Outside Amsterdam, Carnival Corporation operates a unique facility called CSMART (Center for Simulator Maritime Training Academy) where it trains the bridge and engineering officers for the 10 cruise lines it operates worldwide. The centrepiece of the building, which also houses offices and classroom, is a collection of four bridge simulators which allow officers to sail to almost any point in the world.
The sims match the bridge size, layout and control stations of two of the company's ships, Princess Cruises' Royal Princess and Holland America's Koningsdam. Beyond the windows that wrap around three sides of the sim is a massive screen that gives you a 220-degree view -- also just what you'd see on a ship.
The screen is 115 feet long, 16 feet high and has a 310-foot radius. Five WUXGA (1,900x1,200-pixel) projectors can display a variety of programs including any port to which a Carnival ship sails.
I started my tour with a majestic sail into Sydney Harbour at dawn. Virtual Sydney is just as beautiful as the real thing.
The view is designed to be as realistic as possible and I could make out classic Sydney sights including the iron arch of the Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Tower.
As we docked at the Overseas Passenger Terminal, the Opera House passed by on the port side.
Unlike a typical airplane simulator, the bridge sims don't move an inch. But when the horizon dips on a screen that almost surrounds you, your mind plays a lot of tricks on you. I did feel a little woozy as we rolled on a stormy English Channel.
On either end of each of the four main sims are bridge wing simulators. A bridge wing is the pointed end of a ship's bridge that sticks out over the water. Six WUXGA projectors display programs onto a 20-foot high half-spherical screen.
Some of the bridge wings, including the one pictured here, faithfully replicate the shape and layout of actual bridge wings. Control stations let you maneuver the ship while standing on the wing.
When a program isn't running on the screen, there's not much to see beyond the windows.
Some of the bridge wing sims aren't as complete with several standard displays replacing the full bridge wing structure. In this simulation, we were on the Royal Princess docking in Southampton, England.
My turn at the helm came the next day. I was charged with taking the Royal Princess into Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour and dock at the city's cruise terminal on the Kowloon side.
As the navigator, I was in charge of controlling the ship's direction and speed. My co-navigator, who was actually a CSMART instructor, cross-checked and challenged my commands.
Instead of using a spoked wooden wheel to steer the ship, I used a tiny control stick, barely two inches tall. If I wanted, I could have used a small steering wheel instead.
Victoria Harbour was crowded as we entered the narrow passage. I had to avoid Cunard's Queen Victoria on its way out to sea, a giant oil rig under tow and even the remains of a sunken ship.
Like in Sydney, you can make out real Hong Kong sights such as the angular Bank of China building, the city's convention center (it looks like a Sydney Opera House smashed flat) and The Peak.
Just to make things interesting, the instructor controlling the simulation gave me a few minutes of a dense fog. It all happened just as we approached the busy Star Ferry Pier.
Constant checks on the radar screen helped me stay on course.
Once we passed the pier, we transferred to bridge wing to back the ship into the dock. The levers in the foreground let you control the main engines and the side thrusters.
Other crew members on the bridge can use tablets to chart our course.
Behind each sim is a control room where an instructor directs the simulation and monitors a crew's performance.
During my debriefing, I saw a that screen that tracked my progress using an outline of the ship. It may have taken me a while and a lot of adjustments to back us into the pier and move us alongside, but I got us there.
And here's a view of the Royal Princess safely docked in Hong Kong.
CSMART also has four full engine room simulators for training engine room officers. The screens on the control stations can be changed to match the panels on any of the company's 101 ships.
A CSMART instructor demonstrates a simulator that trains engineering crews on navigating a ship's interior and locating equipment and control panels in everyday circumstances and emergencies. The three displays give a computerized view of engine room corridors and stairways exactly as they'd appear on any of Carnival's ships. You can even press virtual buttons by tapping on the display.
As I watched, the instructor worked to extinguish a simulated room engine room fire by hurrying from the engine room to a fire control panel. For a realistic effect, virtual smoke obscured his view on the screens while real alarm sirens blared and subwoofers made the floor vibrate as they would onboard a vessel.
To maneuver through the engine room maze, you use a Microsoft Xbox controller. Though it feels like a video game, the point is to show how long it takes to get from point A to point B and how to get there.
Hans Hederstrom, CSMART's managing director, shows me one the facility's voltage room simulators that train crews to use a ship's electrical equipment.
Inside the main CSMART building is a large atrium that stretches to the roof. Because of their size and the heavy equipment they use, the four simulators are on the lower floor. The large "1" at the bottom of this photo marks the entrance to the first sim.
Large models of the company's ships are scattered throughout CSMART's interior. This is a model of the MV Ventura with P&O Cruises.
This screen shows the location of the company's ships throughout Europe. On the first day of my visit, Cunard's Queen Elizabeth was about to sail from Palma de Majorca in Spain's Balearic Islands for Athens.