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Archive for the ‘training’ Category

As you may have read in previous posts I wanted to try the “online experience” for my radar renewal.  It did not go well.  I signed up paid $225.00 and received my study material and then proceeded to work myself back up to a passing proficiency for rapid radar plotting.  I took a couple of months, made an appointment at the nearest Prometric Testing center and believing I was ready, scheduled and sat for my renewal.   All went well up to this point.  The facility is clean, well organized and strict.  I arrived early and was processed quickly.

The exam was straightforward enough.  Once you get settled in at your exam station, the computer program is loaded and a timer promptly begins with your radar scenario.

There was the first part of roughly ten questions regarding theory and then the plots.  I had no difficulty with theory and scored 100%.

You get two shots at the plotting section.   It’s a normal three target screen, you need only identify the “most dangerous target” and proceed with your plot.  I must add the timer is a bit unnerving.  If you fail the first time it gives you the opportunity to select and proceed with a second chance/ different set of plots and you fly or fall at the end of the scenario.

I failed both my attempts on the exam and felt more than a bit embarrassed seeing as I had never not passed what we’ve all come to see as a less than useful skill since the advent of A.R.P.A. and modern radar systems.

I must admit that the failure was likely my fault due to my time management (or lack thereof) and perhaps a careless error.

The plots are “time sensitive” and you’re only allowed three minutes to solve for NTCPA and new course.  I overran the time limit first time out.  After the exam I noted in the instructions on this particular exam that there was no specific time for MX expressly indicated.  The instructions for MX or “time of execution” were included in the practice instructions but absent in the actual exam instructions.

This isn’t an excuse, since after the fact I  found the instructions in the practice material clearly indicated that the exam’s execution point was to be at 12 minutes.  I missed that somehow.

Okay, so I failed.  I was more than a bit upset, I have never failed this recert but I guess there’s a first time for everything.

No amount of post failure negotiation was sufficient to convince the proctors of the center to help, and the online school was adamant that in order to retest I’d have to pony up another $225.00 and reschedule.   I didn’t elect to take them up on it.

Instead I called SUNY Maritime and scheduled my one-day renewal at a “brick and mortar ” school.  I paid the fee ($325.00) and practiced the material they sent and showed up in the Bronx for the recert like I’ve done in the past.

The experience was easier in that I had an instructor on site that understood the material.  He could see which of us in class were comfortable and possessed the skill set and helped guide those who were a bit shaky during the morning practice session and boosted their confidence level.  That alone means a lot to anyone who’s uncomfortable in exam situations.

You’re not handed the cert,  it’s challenging and you earn it.  But that said, having the class in a place where it’s a familiar curricula helps.  Online courses are fine, but you’re strictly on your own at the center.  After you are scanned, frisked and asked to empty your pockets no one can or may assist you in any way.

I passed SUNY’s recert program as expected and left to deal with the gauntlet that is the NY area’s traffic to get home.

In closing, if you’re absolutely certain and speedy with rapid radar plotting you should give the online experience a go.  If you’re like me, go to a school where an instructor can kick you back inside the lines of competency and get you through this “every 5 year P.I.T.A.”.  I have a couple more times I have to submit to this ordeal and you can be sure it will be at a “brick and mortar” school from here on.

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I’m beginning my radar renewal process a bit early this time using the Calhoon MEBA Engineering School Distance Learning Program.
When I wrote the last article describing this new way to handle training and re-certification I said that I would be giving this a try as my renewal date approached.

I should say that my first attempt at finding and registering for the course was slightly side-tracked by the fact that I thought I would be using the Prometric portal.  Well let’s say that after a few calls to an endless loop of phone menu items and toll free calls including one to somewhere in southeast Asia, I found my way by calling  the Calhoon MEBA School directly and spoke to a nice young woman named Lisa Mc Neil.  (410-822-9600 ext 322).  I was able to ask all my questions and get answers from a real human being and I was set right in short order.

So here’s the deal as I understand it;

Any mariner can apply for their radar re-cert with this school, you do not have to be a member of MEBA.  Follow this link to their home page, hover your mouse over the “Online Courses” menu item and check out the drop-down menu.  Read everything then fill out your application, select your course and pay the lady.  You’ll receive an email with confirmation and then you’ll have to allow a day for processing the order.  You will receive an email confirming your registration and access to the study material and also (more importantly) your login and access to the instructors for any questions you might have (via email).

