Jim Dawson - July 2009


High Seas in the Simulator!
A Trip to Clayton M.E.B.A. Engineering School
James Dawson

   Like many travelers on Rt. 33, I had often seen the entrance to the Calhoon M.E.B.A. School (CMES) near Easton and even what appeared to be the prow of a ship there but, other than thinking it was some kind of engineering school, I really hadn’t a clue as to what it was or what it did.
    I was reminded of it again in early April when pirates boarded the U.S. merchant ship Maersk Alabama off the coast of Somalia in a failed takeover. The engineering officers and 2nd mate are members of the M.E.B.A, which stands for Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association, and most had received some form of continuing education at the school.
    Just a few weeks later, I was fortunate enough to get a tour of CMES, as they were hosting the annual Talbot County Free Library Volunteer Appreciation Lunch. I heard that we would get a demonstration of the Ship’s Bridge Simulation Suite, and I didn’t want to miss that. Would there be a simulated pirate attack? But of course, that is no joking matter.
    Although the Talbot County Free Library has 30 paid staff members to serve its three locations at Easton, St. Michaels and Tilghman, it is fortunate enough to have 80 unpaid volunteers who devote thousands of hours a year assisting the staff in various day-to-day operations, everything from shelving books to helping patrons. Volunteer help is crucial in keeping our county library system operating efficiently. These generous folks know the value of a good library, but their efforts are largely unnoticed by the public.
    The volunteer appreciation lunch is the library’s way of thanking them all for their time and effort. It is paid for with the proceeds from various fundraising activities, book sales, etc. at no cost to the taxpayer. It was our Outreach Services and Volunteer Coordinator, Sabine Simonson, who arranged for this trip to CMES. Her husband, Rick Simonson, teaches Shipboard Emergency Response classes there, so we had an “in.”
    There were sixty of us in our group, a mix of library staff and volunteers. We assembled in a large classroom and our host, Chuck Eser, introduced himself and gave us a brief history of CMES and the U.S. Merchant Marine. Mr. Eser is the Academic Manager and also Interim Director. On the wall of the auditorium behind him was a large painting of a World War II Liberty ship, depicting cargo operations during the D-day invasion.
    CMES was established in Baltimore in 1966 and opened near St. Michaels in 1980. It has 688 acres with about a mile of Miles River waterfront. Mr. Eser told us that the M.E.B.A. was established in 1875, initially to address unsafe operating practices and design standards associated with then emerging steam propulsion technology. Later, the M.E.B.A. transformed as a union for the engineering officers of the United States Merchant Marine.
    Commercial vessels registered in the United States must comply with design, construction, safety, and manning standards/regulations prescribed by U.S. law. Some of these regulations are attributed to the Jones Act of 1920, which includes mandates that any vessel carrying cargo from one U.S. port to another must have certified ships and manning. In other words, top-notch people running the best ships.
    This is where schools like CMES and the U.S. Maritime Academies come in. These schools are dedicated to delivering the best maritime training to U.S. mariners. CMES is a bit unique, however. It is funded by the shipping companies that are contracted with the M.E.B.A. This effort is a wonderful example of how unions and businesses can cooperate for everyone’s benefit and not be rivals, which can sometimes be the case. These businesses know the value of a good education and are willing to pay for it.
    Our Merchant Marine is actually one year older than the United States itself. It dates its formation from a June 12, 1775 skirmish when some American sailors armed with pitchforks and guns attacked the H.M.S. Margaretta off the coast of Maine. They whipped the Limeys and captured the Margaretta, which result helped spur the Colonies to declare war against England. Ironically, had we lost that War, those sailors would have been hanged as pirates.
    The U.S. Merchant Marine not only carries cargo in peacetime, but has been active in every war since the Revolution and even renders valuable assistance in natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.
    It was indispensable during World War II because only the U.S. Merchant Marine could have carried the huge numbers of supplies needed to support our troops fighting overseas, on two fronts, thousands of miles from home. We built thousands of Liberty ships during the war to keep the supply lines open. Our enemies knew this but, as the phrase goes, we could build them faster than the Nazis could sink them.
    But sink them they did, taking 8,500 brave crew members to their deaths. Mr. Eser told us that the U.S. Merchant Marine had the highest casualty rate than any of the Armed Forces. The statistics are astonishing. Casualties were 1 in 421 for the Coast Guard, 1 in 114 for the Navy, 1 in 48 for the Army, 1 in 34 for the Marines and a terrifying 1 in 22 for the Merchant Marine.
    And because these merchant mariners worked for private companies and were not part of the Armed Services, none of them were entitled to any veterans benefits and could not even belong to the V.F.W. It wasn’t until 1998 that merchant mariners who were active during war were given veterans’ status.
    Sadly, their sacrifice is still largely unknown and unrecognized by the public, but as you come in the entrance of CMES, you can see a fitting memorial to these brave souls and their families. This memorial includes the outline of the full-sized ship’s hull seen from Rt. 33.
