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State Ferries Hopes Modern Training Will Attract Younger Workforce

Simone Alicea
The bridge simulator at the Seattle Maritime Academy helps train ferry pilots and navigators.

Millions of people rode ferries last year in Washington state, but there are serious concerns about staffing ferries as the workforce ages and people retire. One way to attract younger workers is making sure training is up-to-date.

A major upgrade at Seattle Central College's Maritime Academy in the Ballard neighborhood is the introduction of about $1 million-worth of simulation technology. That includes a bridge simulator for navigators and pilots as well as an engine room simulator.

The Seattle Maritime Academy began partnering with Washington State Ferries last year, after the school finished construction on its new building. Ferry officers-in-training can use the bridge simulator to take virtual trips around Washington waters. They have to negotiate passage with other boats and emergencies such as a man overboard.

"We really put them in sticky situations, so when they get in the real world they can re-recognize that feeling of doubt and take action early and proactively," said Harlow Wood, one of the Ferries employees who developed the simulator curriculum.

The bridge simulator is a small room inside a larger dark room, akin to a black box theater. Large TV screens encircle the smaller room, which also houses real radar screens, steering technology and communication tools. 

The simulator doesn't move. But the TV screens provide an animated view of Puget Sound, its islands and a variety of boat traffic. The movement of the computer-generated image can still make you seasick. When trainees call other "boats" or members of their "crew" on the bridge phone or walkie-talkies, trainers like Wood answer them.

Wood says a lot of training used to be done in front of radar screens, which wasn't realistic. He also notes that seamen are typically assessed using a simulator at the Pacific Maritime Institute, so not having one was a disadvantage.

Mark Pickett is in charge of the simulation equipment at Seattle Maritime Academy. In addition to helping the state ferry system, he thinks the new technology will be attractive to young mariners in general.

"If you want to prepare students for the maritime industry, then you have to keep up with the maritime industry, and that means technology," Pickett said.

A Seattle native and former KNKX intern, Simone Alicea spent four years as a producer and reporter at KNKX. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University and covered breaking news for the Chicago Sun-Times. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.