Training & Education: At the Leading Edge

Joseph Keefe
Wednesday, August 01, 2012
RANGER: Mass. Maritime Academy’s smaller platform training ship

Innovative Brown Water Programs


Arguably the best equipped and most environmentally sound maritime campus in the country, Mass. Maritime also finds itself (not by accident) at the leading edge of a fundamental change in how maritime academies deliver education in a changing marketplace. At the heart of that effort is a comprehensive workboat simulation and training program.


Same Maritime Roots: Different Industry Demographics
Clinging tightly to its maritime roots and firmly anchored in the crystal clear waters that surround its picturesque campus, the Massachusetts Maritime Academy last month sent the largest graduating class in its 212-year history out into the workplace. Not all of today’s graduates aspire to go to sea, but about one-half of cadets still participate in traditional curriculum, culminating in a Coast Guard license allowing them to work at sea in the engineroom or on deck. Significantly, many of those are also opting to maximize their knowledge in workboat training through a unique and comprehensive training module now available on campus.

The programs reflect the changing demographics of the U.S. merchant fleet where virtually 99 percent of the approximate 40,000 domestic hulls can now be classified as brown water workboats. Leveraging that statistic and adjusting to the times, MMA finds itself out in front as inland and coastwise operators call out for competent mariners.


State-of-the-Art & Environmentally Aware
At Mass. Maritime, classroom buildings surrounded by LEED Gold certified dormitories and the recently completed ABS Information Commons which houses a full mission Transas Bridge simulator (made largely possible by a $3 million donation from the American Bureau of Shipping) highlight the modern infrastructure on the Buzzards Bay campus. Towering above all of it is the Academy’s futuristic wind turbine which not only supplies a fair percentage of the Academy’s hotel load but also sends power in one form or another back into the grid and returns money to the school’s coffers. Once just a mere curiosity and a boon to MMA’s bottom line, the turbine may someday put today’s cadets out in front of the pack as the U.S. wind energy market tries to gain some headway. In the meantime, the tug and workboat curriculum is already yielding fruit for the academy – and industry, too.

The showpiece state-of-the-art, DNV-certified and DP capable full mission simulator housed in the sparkling ABS Information Commons may well be the most visible training upgrade on campus, but another simulator – in place for two years – serves as the heartbeat of the academy’s rapidly expanding brownwater programs. Bolstered by the T/V “Ranger,” a 1981-built, 80’ LOA, twin screw training vessel, the two assets are today providing repeatable, real life training for cadets. In fact, Mass. Maritime’s elective courses (Tugs & Towing I and Tugs & Towing II) are now among the most popular with deck cadets, second only to “diesels for deckies.”

Acquired in the mid 1980's, RANGER has been training students for 25 years. Arguably the perfect training platform for this type of training, it was originally built and intended for service in the U.S. Gulf offshore oil industry as a "standby boat" in the oil field. But, the boat never saw service and the academy purchased the RANGER at an attractive price. Today, RANGER is underway as many as 5 days a week, further dispelling the notion that the nation’s maritime academies provide much in the way of book learning and little in the way of practical knowledge.


The Curriculum Evolves
The RANGER supports two deck courses: Applied Shiphandling I and Applied Shiphandling II; each limited to a maximum of 16 students at any one time. Through the program, half of the class train in the academy’s 360 tug simulator for 4 hours, while the other 8 students are underway on the RANGER for the same time frame. The 8 student groups alternate weekly between the RANGER and the 360 simulator. RANGER also provides training to the two semester electives Tugs & Towing I and Tugs & Towing II. In terms of seamanship skills alone, the weekly instruction goes far beyond that possible on the larger, traditional bluewater style training vessel. And, the vessel’s engineroom provides a suitable platform for cadets involved in the “diesels for deckies” course; obtaining hands-on training in lining up, starting and bringing down a typical diesel engine. In an inland maritime market where many vessels do not require an engineer to get underway, the head start for these future brownwater mariners is invaluable.

MMA professor (Captain) Patrick Modic, alluding to the almost daily hands-on training afforded by the vessel, describes the Ranger as “… possibly the best simulator we have.” Nevertheless, the academy’s 360 vision Transas tug simulator is also an undeniably valuable asset. Appropriately, I rounded out my visit to the academy by operating a tugboat in “Z Drive” mode for a short time in the simulator. I managed not to wreck anything, but then, had I done so, this was arguably the perfect place to do it. Truly a “plug and play” training aid, the simulator is also fitted with flanking and steering handles for western rivers applications, single and double screw applications, a towing winch and full view aft.

Controllers for all applications can be switched out in minutes to simulate different types of equipment. With the programs and equipment constantly receiving upgrades, Modic also reported that whenever industry demands a particular brand / type of equipment for continuing education / professional training, the cadets win, too. Eventually, the tug simulator will be interconnected with the full mission simulator in the ABS commons building to create realistic interaction between larger tonnage and ship assist tug operations.

Looking to further expand faculty capabilities to augment towing training, the academy actively seeks qualified towing professionals to round out an already robust staff. Finding those skills, matched with the academic credentials necessary for a university level atmosphere, is a rare combination to find.

Rounding out the training package at the academy is their Electronics Navigation laboratory, where as many as 8 “own ship” exercises can be conducted at the same time, using 40” projection monitors, and Radar and ECDIS overlays. The academy’s ECDIS course, conducted in this simulation environment, recently received its approvals. The curriculum, bolstered by up-to-date equipment, ensures that the Academy will remain firmly rooted in maritime training for generations to come.


Looking Inland; not Inward
As the academy’s complement of modern training assets and personnel continues to expand, so too, does the school’s continuing education menu. Partnering with local hotels to provide convenient and cost-effective housing for visiting professionals, the location, equipment and instructional personnel all add up to quality education on many levels. A key component of this metric is the academy’s recognition that maritime training has to change, not only to reflect new technologies, but also to reflect the demographics of the industries they serve. That process is always evolving in Buzzards Bay.

Inland and Brown water operators such as Kirby Marine, Edison Chouest, Hornbeck, Ingram, Otto Candies, Reinauer and a raft of others have taken notice and in recent years, snapped up dozens of graduates. As the curriculum evolves even further, that trend will continue. For the greater maritime industry as a whole, change – regulatory, environmental and economics –seems to be the only constant –now sees another sea change. This time, and emanating from the Buzzards Bay campus of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, it is change they can finally embrace.   


Joseph Keefe is Editor of MarineNews magazine.


Published in the July 2012 edition of MarineNews -

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