"Steer course 359," the skipper tells me as I swing the rudder left 10 degrees and wait for the bow of my 800-foot tanker to move slowly to port.
Only one problem: It gets to course 359 and the simulated ship keeps right on going. A wild spin of the wheel in the opposite direction gives a moment of calm, then the realization I have overcorrected and the ship is headed in the other direction.The glacierlike handling of oil tankers is a problem for pilots from Boston Harbor to Alaska's Prince William Sound. It is one reason instructors here at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy scoff at Coast Guard Commandant Paul Yost's suggestion that a child could steer a tanker through the Alaskan waters where the Exxon Val-dez ran aground and spilled 10.1 million gallons of oil.
A recent turn at the helm of an imaginary tanker proved that reporters, if not children, are wholly unqualified to guide the floating oil fields to port.
The year-old, $800,000 simulator here is a full-scale tanker bridge. An array of computer and video equipment projects a realistic view of a harbor during the day, at night, at twilight or in fog.
In the foreground, hundreds of "feet" away, is the prow of my 80,000-ton tanker, nearly as long but much lighter than the Exxon Valdez. I stand at a virtual duplicate of the type of wheel and rudder control stand found on most ships.
In front of me, the shipmaster, academy Professor Jerome McGourthy, stands by the compass and gives orders while another professor, Thomas Bushy, serving as a chief mate, looks over my shoulder.
"Driving a ship is like piloting airplanes: hours and hours of boredom with intermittent moments of terror," Bushy says as our ship moves toward a channel at about 9 knots.
Later Bushy programs the radar computer to show Prince William Sound, and I watch as a radar blip identified as the Exxon Valdez passes me and approximates the course of the 987-foot, 211,000-ton ship to the reef that made the Valdez infamous.
Still a mystery in the Valdez disaster is why the ship veered more than two miles off course and into Bligh Reef. A miscalculation about the location of the reef might have left the Valdez with no time to respond. A supertanker travels thousands of feet before it executes a full turn; an emergency stop can take miles of water.
On our radar screen, Bushy brings the Exxon Valdez close to the reef, marked with a buoy, and then tries to avoid it. "We gave it hard right rudder and we're well beyond the buoy and we're probably aground by now" because of the reaction time required for a loaded tanker like the Valdez, Bushy says.
The four-year academy trains its 550 students on both simulators and ships and awards bachelor's degrees in marine engineering or navigation. Graduates typically go to work in the maritime industry or for the Goast Guard or the military.
The terror Bushy speaks of seems hard to imagine from the stable deck of the maritime academy - until the computer operator switches the video simulator to night mode and a clear view of my channel approach becomes a jumble of lights.
A grouping of seemingly stationary green, red and white lights means nothing to me, but to my superior officers it represents an approaching ship. Soon the distant lights are passing swiftly to port, a scant 50 yards away - too close for comfort.
Evasive action in a tanker is a slow-motion maneuver; the tanker I was operating would need a mile to go from full ahead to a full stop, and in that maneuver it would swing out of control as much as 60 degrees.
The ship would continue to move forward five lengths in making a right-angle turn. Slowing down might seem a smart thing for a novice to do. But below 5 knots, the tanker responds poorly in a turn and is more susceptible to wind and current.
And going slow can't be quickly corrected. At one point, McGourthy increases speed to compensate for my sloppy steering. "I kicked up the speed five minutes ago and we're only up one knot," he says.
The number of oil tankers has dwindled by several hundred in recent years to 3,180, said Arthur McKenzie of the Tanker Advisory Center in New York. But the average cargo is on the rise, raising the stakes in navigating them properly.
The Exxon Valdez accident, said Capt. Geoff Motte, the academy's vice president, was "an error in judgment. And that's what these simulators can cure. We can cram into a week the kind of experience it would take years to get into at sea."
The commanders at the academy scratch their heads trying to figure out how the Valdez ran aground. But they refuse to second-guess the crew without knowing the facts.
"I don't believe there's a shipmaster afloat, including me, that wouldn't admit to being in a few close shaves," Motte said. "I've never been in a collision and never been in a grounding, but I've come close."
So have I, skipper. So have I.