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New cruise ship simulator highlights teamwork

A Florida company is ramping up its bridge simulator training program in the wake of the Costa Concordia disaster.

Associated Press/Associated Press

The ship's bridge enjoys a commanding view over the channel leading out of the Port of Miami. On the right, queued along one quay, are four of the world's largest cruise ships. In the captain's sight line, the sun is rising behind Miami Beach's apartment blocks, making navigation more difficult.

The scene on the bridge, however, unfolds not in Miami, the world's busiest cruise port, but 25 miles to the north in Fort Lauderdale, in a simulator that Resolve Marine Group, its operator, claims is the world's most sophisticated for ships. At the flick of a switch, the scene switches to the approaches to the busy waters of New York harbour.

The facility was planned long before Jan. 13, when the Costa Concordia ran aground and capsized off the Italian coast. At least 25 people died and seven are missing.

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But the world's biggest cruise shipping lines are now eager to highlight the role of such facilities and crew training programs as they seek to protect their substantial businesses from further damage as a result of the accident, which sent booking levels down sharply.

The $6.5-million (U.S.) simulator, due to open fully next month, has been built primarily to meet the needs of Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, the world's second-largest cruise operator by revenues, to train its crews not only in ship technology but also how to work together.

The facility may prove particularly relevant if investigations of the Concordia incident focus heavily on the culture of the ship's bridge. Modern vessel management procedures should encourage officers to query and seek to rectify navigational mistakes, such as those that apparently led Francesco Schettino, the vessel's captain, to put the ship on the rocks off the island of Giglio.

The industry's efforts to underline its safety record have vocal backing in the region. Bill Johnson, director of the Port of Miami, which handled 4.1 million passengers last year, says there is probably no other industry with a safety record as good as the cruise industry's.

"This is a difficult moment right now, but I think the impact is just momentary," he says.

Carnival Corp., the largest cruise line by revenues and parent of Costa Cruises, the Concordia's operator, has its headquarters in Miami, as does Royal Caribbean.

The simulator's most important new capability, according to Joseph Farrell, Resolve Marine's founder and chief executive officer, is that it allows several different bridge teams to operate different vessels simultaneously in one simulation. This forces the crew to face up to the unpredictability of other vessels' reaction to difficult weather or other events at sea.

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Resolve can rerun the simulations afterwards with course attendees to probe their actions, Mr. Farrell says. "We can assess with an attendee, 'Why did you make that decision?' " he says.

That capability will help Royal Caribbean to underline for officers the importance of working together as a single team, says Bill Wright, senior vice-president for marine operations of Royal Caribbean International, one of Royal Caribbean's brands. Royal Caribbean has been working on problems of bridge communications since the mid-1990s, he says.

"We've been encouraging not only our captains but our senior officers to be accepting that we all make errors; we're all human beings," he says.

Everybody should feel empowered to speak up and raise a concern, he says. The simulator is particularly useful because it feels so realistic.

Mr. Johnson's concern is that the efforts by Royal Caribbean, Carnival and other big cruise lines to promote their safety record might not be enough to avert damage to the south Florida economy.

As well as the Port of Miami, the region's Port Everglades, next to the Resolve facility, last year handled another 3.6 million passengers, making it the world's second-busiest cruise facility.

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Mr. Johnson fears excessive regulation in the wake of the Concordia accident could stifle some of that activity. "We're concerned about overreaction," he says. "This is a very heavily regulated industry. I wouldn't want anyone to think there are issues."

Yet, for one business in the region at least, the prospect of a greater emphasis on safety has its upside.

Mr. Farrell says that, in addition to the nearly complete simulator, he is seeking more space to expand the training side of his business, which mainly offers salvage services.

"We're negotiating for significant space in that building over there," Mr. Farrell says, gesturing to outside the window. "You can probably guess that's a result of the incident in Italy."

Copyright The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved.

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