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Captain on the bridge

Learning how to operate a cruise ship takes teamwork, quick thinking and hours in a room-sized simulator.

Kent German/CNET
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Mark Mann

Nothing quite prepares you for the experience of sailing into Sydney Harbour at dawn. I'm on the bridge of the cruise ship Royal Princess as we pass The Heads, the two rocky promontories that form the harbor's entrance. Against a brilliant orange sky, I can make out classic Sydney sights: the captivating sails of the Opera House, the iron arch of the Harbour Bridge, and the island speck of Fort Denison. There's even an early morning ferry from Manly taking commuters to Circular Quay.

It's a breathtaking sight and I have to remind myself: It's not real. I'm not on the Royal Princess at all, and I'm not even in Australia. I'm 10,000 miles away in an office building just outside of Amsterdam on a full-size bridge simulator at Carnival Corporation's Center for Simulator Maritime Training Academy (CSMART).

Opened last July, CSMART is where Miami-based Carnival trains the bridge and engineering officers for the 10 cruise lines it operates worldwide (besides Princess, the company's brands include Holland America, Cunard, and of course, Carnival). Before newly employed officers can work on a ship and then once a year during their tenure, they come here for lessons on not just operating a massive ship, but also how to work and communicate as a team, make decisions and follow procedures both in routine and extraordinary circumstances.

Combining those skills is at the core of Carnival's training, says Hans Hederstrom, the center's managing director. "You always have to plan carefully and assess risk [when handling a ship]," he says. "When those competencies interact, you create safety."

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G'day, Sydney. You're looking lovely.

Erwin Beenhakker

As real as possible

My day and a half at CSMART was an abbreviated version of the weeklong training session that a student officer would experience. I had an hour of classroom-based lessons followed by three hours in the bridge simulator and a demonstration in an engine room simulator that copies the design and equipment of actual ship engine rooms.

The building, which stands in a pancake-flat polder reclaimed from the sea 60 years ago, is so new you can smell the fresh carpet. But CSMART's most impressive attraction is the four bridge simulators (or sims) where officers can sail to ports around the world on any of the company's 101 ships. Unlike a typical airplane simulator that moves on hydraulic jacks, the bridge sims are stationary rooms built to match the bridge size and layout on two of the company's ships, the Royal Princess that took me into Sydney and Holland America's Koningsdam.

"We wanted to give the impression that when you come onto a simulator, you come onto a huge cruise vessel," says Technical Director Lars Husted. "They're huge vessels, so we wanted the [simulator] to be huge."

Despite the glowing computer displays and radar screens that dot its interior, the sim is decidedly underwhelming when I first walk in. Removable panels like those that cover office ceilings around the world are overhead and a dull patterned carpet straight out of an airport terminal is beneath my feet. The sim's most prominent feature is dark windows wrapping around three sides of the space that reflect the harsh ceiling lighting.

Once the lights are off, though, and the program is running on the 220-degree screen beyond the windows, it all gets much more exciting. Suddenly, we're in the middle of a stormy English Channel with whitecaps on the water beneath brooding skies. The ship is rolling in the heavy seas or at least feels like it's rolling. Though the room isn't moving an inch, your mind plays a lot of tricks when the horizon dips on a screen that almost surrounds you. After only a few minutes I felt a little woozy.

Everything about the sim -- the controls, the displays, the furniture and even how long it takes to walk between the different control stations -- is just how it would be on a ship. There are even virtual "binoculars" that will give you a close-up view of what's on the giant screen. "It's very important that it's realistic," Husted says. "The advantage is that you can make realistic scenarios of how long it takes to walk from point A to point B."

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Watch out, stormy seas ahead.

Kent German/CNET

Putting out an engine fire

Beyond learning how to run a ship's engines at CSMART, engineering officers also train on how to navigate a ship's interior and locate vital equipment in an emergency. Think of it like playing a video game, complete with a Microsoft Xbox controller. After a computerized ship's engine room appeared on the display in front of him, I watched an instructor use the controller to maneuver through hallways to extinguish a simulated fire. Tapping on the display even let him press buttons on virtual control panels.

The point, says Husted, is to make the experience as authentic as possible. Simulated smoke on the display obscured our view, real alarm sirens blared loudly and subwoofers made the floor vibrate just as it would onboard ship. "It's extremely realistic," he says. "[The officer hears] the same noises and feels the same vibration. What he sees [on the display] is just what he'd see in the actual room."

