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There are two ways to let sailors learn to manoeuvre a 113,000-tonne, 290m-long cruise ship into port. Watch nervously as they take the controls of a $500m investment with 3,000 passengers on board, edging into the busy shipping lanes of a cruise terminal. Or take them to a Dutch industrial estate where, with state-of-the-art virtual technology, a rebuilt ship’s bridge, and a handful of captains to advise, they can try the procedure without harm.
Carnival, one of two corporations which own the bulk of the global cruise industry, including Concordia operator Costa, chooses the latter option. At its £9m CSmart training suite at Almere in the Netherlands, cruise ship consoles transplanted within a 16-metre diameter round screen give a surprisingly realistic, immersive experience. An instructor confirms that sailors have been known to get seasick at this artificial helm. Major ports are recreated on the screen, complete with boats, helicopters and whales to dodge. If the suite wasn’t underpinning the safety regime of a global corporation, a lot of fun could be had here.
Initial findings of the Italian investigators into the Concordia flagged up problems on the ship’s bridge – not just the well-publicised allegations against Captain Francesco Schettino, but a lack of planning and communication, and a passivity among the whole navigating team. David Dingle, chief executive of Carnival UK, says: “The most reassuring thing we can show people is that we do have competent bridge management, and we do thoroughly engender that in our people.”
Carnival has a similar simulated engine room for technical officers to experience emergencies before they happen. Crew members from the Emerald Princess – the ship on which the simulation is based – confirm it “really is just like it”. Some physical conditions are recreated too: the small booths, where trainees “fix” problems on touch screens like giant iPads, are hotter and blasted by 100 decibel noise.
The spectre of the Concordia, and Schettino, is not far in any discussion of ship safety. Captain Hans Hederstrom, the director of the training centre, says: “We’ll always have human error. But we can create systems that can detect and manage those errors so they don’t have negative consequences.” Key to this is training up junior officers so that a ship’s captain should never need to be at the controls.
Dingle stresses not so much skills as the culture. “More important is the management practices we instigate here and the cultural change this brings about – the democratisation of the bridge where each person plays a valuable role, has respect and can challenge without fear of retribution.”
Carnival UK has appointed a “coaching captain”, Captain Alistair Clark, to travel to all ships in its fleet to make sure the lessons are put into practice. Passengers alarmed by the tapes prosecutors released of Schettino might be reassured by the sober instructors at CSmart: all captains in their own right, but with the air of men who would not countenance cavorting with a Moldovan hostess even on a simulated bridge. One warns: “People see big toys, but we take it very seriously.”
Requests to steer the virtual cruise ship into the glass tower blocks on the Miami seafront are firmly refused as impossible by Captain Clark. He must have tried it, surely? “You run into a sandbank,” he whispered.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk