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In the simulator ‘hot seat’ Part II: Expand your horizons

May 20, 2016 01:00 PM

At the maritime school where I teach, the simulator is truly something special. The unit sits on a concrete floor, but I can easily get people seasick with the superb graphics. It’s not quite “real,” but darn close.

Recently I was sent to another school to help with a special project. They are giving a series of officer training and assessment programs for one of the large East Coast tugboat companies. As I do this same type of program where I teach, it was natural to send me out when the other school was in need of some assistance. But I found that things are different “out East.”

This is a two-and-a-half-day program that includes all kinds of “brush-up” classes on bridge resource management, Rules of the Road, bridge equipment, voyage planning and other good stuff. The heart of this program is an opportunity for the candidates to make their own voyage in our simulator.

During this run there is a team of “subject matter experts” who are watching every move they make. We have a set series of criteria on which we grade their actions during the passage. Once complete, we sit down with the candidate and review what they were thinking at this point and at that point.

This is an amazing opportunity for the candidates to learn all kinds of things about the “how and why” you do what you do when you are out there boating around. For the folks who really want to be better at their chosen profession, there just is not a better platform. This simulator training just plain works better than any other training I know of. And it’s a little look into the future of our industry.

But this simulator assessment training is not without its concerns. I must admit that there is a bit of … let’s call it “anxiety” with the process. We all know at the worst we do a fairly good job at working the boats. And to have someone actually watching us can be a bit unnerving to say the least. But the benefits of simulator training outweighs the bit of discomfort that being watched might generate.

That all sounds fine and good until you are the one being watched! As I said earlier, they do things just a bit different out on the East Coast. Come to find out, on the last half-day of the program they do something called “The Perfect Run” in the simulator. They grab one of the school instructors to do the voyage.

And more than that, the other instructors and all of the candidates act as assessors in a bit of a role reversal. Yes, a whole room full of people picks your voyage apart. This turns out to be an amazing learning opportunity for the candidates to actually use all this refresher information they have gained from the program.

And whom do you think they picked to run this “perfect voyage?” You got it — it was I! So back into the “hot seat” I went. Now, you need to understand that I know all the tricks and pitfalls that you can get sucked into in these simulations. I have run them and taken them many times, and I have never done everything right.

I must admit that my “Puritan work ethic” kicked into overdrive. Of course after working with these guys for days I wanted to actually do a “perfect run.” I found that sleep the night before was, at best, poor. I found myself getting up many times during the night to jot down this fact or that idea. Needless to say, I was a mess in the morning.

What a way to show my stuff. But being a maritime professional, I went into the simulator to do my very best. I did OK, but it was anything but the perfect run.

Yes, I made the passage without running aground or crashing into other vessels. But once under the spell of the simulation, I missed some things and forgot some things and wished I had done some things and … you get the point. But, all in all, not a bad run.

Then it was debrief time. So I wander back into the control area with a “sea” of faces looking only at me. What will they have to say about my voyage? Did I do OK? What did they see that I missed? And remind me again why I agreed to do this anyway? There was a whole list of things to talk about.

I must say that I totally agreed with every one of their points. These folks had learned their lessons well. It really gave them a chance to be on both sides of the assessment process. And all these things they had been reviewing on all week became set in concrete in their minds. A week of training was a success!

I also learned some lessons. I work really hard at making this simulation-based training as comfortable and worthwhile as I can for the candidates. But there is some stress involved in being watched at what we do — which is a good thing in my opinion.

We work a job that when things are boring and stress-free, it is real easy. But when things become more demanding, that’s when we earn our pay. And what better place to make mistakes (and learn from those mistakes) than in a simulator? As my wonderful wife asks when I come home from a difficult day: “Did you break anything? Did you kill anybody? Did you go to jail? No? Then it must have been a good day.”

The moral of this story is to always stretch yourself and always be expanding your horizons. We can all get better at what we do. And when that “hot seat” becomes available for you to sit in, DO IT! Yes, it will be uncomfortable. But you will come out much better for the experience. Really, you will. Enough about me, now you go out there and stay safe.

Capt. Dennis Murphy, of Olympia, Wash., is a longtime shipmaster and is an instructor at Pacific Maritime Institute, where he splits his time between teaching classes and working in the simulation department. He also teaches at Fremont Maritime.

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