In the information link it states you have a month, but the conversation I had with Ms. McNeil made it clear that I could study longer if necessary and not have any problem.  Ms. McNeil can offer more info if you need more time.

Once you have registered and been accepted you will be given the key to the online course material and practice with it as often as you like.  The online course and testing material comes from the same source used at the Prometric Center on your exam day.
Clipboard01Okay so you’re ready to test.  The scheduling process is email based and finding the exam near your home becomes your next step.  Here’s where the Prometric System comes into play through the Calhoon website.  
Select “Locate a Test Center” and follow through the menu to filter it down by country, state, etc…

Select the course;

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Search the nearest test center;

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Select the center you want;

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Check for available dates

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So that’s what I’ve got so far.  I will report back after I’ve completed the process and let you know how it went.  So far I’m on track.

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Thanks to a book recommended to me by Kennebec Captain and my time spent reading it, I have found the words to express my frustration with Zero Tolerance Safety Programs with a couple of quotes.

“The point of risk management is not to prevent failure, for that is impossible. The point is to have a plan ready to manage and control failure when it inevitably comes.” 

“This may in fact be the real story of human and societal improvement. We talk a lot about risk management a nice hygienic phrase. But in the end, risk is necessary. Things can and will go wrong. Yet some have a better capacity to prepare for the possibility, to limit the damage, and to sometimes even retrieve success from failure.”

“When things go wrong, there seem to be three main pitfalls to avoid, three ways to fail to rescue. You could choose a wrong plan, an inadequate plan, or no plan at all. Say you’re cooking and you inadvertently set a grease pan on fire. Throwing gasoline on the fire would be a completely wrong plan.
Trying to blow the fire out would be inadequate.
And ignoring it “Fire? What fire?”would be no plan at all.”

These quotes are not my own, they are from a book (linked above) and a commencement speech.  I believe they illustrate perfectly what and how we should think about risk management as a practice.  The message we frequently get from management is the same old saw; “zero incidents, accidents, errors”.  While this has a nice ring to it and is a worthy goal, it’s not humanly possible and we know it.

Planning for failures that might occur however, is well within the realm of possibility.  Evidence of this kind of real world thinking is represented by our Vessel Spill Response Plans, salvage plans, voyage plans, operations manuals and training curricula.   These documents all articulate what to do “when” something happens or “if this happens, then”.  They are general in nature since it’s impossible to prepare for every possible permutation of events and write a specific procedure for each.  It’s left to our training and judgement after that.

High Reliability Organizations

A High Reliability Organization is one that while highly trained to avoid failure, is keenly aware of the cues that arise announcing an impending one.   The thing that makes them so reliable is that they are prepared and mindful enough to catch a bad series of events while they’re still “curable”.   But it’s not just their awareness, their resilience in the face of an event it’s how quickly they can get the situation under control and continue using the plans set in place for such an incident as a guide.

It’s not making a blanket statement of “incidents won’t happen because we don’t want them to”, it’s the real world.  The message is clear to me, coupled with proven safety procedures we need to recognize that, and prepare for WHEN things to go wrong.

The business of towing is full of risk, it’s why tug boats have fenders.  It’s a contact sport.  A sign on the bulkhead stating zero, zero and zero isn’t telling me how to accomplish it.  And you can bet Harry Potter’s magic wand is out of the question.

The ability to meet and assume that risk is tied to practical and relevant training standards.  The conflict between zero incident safety programs and reality is that if we were to eliminate all risk, nothing would get done.  Something in that statement seems to make some eyes glaze over and disconnect from the conversation.

Ships are safe in the harbor, but ships are meant to go to sea.”.

Someone has to take risks to make things happen.  Sailing across the ocean, space exploration, flying out of La Guardia Airport during bird migratory season.  None of these things happened because risk was eliminated, it was addressed and planned for.  If you think all risk can be eliminated and still see progress you’re kidding yourself.  By seeking that end you’ll find that you are paralyzed by every threat, real or imagined and taking a step ahead will never happen..

