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Realistic Tug Boat Simulator Puts W.Va. on The Map

Glynis Board

A new tool to train riverboat workers allows trainees to smack into bridges and barges without risking millions of dollars in damages.

The tri-state port of Huntington is the largest inland port in America—bigger than Baltimore and bigger than Philadelphia, based on the tonnage that travels through. That river activity accounts for more than a billion and a half dollars of West Virginia’s economy, as well as some 10,000 jobs. And the inland maritime industry is projecting 1.5 percent in job growth annually over the next decade.

The Inland Waterways Academy has been training folks to fill these river jobs—everything from deckhands to captains—for the past 14 years. Now they have a training tool that is one of only a handful throughout the country.

John Whiteley is the executive director of workforce development for Mountwest Technical and Community College in addition to being the director of the Inland Waterways Academy at Mountwest. He stands at the helm of a faux pilothouse, throttles in front of him, surrounded by screens that show a coast guard boat and choppy waters all around him.

“So we’re coming into Brunswick, Georgia,” he explains, “which is a submarine base. We have a radar display that actually indicates what you would see on the radar in this area. The next thing up there is an electronic chart that tells you where you are…”

Whiteley says he and his staff have just finished training on the simulator so they can now begin to train students, and offer opportunities for experienced boat workers to get additional training, too.

He explains that an instructor stands outside the wheelhouse and can create scenarios like steering failure, an engine failure, or a fire in the engine room, as well as weather like rain or snow.

“When the scenario is done we then take them into a debrief room and we can show them what they did and talk them through it,” He says.  “That’s where the learning actually takes place.”


He says while the simulator doesn’t physically move, the 180-degree visuals leave many rocking back and forth nonetheless. Whiteley says actual rivers and ports are modeled from life to be as close to real as possible in the simulator—everything from buildings and bridges to river curves and depths. He can choose between different boats, as well. And within a scenario he can place other boats to navigate around.

Whiteley gives the example of the five bridges in Cincinnati that don’t line up. Normally, he says, it would take years of training to be able to navigate such places. Today, it’s a little less difficult…

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