San Francisco Bar Pilot John Carlier stood in near darkness on the bridge of a 1,200-foot container ship, staring into the deep, turbulent night. Lightning blinked in the distance as alarms went off all around him. He fidgeted uncomfortably -- helpless as the massive ship careened past Alcatraz Island -- all navigational control wiped-out by the fierce storm. Then he chuckled.
In this case, Carlier could allow himself a good laugh. The ship’s control deck was firmly on land in the California Maritime Academy in Vallejo. And the doomsday scenario was controlled by the school’s computer generated simulator. Still, Carlier was genuinely uncomfortable with the experience.
“This is very realistic,” Carlier said. “If they turn it up a notch you can get a little queasy here.”
Since the Gold Rush days, Bar Pilots have helped guide ships in and out of the bay, from tugboats to the latest class of 1,200 foot super container ships. They’re required to know the Bay like their own living rooms. Even so, there’s no way to practice for every scenario.
In 2008, the academy, which trains people for the maritime profession, installed a high tech ship simulator. It’s outfitted with the same controls as a commercial ship bridge. Video screens wrap 360-degrees around the bridge to simulate, with chilling accuracy, the experience of working in a ship’s navigation center.
“We do emergency situations -- engine failures, rudder failures -- and just put ourselves in situations that could happen,” said Carlier.
When students aren’t training in the simulator, bar pilots use it to train, sharpen skills or prepare for newest ships and technology.
Last year, pilots spent a week in the simulator readying for the arrival of the MSC Fabiola, the 1,200 foot container ship that represented the largest ship to ever enter the San Francisco Bay.
“We trained to figure out whether we could bring in a 1,200 footer safely,” said Carlier, “and make it happen in Oakland because that estuary was not designed for something that big.”
The training worked well enough that Carlier felt right at home once he climbed the deck of the Fabiola, and nimbly directed it into the Port of Oakland.
“This is one of the best simulators ever built in the world,” said Harry Bolton, who runs the academy’s training ship. “It’s the latest technology.”
The technology is constantly getting updated, as newer ships are unleashed on the world's seas. Though the simulator’s deck is stationary, a visitor can feel the rocking motion as the video screens recreate the sensation of rolling seas.
“You can actually get sick in this simulator,” Bolton said. “It’s that real.”
The simulator recreates sea-going hazards including thick fog, strong currents and rolling tides. It’s the sole place a pilot can practice without real world aftermath.
It can even recreate the foggy conditions of the 2007 day when the Cosco Busan container ship struck the Bay Bridge, spilling more than 50 thousand gallons of bunker fuel. Bar pilot John Cota was sentenced to 10 months in federal prison after prosecutors alleged he was unable to properly use the ship’s navigational equipment after taking prescription medications. But Carlier recalled the conditions of that day.
“You might leave Oakland and the fog has lifted and everything’s looking really good,” Carlier said. “And all of a sudden you’re in the Oakland bar channel and you’re in a cross current and the fog shuts back down on you.”
It’s those scenarios, Carlier and other pilots want to be ready for as they square off with the elements inside the simulator’s animated world.
With his ship now charting calmer seas in the simulator, Carlier delivered a firm command of “hard to starboard,” as the vessel changed direction and headed for port.