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The industry continues to drag itself into the modern age when it comes to licensing and renewals for the certificates we all need.  I recently read of a course offering that will save some money and make a radar renewal a bit more convenient, I hope.

Calhoon MEBA Engineering School has announced a program that will allow you to study online for your radar re-cert and then travel to a satellite exam center to test.   As far as I know, it is available to all with payment, not just the MEBA membership.  I have no direct knowledge of how well this works or doesn’t.

I just had a chance to look this over this morning and believe I may take advantage of this in 2014 when I’m up for renewal.  Presently the quoted $235.00 price is reasonable when you factor in the ever dwindling amount of brick and mortar schools that offer this course in reach of most candidates.   I know I’d rather avoid a five hour round trip to my nearest maritime academy for what amounts to a 10 question quiz.

We all know the one day radar renewal course is actually a practice session in the morning and an exam after lunch.  You have to show up ready to test, you either pass or fail.  If you fail you’re given a price for the extended renewal course and you’ll need to re-test at the end of that.  Add three days plus expenses to the total.

The USCG REC’s do not offer the tests anymore and haven’t for quite a while.  You’re forced to pay and attend an approved “school” and get your cert.  The classes offered invariably run from the full five day soup-to-nuts class to variations of the renewal curriculum anywhere from one to three days.  Add lodging, meals, gas and tolls and it can add up to a sizable chunk of change.

The online course touts its unfettered access to instructors and the benefit of studying online at your leisure.  The course provides a nice radar emulator which does a good job of presenting a radar screen and target advance in real time.  All the forms you’ll need for plotting are available and are shipped within a day of payment.

This is what sells the program; You then can schedule the test near your home using the Prometric Center Locator.

You make an appointment and can show up ready to test without feeling rushed or unprepared.  Not everyone will have the benefit of a testing center inside of fifty miles, but a lot of us will.  If nothing else, it’s an option.

To see if the offering will be convenient for you, check your proximity to a testing center , select “locate a test center” and select radar observer re-certification online.  Select your location from the drop-down menu to find a test center.

Just thought it sounded like something worth checking into.  Anyone with direct first hand knowledge is welcome to add what they feel is relevant.

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I had the good fortune of traveling abroad just after the Thanksgiving Holiday to visit a place far, far away. Well not so far, only about 3,000 miles as the “Continental” crow flies.

The missus and I took a flight from Newark’s Liberty International and landed in Shannon, Ireland after a 6 ½ hour flight. Although a bit “jet-lagged”, my wife and I proceeded to engage in a perilous endeavor. I was driving on the wrong side of the road for the first time.

It wasn’t as daunting as I had imagined and with a couple of cups of airport coffee and a scone for good measure we set off to drive down into Cork County and settle in at our hotel in a village called Midleton.

Main Street Midleton, Co. Cork, Ireland.

Luckily, I had caught a bit of sleep on the plane and I was negotiating the roadways of the Emerald Isle without any real difficulty. The roundabouts were at first a challenge, but no more so than driving Rt. 95 on a weekend in Jersey. With the missus as my co-pilot we made the 3 hour trip to Midleton.  We only made a few minor navigational errors and managed to arrive safely.

Prior to leaving on our holiday I had contacted the Port Commisioner’s office in Cork City through their website with the hopes of having a look at the tugs working in the second largest natural harbor in the world and maybe chat with my counterparts and compare notes.  I received a reply from Captain Paul O’Regan inviting us to do just that.  We made arrangements to stop in the Customs House in Cork City on the Monday following our arrival and have a chat and coffee.  We met with Captain O’Regan and Captain Noel Fitzgerald of the VS Tug Gerry O’Sullivan.

Co. Cork Customs House

In this day and age of Homeland Security precautions, TWIC cards and red tape, both my wife and me were invited to join the crew of the VS Tug Gerry O’Sullivan for their next tow on Wednesday.  No ID cards, bloodwork or body cavity searches required.

A ship was due to arrive and discharge at the Conoco Phillips facility in Cobh Harbor (pronounced Cove) on the morning tide and we gladly accepted the invitation and kept in touch for the next day or so.

Commemorative statue of Annie Moore and her two brothers Phillip and Anthony on the wharf at the Cobh Heritage Center.

