only does Febos demand that pilot candidates “be rude” with their volume, but he also pits them against personnel who will make mistakes, on purpose, to simulate the fallibility of ships’ crews, while the simulations seek to mimic the difficulties of different environmental conditions, from limited visibility to inhospitable weather.

Even the virtual layouts of the fictional ports shift from one simulation to the next, so that pilot candidates never encounter the exact same scenarios twice, but for Febos, it’s the emotional resiliency and preparedness of the candidates that determines whether they’ll respond properly to all the stimuli that the Pilothouse Simulator, and its instructors, are bound to throw at them.

“If you put in the time to do your homework, outside of the simulator, I can teach you the tricks to calm down, and the mantras to remember your steps,” Febos said. “I can tell pretty quickly who’s actually practiced.”

Febos noted that such demanding training makes candidates sought-after as ship pilots, but even when applied to less rigorous levels of instruction, the Pilothouse Simulator provides radar and night navigation courses to recreational boaters, affording them opportunities to practice collision avoidance and safe boating in virtual fog and darkness, with registration for its 2024 classes already open.

Likewise, both the seventh-grade Maritime Discovery Program and the Port Townsend Maritime Academy will again make use of the simulator in the New Year, to teach electronic navigation.

“It exposes young people to career paths within the maritime field that they might not have considered,” said Shane Meyer, waterfront programs manager for the Northwest Maritime Center. “If all you know about nautical navigation comes from seeing people steer sailboats or tall ships, it can be a revelation to step into a simulation of a modern ship’s bridge, with all the computers and other technology that’s used to steer such a vessel today.”

Kate Philbrick, campus director of the Northwest Maritime Center, added that the Pilothouse Simulator is open to the public for free on occasions including summer weekends and annual events such as the Wooden Boat Festival.

As the Pilothouse Simulator continues to be updated, with its most recent major renovation taking place in 2019, just prior to the onset of COVID, Meyer encouraged the public to keep an eye out for the Northwest Maritime Center to develop new applications for the simulator in 2025.