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A CSMART instructor uses a training station to extinguish and engine room fire.

Kent German/CNET

Taking the helm

My turn comes the next day. My goal? Maneuver the Royal Princess (she gets around) into Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour and dock at the city's cruise terminal. In other words, I'll be at the wheel of a ship that's just over 1,000 feet long and 13 decks high in the middle of one of the world's busiest ports. So, yeah, no pressure.

As the navigator, I'll be in charge of controlling the ship's direction and speed, which combine to determine our turning radius. Next to me is the co-navigator (actually, a CSMART instructor) whose role is to cross-check and challenge me. Also on the bridge is an operations director, who's watching and supervising both of us.

As I call out commands for where to take the ship (admittedly, someone was kindly suggesting what I should do), the co-navigator repeats the commands, to which I reply, "Yes." Only after that three-part verbal conversation has occurred am I allowed to actually make the ship do what I said. Instead of the giant spoked wheel you might be imagining, I'm primarily using a tiny control barely 2 inches tall to move the ship. It's amazing that something so small controls something so big. (I also can input my desired speed and heading into a computer and the ship will follow my commands.)

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Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong is a busy place.

Erwin Beenhakker

On one side is Hong Kong Island, with its mass of skyscrapers crowding the green slopes of The Peak. It's just as jaw-dropping as Sydney, but there's no time for sightseeing when the narrow harbor is crowded with buoys, other boats and the wreck of a sunken ship. Constant checks of the radar screen and the electronic chart help me stay clear of obstacles like Cunard's Queen Victoria passing on our port side and a giant oil rig under tow behind us.

Just as when you're at sea, the sim's weather conditions can change quickly. So I try not to be frazzled when a dense fog descends on us for a few minutes. But it's a few minutes later as we round the point of Kowloon that the hard part begins.

Now I have to take us a bit past the cruise terminal and back us in, all while dodging the Star Ferry pulling into its pier. Easy, perhaps, as docking a massive ship goes, but not when you've never driven anything bigger than a moving van.

A ship like this hardly stops on a dime, but I get us into position relatively smoothly. Then, once the pier is close, my co-navigator and I walk to a separate simulator on the far side of the room that's designed to mimic the feeling of standing in one of the bridge wings (the pointed ends on either side of a bridge that stick out over the water). Beyond the three-sided windows is a spherical screen that gives me a full view alongside of the ship, out to the wharf and down to the water below. Again, it's what I'd see on a real ship. (The main and bridge wing sims can operate together or independently.)

It takes a lot of adjustments on the small levers that operate the main engines and side thrusters, but I eventually get us close enough. Hello, Hong Kong, nice to see you.

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Sailing into a simulated Southampton, England we passed Cunard's Queen Mary 2

Kent German/CNET

Time for a debrief

During my debrief in the next room, an instructor evaluates my performance while showing the ship's track on an electronic chart on an 84-inch HD display together with other displays showing the radar picture and video recording. I did all right, he says, (Yay, me!) even if I took a long time getting us there.

The debrief reminds me of something Hederstrom told me the day before: Though the astonishingly immersive technology that I just experienced is critical to Carnival's training, understanding the need to always work through a plan forms its bedrock. And since bridge crew normally rotate roles during the length of a cruise, it's essential that everyone know what everyone else is doing."[Crews] should not always try to solve the problems by themselves," he said. "We all have to have the same plan in our head and follow it."

It makes me feel better knowing that my Carnival ship will be under steady control the next time I'm relaxing on a promenade deck with a mai tai. For now, though, I'm ready for some dim sum.

Tech specs

Main simulator

  • Screen size: 115 feet long, 16 feet high, 31-foot radius
  • Screen field of view: 220 degrees (exactly the field of view you'd have on a ship)
  • Projectors: 5 Barco F35 WUXGA (1,920x1,200) projectors with dual 7,500-lumen lamps

Bridge wing simulators

  • Screen size: 13-foot radius, 20 feet high
  • Screen field of view: 210 degrees
  • Projectors: 6 Barco F50 WUXGA projectors with single 5,500-lumen lamps

Approximate cost of all bridge and engine room simulators: 20 million to 25 million euros (about $21 million to $26.5 million, or £17.5 million to £21.8 million, or AU$28 million to AU$35 million).

This story appears in the spring 2017 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.