The Annie Moore story

On Wednesday morning we arrived at the Cobh Heritage center and parked behind the gates.  The master had yet to arrive and we were welcomed aboard and chatted with the Bos’n while we were awaiting the Captain’s arrival. Captain Fitzgerald showed up and gave us the “nickel tour”.  A coffee, some introductions and then underway.

The crew consisted of the Master Noel Fitzgerald, Chief Engineer Panos Karousos, Bos’n Killian O’Brien and their wheelhouse trainee Gerry Moran.

With 4,000 bhp, clean modern lines and tight quarters, the Gerry O’Sullivan is a Voith-Schneider twin drive tractor tug, she is also a “day boat”  .  The crew spreads themselves among the work vessels that are under the control of the port.  They could be assigned to any manner of work boat for their tours that might include drag operations to smooth the bottom, or maybe tend navigation buoys, to manning tugboats.  Shore-side work is also in their job description.  They are each a “Jack of all trades”.  Their tours last two weeks on and off, they are on call as opposed to living on the boat.  Trainees for the wheelhouse are on their own time until they are qualified and licensed to handle the boat.  Not too different from the way we did it in the past.  We call it “hamming”, or “ham and egging”.

The tow; To say it was impressive is an understatement, I’ve never experienced such a nimble boat.

(a VS tug in Antwerp, Demonstration This video is of a similar tug, there are some configuration differences but the maneuvering is the same.  The fun stuff starts at the 12m30sec mark ).

We flanked away from the wharf and quickly turned within a boat length, the stern no more than one or two meters from the wall. The Gerry O’Sullivan easily turned on a dime and steadied so quickly it could have been on a track.

Herself

The trip out to the sea buoy revealed that the buoy system is the opposite of the system in place here in the US .The IALA Region A System is the rule.

Roches Point Light

The G.O’s sea keeping quality wasn’t that much different from a conventional tug.  As we approached the harbor entrance the ride was, let’s say, a bit lively. The tug isn’t really suited to coastal towing but then again their work is primarily ship docking. It handled the 2-3 meter swells well enough, it wasn’t uncomfortable considering.


Tug Alex tethered for emergency arrest to the M/T Americas Spirit

As we met and escorted the ship from Roches Point Light, another tug was tethered to her stern to provide arresting capability in case of a steering casualty.  The harbor is large but there is a tight entrance channel that requires a dead-on approach.

The pilot kept her neatly on the ranges and he had little traffic to worry about, only a naval vessel that was outbound for sea that met us when we cleared the narrows.

The docking was going to be conducted during the last hour of the incoming tide and as we approached, the G.O. approached the starboard bow and put up her working line.  The method for assisting the ship with a tractor involves turning “stern to” the work.  That is, we approached the starboard bow with the stern of the tug.  This places the forward mounted drives in the best position for maneuvering during the job.

Putting up the ship line, note the messenger line and the main hawser in the "staple".

The line used for assist work is a heavy 9″ circ. samson braid hawser pennant attached to a smaller diameter but stronger synthetic main line on the drum.  The deck gang on the ship has to winch it aboard mechanically.  Once secured, we ride the ship until the pilot slows for the approach.

Of note is the way the tug will work alongside.  The pilot orders the G.O. to back the bow, the tug backs away quickly and while doing so a substantial amount of hawser is deployed to the length of about 200′.  This allows the tug to apply force without eating its own “dirty water” or better known as “quickwater”.

At first I thought the brake had failed until I realized the Bos’n was handling the controls.  Deploying and retrieving the slack is handled by the Bos’n who takes up station alongside the helmsman after the line is sent up to the ship.  Conventional tugs in the States don’t usually release that kind of slack when docking a ship.  We tend to stay snugged up.  Captain Fitzgerald explained that the added slack allows the tug to exert her force without overloading the line vertically, the longer lead gives the tug clean water to work in and ensures the line won’t let go from excessive downward force.  Smart.

It all happens very quickly, when the pilot asks the tug to back, the drives are reversed , the throttles are increased and the brake on the drum is released so slack can be powered out at the speed of the tug’s sternway.

