Massachusetts Maritime Academy is about to play a starring role on cable television.
Academy officials hosted a film crew from the Discovery Channel last week who were filming a program to air later this month about the grounding of the cruise ship Costa Concordia off the coast of Giglio, Italy, last month.
Admiral Richard G. Gurnon, the academy president, said a member of the Discovery Channel film crew had recently seen a newscast about the new 360-degree ship’s bridge simulator at the academy and suggested shooting part of the documentary there.
Pertinent data from the Concordia, particularly its speed and track through the water, were input into the academy’s simulator, the admiral said. That allowed them to get a real-time view of exactly what happened to the ship.
The simulator is a multi-million dollar, state-of-the art piece of equipment that teaches Mass Maritime cadets how to pilot a ship by giving them the virtual experience of being on the bridge of a ship and navigating through dozens of ports around the world.
“They wanted to film from inside and get thoughts on what might have happened and to replicate what the bridge might have looked like on the Concordia,” Admiral Gurnon explained.
The simulator is a 20-foot high, 50-foot in diameter circular room with a 360-degree screen. In the middle of the room is a state-of-the-art ship’s bridge, from where you can virtually navigate one of 200 different types of ships through 40 different ports around the world, from Shanghai to New York City. Atop the bridge are 10 projectors that project images of land, sea and coastline onto the surround screen inside the room.
In addition to different ships and ports, cadets can experience different weather patterns and sea conditions. Navigating can be done in virtual day or night, and obstacles such as sea creatures or other boats and ships can be placed in the student’s way.
A total of 45 PCs are used to house the software that generates the images and conditions inside the simulator. The simulator arrived at Mass Maritime in September 2011, at a cost of $2 million. Approximately $1.2 million is invested in the software that creates the images and conditions.
The admiral said the Discovery Channel crew was in and out quickly. The London-based team called on Wednesday, January 25, arrived two days later on Friday, worked all day Saturday from 7 in the morning until 8 that night, then from 7 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon Sunday. As soon as they were done Sunday, they left for Logan Airport to catch their plane back to London.
Along with the simulator, the crew also filmed lifeboats on the academy campus. The admiral said some witness accounts have suggested that the Concordia’s crew were unsure of themselves when it came to launching the ship’s lifeboats.
“It wasn’t that the crew didn’t know how to launch the lifeboats, it’s just that the mechanism for the Concordia’s lifeboats was very herky-jerky,” the admiral said. “Lifeboat launching is almost by design a bumpy ride, so we showed them that.”
In addition to being at the academy, the Discovery Channel crew also went to the Steamship Authority in Woods Hole and shot footage in the engine room onboard the ferry Island Home, Admiral Gurnon said.
Captain Francis McDonald, vice president of operations for the academy, said the Discovery Channel crew also shot a team of experts from Mass Maritime examining data and information in an attempt to theorize what may have happened on the Concordia’s bridge leading up to the accident.
Capt. McDonald said the group examined photographs of the Concordia through Google images, and read eyewitness accounts. Capt. Craig Dalton, a professor of marine transportation at Mass Maritime and a master mariner, explained that all ships have a data recorder onboard that is similar to the black box onboard an airplane. The information contained in the ship’s data recorder is collected through what is called Automatic Identification System (AIS), a system by which ships transmit their navigation data to other ships for enhanced safety. The team accessed the Concordia’s AIS information from the website of QPS (Quality Positioning Services), a marine surveying firm based in The Netherlands. That information was input into the simulator for the re-creation of the Concordia accident.
“We had what we learned from our own simulation and we had a chief engineer in here, a first officer who sails cruise ships, two of our own master mariners, and we all sat around and put all this information together and kept walking through this,” Capt. McDonald said.
What the group determined, after surveying all the available information, and recreating the incident in the simulator, answers at least one question about the incident, Admiral Gurnon said. The ship had a gash cut into its port side, but it tipped to its starboard side, the admiral noted. How did that happen? The group’s conclusion was—wind.
The team theorized that after the ship hit the reef, and a hole was gouged in its side, water rushed in and flooded the engine room, knocking out the electric motors, the admiral said. The ship then lost power, coasted nearly a mile to the north, then hit a 20-knot wind coming out of the northeast. That wind spun the ship around and pushed it up against the beach.
Capt. McDonald said he was confident the group who were here came up with what is a solid hypothesis.
He also said the instrumentation on the bridge inside the simulator is identical to what is used in the maritime industry. That allowed the Mass Maritime team to show the Discovery Channel crew what may have happened onboard the Concordia. He said that the compiled data, along with the simulator recreation, led the team to believe the accident was the result of “an intentional deviation off the approved course.”
The captain also said he believes the Discovery Channel documentary will pose a couple of theories as to what might have happened, but ultimately “they’re going to make the case, long before the investigation is over, [that] it’s operator error.”
Admiral Gurnon said it was the first time the academy hosted a film crew from the Discovery Channel. “It was great to be able to show off our simulator,” he said. “It’s a terrific piece of equipment for the students.”
The Discovery Channel special is scheduled to air Sunday night, February 19. A specific time has not been set yet, but a spokesman for the network said it will likely air at 9 o’clock that night.