    But despite this proud heritage, competition from under-regulated ships and crews from the rest of the world have taken their toll on our once mighty Merchant Marine. Its numbers have dwindled from a high of about 5,000 ships in 1950 to fewer than 500 today.
    This ended our introduction and it was on to the main attraction (for me, anyway), the full-sized computer simulation of a ship’s pilot house.
    CMES‘ Ships Bridge Simulation Suite boasts ten stations that can represent a ship’s bridge. Two are classified as Full-mission Bridges, which means that they are configured just like a real ship. Two bridges are known as Part-task. These include less real equipment, but have all the functions available via a graphic user interface. The remaining six bridges are computer workstations in cubicles.
    Our tour group was split into two units, each assigned to one of the Full-mission Bridges. The bridges were loaded with software that represents a class of 100-foot USCG Patrol Vessel. These bridges are complete with instrument panels, RADAR screens, electronic chart console, steering and navigation station, and gyrocompass. The library of simulated vessels includes tankers, container ships, bulk carriers, cruise vessels, high-speed ferry boats, car carriers and patrol craft. Overhead projectors offer nearly a 360º view of the exercise area. Conditions can be set to simulate tides accurate for any time of the day or night, even storms with 30-foot waves.
    Mr. Eser said that our group would be on two Coast Guard cutters, and sure enough, we could see the other one through the pilot house windows off to our starboard. I couldn’t help but wave at it, but it was only the simulated ship, there were no simulated library volunteers or crew on it to wave back at me.
    As we left Baltimore Harbor at 30 knots, the feeling of motion was uncanny. You could look all around and see buildings and ships approaching, passing by and then moving away behind us. Not only would you swear that you were moving, but that the pilot house was mounted on gimbals and being tilted to simulate turns.
    But it was all an illusion. It was only when you closed your eyes that you realized the room was stationary, but as soon as you opened them, you’d swear you were moving again. The part of the brain that “knew” this was fake just couldn’t convince the part of the brain working the reflexes not to react to what it “saw.”
    There were other simulated ships moving around the harbor and everything interacted with each other according to the rules of the road and the laws of physics. If you pass too close to another ship, the computer simulates the wake and even the “suction” another ship would make.
    I’m about the most cautious person in the world in real life, but suddenly mischief seized me and I tried my best to get our host to ram a ship carrying tanks of liquefied natural gas, I mean since it was fake, what the heck, but he wouldn’t do it.
    In any event, it would have been a poor target for a catastrophe. Mr. Eser said that liquefied natural gas is so intensely cold and in such concentration it is next to impossible to make it explode. And, had we rammed the ship, there would have been no simulated crash. The computer program would have shut down and whoever was at the wheel would have had to explain himself. And none of us wanted the experience of a simulated board of inquiry. We might miss lunch!
    I was able to convince him to slam on the “brakes” and go into full reverse (cutters handle like sports cars compared to tankers). I’ve had some experience with boats and so I can say that it looked and FELT completely real. You brace yourself for all this “activity” in spite of yourself. You can’t help it. In fact, on an earlier tour of the simulator, an experienced sailor overcompensated for a fake turn and fell down. Some visitors have even gotten seasick!
    Everything is completely interactive with the controls on the “bridge.” You can run “aground” if you’re not careful. We went through a sudden storm and the simulated waves caused a simulated ferry in the simulated harbor to “capsize,” just like a real ferry would have done in those waves. There was even simulated spray as we crashed through these computer-generated waves. It took only a second and the flip of a switch to whistle up this wind. It came up even faster than a storm would have on the real Chesapeake Bay, which is famous for its temperamental weather.
    Our harbor tour stopped just short of the Key Bridge, but we could have continued on down the Bay if we’d had the time. Mr. Eser then invited us to stroll outside on “deck” of the good ship Talbot County Free Library. Out there, between the mock-up of a pilot house and the projection screens, the magician’s trick was revealed even to the most landlocked parts of our brains. Our instructor also pointed out the now obvious seams between the edges of the projected images.
    This was a reminder that, despite all the 21st century technology, it was just a painted ship upon a painted ocean. But there was still one final surprise when we all realized that there was no glass in any of the pilot house windows we had been looking through! It was amazing. No doubt there will be home versions soon.
    Next, it was on to the lunch. Robert Horvath, the Director of the Library, gave a speech thanking the volunteers. He wisely kept it short as we were ravenous after all that salt air. There’s nothing like a cruise to whet the appetite.
    I don’t know what they serve the students normally, but our fare was mixed green salad with olives, artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, feta cheese and pine nuts in oregano lemon dressing and poached chicken breast stuffed with mixed vegetable mousse, wild mushroom and tomato risotto, glazed carrots and chicken jus. Dessert was crepe filled with chocolate mousse and dried cranberry scone with marinated strawberries. It was all excellent. Our compliments to the chef. It’s too bad that the “mess hall” at CMES isn’t open to the public, but it’s not.
    Thank you, CMES and Mr. Eser, for your hospitality. CMES gives occasional tours for civic groups and classes. Check out their web site for information.
    And don’t forget to thank a volunteer the next time you go to the Library. They’ve earned their sea legs and much more.