I didn’t anticipate how fast our helmsman (Gerry) would back away from the ship.  With no lag time for clutches, (because there aren’t any)forward to astern happens in the blink of an eye.  The change of thrust overcomes its former motion quickly.  The Bos’n matches the speed of the winch with the tug’s motion and secures his brake as the throttles are reversed and sternway is reduced to “fetch” into the line.  Once set, power is applied and the boat can swing whichever way is required to apply the necessary force to oblige the pilot’s request.  When the pilot calls for “ahead easy” the tug closes its distance to the ship as the line is winched in as fast as it went out. In a flash we’re snugged up “stern-to” the ship and pushing her toward the berth.

It went as I expected, no fanfare, professional, boring.  Just the way we like it. Our trip back to the dock was bright and sunny.  We told tales and compared work.  We discussed licensing and training.  It seems tugboat men are the same all over, ribbing each other, tall tales and good humor.  The men of the G.O. were just as curious about how we worked in the States as I was with their operation.  A brilliant experience, I can’t thank the crew and Captains Fitzgerald and  O’Regan enough.

I know, a tugboat ride on my vacation, one of the few times I wanted to be on a boat on my time off.


I wrote this as a story about a fun day and some detail of how these men work a V.S. tug.  I didn’t intend nor do I wish to go into a deep analysis of how these boats work.  I was aboard for one job, I can’t possibly know or do justice to the skills these men possess.  I had a small glimpse of their professionalism, expertise, and good humor.  Enjoy the photos.

Cork Waterfront

A waterfront pub, Cork City.

The inner harbor, Cork City.

Control station

Chatting with the Bos'n Outbound Cobh Harbor

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We seem to take for granted the learning process when it comes to many things, not the least of which includes our physical motor skills and our cognitive ability to quantify a situation as good or bad.  Let’s take walking for example, you learn how to balance and toddle along very young, much to your mother’s delight.  Soon after that, the joyful look on Mom’s face becomes terror when you’ve learned how to run, and of course, you run with abandon everywhere.   You haven’t learned when it’s okay to run, you just run.  But in trying to teach you, Mom and Dad had to let you take a couple of  falls. Soon enough you get the idea that running is good some of the time, but not a good idea all of the time.  The first time you touch something hot serves a painful lesson, but it’s then we learn that fire is hot and ice is cold.  All the skills we acquire as we grow lead us to becoming an adult with the capacity to view our world as a collection of safe/unsafe, fun/scary, dangerous/fun or stupid moves.

“The triple bridges up the Hackensack closed on him after giving him permission to proceed. This was about 2 am and everything up there is pitch black. As soon as he realized the bridge was coming down, he threw it into full reverse, but it wasn’t soon enough. He did lose his job but the USCG did not take any action against him. They had the radio conversation on tape and exonerated him.”

When in comes to tugs and tows one could spend all day describing the mind-set needed by a boat handler but in the end it has to be learned.  The training wheels come off pretty early and the actual boat handling begins  as soon as the ticket  is in hand.  The hard part isn’t what one might think, it’s not the timing of the throttle or depth perception, it’s situational awareness.

All of the things that come into play while maneuvering a tug and tow for transits, docking, sailings, or re-configuring are subject to being re-evaluated as they progress or deteriorate using every input, hunch, suspicion, or sensation. Recognizing that things have gone bad is not easy.  You’d think it would be in your gut, but novice boat handlers don’t have the judgement or experience that exposes the “bad stuff” early in the maneuver. Knowing when to pull the plug is the hard part.  Recognizing it too late and then pushing a bad situation in the hopes of saving the day will end badly.  So it serves a boatman to understand his limitations well before any operation is undertaken.  Proper planning prevents piss poor performance.

The towing industry is a contact sport, shit happens and we’ve all had our share of “bell ringers” and bad days.  The key is to learn from them.  But, recognizing the threshold of disaster is a difficult matter when it comes to to training someone for it.  In order to make that determination, you have to see things go bad and “live it”.  That threshold  is usually reached well before things go wrong.  The chain of failure starts earlier than one might think (these days referred to as the “root cause”).  When a novice is training he practices voyage planning, sailings,  transits, and dockings.  He or she is watched and guided to safely execute the maneuvers, but they need to be allowed to screw it up (to a point).  The best lesson is one that has some “pucker factor” at work.  The greater the “pucker”, the more unforgettable the lesson.

