Captain for a Day: Cruise Critic Takes the Helm

I can feel the panic rising as I nudge the bow thruster of the 113,000-ton Emerald Princess, edging the giant ship side-on towards a concrete dock at Port Everglades. Through a glass window in the floor of the bridge wing, I can already see that the quayside and the strip of blue water between the ship's hull and the dock is narrowing at an alarming rate.

It's hard to believe that only a couple of tiny joysticks control this mammoth, and that I have millions of dollars' worth of cruise ship in my hands. I squeeze my eyes shut for the moment of impact but no – it's perfect and Captain Paul Hailwood, my instructor, congratulates me. The docking process has only taken 20 minutes -- but I'm exhausted already.

Luckily for Princess Cruises, this drama was not playing out in sunny Florida but in a nondescript industrial estate in Almere, the Netherlands, half an hour's drive from Amsterdam's Schipol Airport.

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How do Cruise Ship Captains Practice?

Carnival PLC, the U.K. arm of the giant Carnival Corporation, has invested $5 million in the Center for Simulator Maritime Training, otherwise known as CSMART, a state-of-the-art cruise ship bridge simulator, the newest and most advanced of its kind.

CSMART only opened in 2009 but is always busy, running up to three training courses simultaneously. It covers an assortment of marine qualifications from ship handling to navigation and command systems, as well as encouraging critical thinking, problem solving and decision making. All bridge officers from P&O Cruises, Cunard, Princess, Ocean Village, P&O Australia, Holland America Line, AIDA, Costa and Seabourn receive two weeks' training every year, one week of which is spent on the simulator. Carnival Cruise Line crew will join them when an existing contract with another facility expires.

But why spend the money when there are other ship simulators around the world? There are two reasons. The first is that what Hailwood euphemistically describes as ‘unfortunate events' (small matters like Queen Mary 2 ripping off a pod in Port Everglades in 2006, or Queen Elizabeth 2 running aground in the Solent in 2008) are massively expensive, not to mention inconvenient. Even the smallest dent can cost half a million dollars to fix, so practicing disaster scenarios in a $5 million simulator is an awful lot more cost effective than having them happen in real life.

Second, you can't beat the experience of learning on familiar equipment – and most of the big Carnival Corporation ships have very similar bridge layouts. "Officers would come back from standard training centres with qualifications but not in key issues relating to their own ships," explains Hailwood. "So we built our own. What you see is what you get on one of our bridges."

Captain Hans Hederstrom, director of professional marine training and research for CSMART, elaborates: "We use our own bridge layout, equipment and ship models. On generic simulators, it takes one or two days to learn the equipment before you start training but on this one, there's no familiarisation time. We can also implement training courses to our own standards and protocols, with our own instructors. A new officer used to need a five or six week handover period. Now, it's one or two weeks, depending on the ship."

The facility certainly caused a huge stir among the fleet's senior officers when it opened in 2009. "When we were looking for instructors, 26 captains [from across Carnival's various lines] applied immediately," says Hederstrom. These instructor captains are so enthusiastic about the simulator that they use their own leave time to run courses in it, for which they are paid.

Being a coaching captain benefits the trainer as well as the trainee. "They [the captains] gain very valuable knowledge that they can use on board," continues Hederstrom proudly. "The feedback is incredible. Officers go back to their ships saying ‘We're the best, we have the best training, the best systems'."

Boy Toys?

No question, the equipment is awe-inspiring. CSMART has two full ‘mission bridge' simulators, in effect, two proper ships' bridges, and six smaller simulators, which are in a classroom setting. When I visit, a captain and first officer from Seabourn as well as second officers from AIDA and Princess Cruises are staring intently at the classroom simulators as their instructor throws all sorts of horrors at them, from fierce cross-winds to shallows, big swells, other ships in the way and problems with propellers and azipods. At one screen is Antonio Festa, 38, who is about to join P&O Cruises' Oriana as a first officer. "I spent five years working on oil tankers and five on Italian ferries but I have always wanted to work on a prestigious British cruise ship like Oriana," he says.

Technical training aside, one of the biggest benefits of the CSMART courses is the way bridge management is changing throughout the Carnival fleet.

