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Becoming Sea Savvy, on Land

A company's bridge simulators help crews train for real situations without the real risks.

September 11, 2006|Ronald D. White | Times Staff Writer

It was such a picture-perfect day on the Caribbean island of Curacao that experienced skipper Bob Glynn could pick out buildings on shore as he guided the Arleigh Burke up a narrow ship channel.

Suddenly, freak 30-foot waves hit. The guided missile destroyer was destined to become a $1-billion beach ornament.

"It's just a matter of time now," noted Glynn, former commander of a U.S. Coast Guard cutter and seismic research vessels, as he nonchalantly consigned the ship to its fate.

Fortunately, this disaster wasn't real. It was just another turn at a ship simulator operated by Marine Safety International, where a calm afternoon can turn into a stomach-churning nightmare for anyone at the helm.

"I never have a bad day at this job. But it's often my job to make it a bad day for anyone who walks in here," said retired Navy Rear Adm. David Ramsey, a master seaman who serves as director of MSI's San Diego offices. Ramsey commands a 250-ship fleet that has never gotten wet, much less left port.

On any day of the week, MSI's three bridge simulators are helping maritime academy midshipmen learn how to deal with emergencies, training foreign naval officers or helping a variety of maritime businesses determine what is economically practical.

Simulators have become valuable tools for the maritime industry, which once relied on small models of ships in large tanks of water or pools to mimic real life situations.

"Any time you can provide a simulation of a situation, it enhances the skills of the pilots and all the licensed officers on those ships and makes for a much safer situation," said Manny Aschemeyer, executive director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California, which tracks vessel movements at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. "Cadets and midshipmen can now get sea-time credits toward their graduation requirements for time spent on simulators. They are that realistic."

MSI is one of the biggest businesses to have emerged over the last 10 years in the field of ship simulations. Others include RealSims of Orlando, Fla., Netherlands-based VSTEP, FORCE Technology of Denmark and Kongsberg of Norway.

The nine-employee San Diego office, located inside the U.S. Naval Station, is one of four such facilities belonging to New York-based MSI, a subsidiary of FlightSafety International Inc., which is owned by billionaire Warren E. Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. FlightSafety, employer of more than 1,500 aviation and maritime instructors, posted operating income of $110 million in the second quarter. That was barely a blip given Berkshire's net earnings of $2.4 billion for the period, but it was more than twice the $51 million the unit brought in the same quarter a year earlier.

The growth reflects several things: a steady stream of military work combined with businesses hedging their bets on multimillion-dollar projects, and ports, harbor pilots and tugboat captains pressed with figuring out how to handle additional traffic from ever larger ships.

Military training can include simulating the escort of commercial vessels through the Strait of Malacca or helping a captain know when a suspicious ship in the Persian Gulf's Strait of Hormuz is making a run for it. (Hint: You don't wait to see if the ship has a wake trailing behind it.)

"In many ways, the simulator is helping you look at procedures and how to recognize things. Suddenly that ship has gotten underway and is heading south. What do you do?" Ramsey asked.

"How do you recognize that he is moving? You look at the radar image reflecting movement. You look visually at the ship in reference to other landmarks. If you see a wake, it is already too late. He is already moving."

Ramsey said the simulator has also been used to mimic an aircraft carrier on the lookout for small high-speed ships that might be trying to ram it.

About 40% of MSI's work is commercial. One recent example involved a Long Beach energy company that wanted proof it was possible to dock a fully laden oil supertanker inside the Port of Los Angeles.

Pacific Energy Partners sought out MSI's San Pedro Bay simulation, which is so precise that all the harbor pilots who guide ships there practice on it. The simulation can mimic anything up to 50-knot winds and 30-foot ocean swells, with as many as 25 vessels in the harbor simultaneously.

Twelve runs later on MSI's equipment and Pacific Energy Partners was convinced of the feasibility of its $300-million project to build the West Coast's first inner harbor docking facility for fully loaded supertankers. The company even determined an optimal approach speed for the supertanker of 4 knots.

"I figured we could do it but I guess I got cold feet and wanted to prove it to myself," said Jerry Aspland, a consultant for Pacific Energy Partners and a former oil company executive. "Sometimes you just want to step back and make sure that this is going to be OK."

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