The mark of a mature boatman is apparent when and how he deals with a bad situation.  Any novice who’s had a bit of time behind the wheel can sail and dock a barge when conditions are ideal.  The test comes when everything you thought you knew comes up short, then the fact that you won’t do anything new in an emergency becomes evident.  How you handle an adverse turn of events comes from learning how to expect the unexpected and being prepared to deal with it.

One of the most important skills is to know is when to start over.  It’s “plan B”.

The saying; “Physics is a bitch” couldn’t be more accurate.  The behavior of the tow’s mass and inertia can be calculated and parsed to the nth degree.  But who really does that?  Well actually we do, when we check the current, wind, traffic, and our gut. Quoting a post in the Captain forum from a Captain to a new mate, “Son, never approach a dock faster than you’d want to hit it”.  The approach and landing is generally a controlled crash.  We’re talking inches per second.

Ebb current rounding Tremley Point and losing it in the turn brought this one to a sudden stop. It made one Hell of an “impression”.

Giving thought to how we should proceed involves planning for as many contingencies as we can think of.  Time on deck provides the means to acquire that judgement.  But watching someone having a bad day is not as indelible as having the bad day yourself.  That crystalline intensity isn’t there.

Every deckhand with some time under his belt utters the same monologue when the pilothouse is having a problem.  He knows exactly where the poor bastard went wrong and has the answer to all things “tugboat” until he himself is at the helm envisioning all too late what he should have done.  There isn’t a working boatman alive that can claim he has never had a reportable damage. You can’t be in this industry and not have had an incident.  It’s the nature of the job.  Incidents that don’t get you or anyone else killed or maimed serve as educational opportunities.  You (hopefully) never forget the “lesson learned”.

With luck and determination, a good number of candidates for the wheelhouse survive their “baptisms by fire” and turn out to be competent and capable boat-handlers.  Most recognize that their careers are ongoing educational seminars at “Tugboat U”.   The number of years one is on the job is not insurance against error.  Even with 30+ years at the wheel, errors occur.   They don’t happen as often, but they happen none the less.  Overestimating rudder power and underestimating the wind could turn a simple approach to an “all astern frantic” exercise.  With luck it becomes a footnote and lesson learned, catch it too late, disaster.

Allowing for error during training is one of the most difficult lines to walk in this business.  Every trainer has a different comfort level and each trainee is unique. Some are granted a bit more leash  while others are held a little more tightly until their skills improve and allow for more freedom from intervention. Overall, the aim is to expand the limits of one’s skill level when it comes to error management.  The only practical way to do that is to let the situation develop and address it.  If you haven’t been allowed to deal with a bad situation, you’ll never be able to defuse one.  It sounds like a “Catch 22″ but the many factors that have an effect on decision making can’t be listed in a curriculum.

The U.S. Navy has intensive and expensive training for damage-control and fire fighting.  They practice air combat maneuvers and test the mettle of their people in relatively controlled environments.  The intensity of having water up to your ass while you plug a hole in the hull or flames licking at your heels knocking down an engine room fire, or someone at your six with “missile lock”.  It’s about as real as it can get, but it’s still a training exercise.  The ship isn’t really sinking or afire and that missile isn’t really heading for your tailpipe.

On tugs, we have to create these training opportunities as we work.  We don’t have the luxury of the reset button.  The set-up and execution of specific maneuvers are conducted in the real world with little room for dramatic errors.   Some elements are frequently encountered during the hitch.  We see wind, current and traffic every day.  We deal with strange berth assignments that test our close quarter maneuvering skills daily.  We utilize assist boats not too differently than docking masters on large ships.  When an assist boat is used, the equation now includes another whole set of considerations.  Not the least of which would be keeping it in position safely and using it to its greatest advantage.  All of these skills are learned on the job, not in school.

It’s been mentioned that simulators would be useful in giving wheelhouse candidates a safer environment to experience their “Kobiyashi Maru Incident”.  I can agree to a point, the quality of simulators has improved dramatically in the last ten years but the reset button is still there.  It’s an expensive course of limited value in my opinion.  I can’t say that I would have a lot of  faith in a trainee telling me that he had the high score on the simulator as we are on approach to Hell’s Gate drawing 25′ at max flood, eastbound, meeting a westbound deep draft sailboat in mid-channel.  There’s a whole lot more at stake then a grade at that point.

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