The traditional setup on the bridge is that the captain, the master of the ship, operates the vessel, while the first officers are passive behind him, involved more with planning and running watches. Often, quite frankly, it gets boring. If there's an emergency, the captain takes action and the officers take orders.

Now that all sorts of situations can be simulated without actually trashing a ship, captains are standing back and training, while the senior officers at the controls are getting the real hands-on experience. "When we introduced this two years ago, a lot of captains said it would be difficult," says Stuart Greenfield, Carnival PLC's head of maritime services. "Now, they realise it's not that big a change and many have embraced it totally. P&O, Princess, Cunard and Ocean Village all use this system of bridge management now."

And captains are turning into leaders on the bridge rather than autocrats. Hederstrom says: "One captain told me: ‘Now we no longer have dictators on the bridge'."

Hederstrom showed me a letter one Princess captain (who asked not to be named) had written recently to his training captain: "Yesterday the team took the ship out of Fremantle with maximum gusts of 41 knots on the beam at the first turn with no problem whatsoever and minimal input from me, much to the admiration of the pilot.

"This is the result of cumulative ‘captain coaching'; the team learns by doing, not watching. The pilot said that he had been apprehensive about the departure before coming on board but afterwards, was most impressed watching the bridge team handle it so efficiently in those conditions."

In Real Life, More Near Misses!

Ironically, another result of ‘captain coaching' is an increase in the reported number of near misses. This, Hederstrom explains, is part of a new culture of openness. "We've tried to get over the blame culture and encourage captains to report near misses," he says. "Before, everybody tried to hide bad news. Now, people feel safe to report incidents."

Back at the Helm

I'm back at the simulator and the ‘bridge' on "Emerald Princess" is just breathtaking; it could be the real thing. We're approaching Fort Lauderdale and I can see the familiar apartment blocks at the entrance to Port Everglades, the city skyline and beyond, the flat Florida landscape stretching into the distance. The ship is rocking gently.

I am, in reality, looking at 13 giant, wraparound screens. The imagery is real, created by hundreds of photos being knitted together to form a giant, 240 degree vista. Behind me, from the bridge wing, I can see back along the side of the ship, looking down onto balcony cabins, while through the glass floor, I can see the ‘ocean' below.

The bridge can be set up to represent around 12 different ships and today, it's Emerald Princess, one of my favourites. The simulator is controlled by 50 computers. Anything could, and does happen. A helicopter appears from nowhere and buzzes us. Dolphins cruise beside us. A Costa ship, identifiable by its yellow funnel, cuts recklessly across our bows, although luckily, I don't hit it. I ask the computer operator to liven up the weather a bit and suddenly, I'm lurching to one side as the waves build into an enormous swell, complete with white caps and spray across the windscreen. I feel decidedly queasy and hold onto furniture for support, remembering Hederstrom's earlier mention of a group of visiting executives who had to be given sick bags during their bridge experience. It's like a fairground ride.

I'm amazed to discover a few minutes later that the simulator doesn't actually move at all; the sickness and the feeling of falling over are incredible tricks of the human mind.

We play around with Port Everglades for a bit and then switch to a different scene, as Emerald Princess approaches the Alaskan port of Ketchikan at sunset. Several other ships are already docked and I'm amused to notice that every single one of them is bearing a Princess logo.

Hailwood explains that the most-used and most complicated ports or cruise areas are already in the system –- Singapore, Glacier Bay, Stockholm, for example -– and more are being added all the time – Southampton, Venice, Savona and in preparation for Queen Mary 2's Australian circumnavigation in 2011, Fremantle and Adelaide. It takes between two and six weeks to prepare a port, although the Port of New York, with all its complexities, took two months.

CSMART is the ultimate boy's (or girl's) toy although sadly, it's not open to the public for ‘play' sessions like some airline simulators are. Hederstrom says, however, that he hasn't ruled out the idea. "The public should know about this kind of facility," he says. "All industries have some kind of risk but people should have confidence in our training. That doesn't mean that cruising was not safe before – but ships are getting bigger."

Top and middle photos appear courtesy of Mike O'Dwyer. Bottom photo appears courtesy of Sue Bryant.

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