Broward News

All Aboard Dania's $13 Million Freight Ship Simulator

The most exciting thing in Dania Beach -- not counting jai alai -- is probably the officers' training facility at the headquarters of American Maritime Officers (AMO), a merchant marine union providing the crew for freight and military ships around the world.

In 1991, bolstered by lucrative merchant-marine contracts for the first Gulf War, the union sank about $13 million into the world's first 360-degree ship-piloting simulator. It's a huge two-story room with circular projection screens all around its perimeter and a life-sized ship's bridge hovering in the middle. From the bridge, every window looks out onto a projected scene, controlled by computers that maintain realistic visuals and navigational feedback for 80 types of vessels in more than 150 geographic locations. Union members get free training on the simulator as a benefit included in their contracts.

I went along for a ride, which took me to Ketchikan, Alaska, through rain, snow, fog, day, and night. Photos are after the jump.

We started out in calm seas aboard a 100-foot tug. Officers usually control the simulator while remaining in contact with the command center and a separate engine-room simulator via VHF. For this tour, guide Graeme Holman slipped the rig into autopilot.

The seas began to churn. "This is a completely fixed bridge," Holman reassured me and the five other visitors. "We are not moving." But the visual simulation was so intense that it felt like we were heaving across the high seas, and I nearly lost my balance until I closed my eyes.

Then we started a northbound approach into the shipping lanes of Ketchikan carrying a full load aboard a container ship.

All the other ships in the scene can also be controlled by the simulator. "When two ships pass each other at close range, it creates a low-pressure zone called an interaction force," explained Holman. Here's a liquefied natural gas (LNG) tanker, which we would be seeing a lot more of near Port Everglades if Charlie Crist hadn't bowed to homeowners' concerns and opposed the construction of an offshore LNG terminal in 2008.

Then they turned on the snow.

Here's Holman in the control room, with a VHF radio and internal phone system that mimic those on real ships. Instructors can monitor students' piloting, bail them out if they run aground, and record all their mistakes on DVD.

There are four ranks each for both deck crew and engine crew, with a total of eight union officers aboard a ship. Completing the training and rising through the ranks can take decades. Officers out of a maritime academy are eligible for a session in the simulator after spending at least 90 days at sea.