RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
A couple months ago on the Houston Ship Channel, an oil barge collided with a 585-foot cargo ship called the Summer Wind. The gash in the side of the barge spilled thousands of barrels of oil into the water. The two captains had been on the radio warning each other to get out of the way from almost a mile out. So how did they end up colliding?
We sent NPR's Wade Goodwyn to see what it would be like at the helm of a boat that's four football fields long. The closest he could get without being a licensed captain was at the facility 30 minutes north of Washington, D.C., the Maritime Institute in Maryland.
WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: It's a little like you're inside a planetarium, only it's a marine planetarium. The illusion of being on the water is complete.
Wow, this is incredible. But how do you create this illusion that we're on this very large ship and I'm looking out a dozen windows into the Houston Ship Channel?
BOB BECKER: When you purchase the simulator, you build the scenery within the channel. You're in a theater area similar to what you might see at Epcot Center where you have a 360 degree screen which is 100 foot in diameter and like 45 foot high.
GOODWYN: Bob Becker spent 30 years at sea, 20 as a captain. Now he trains other captains. This is the world's largest and best marine simulator, $30 million. When you step into it - and it's big enough to hold a dozen people - it's exactly like stepping onto the bridge of a ship. You're surrounded by windows and you're several stories high off the water.
BECKER: This is your throttles. This is for your propellers to go forward and aft, depending, you know -
GOODWYN: Remember the bridge in the movie "Titanic?" It looks a lot like that, only with video screens.
BECKER: Alan, we can go ahead and get underway.
COMPUTERIZED SPEAKER: Your exercise has been started.
GOODWYN: This simulator is where captains of all stripes hone their skills and learn how to command bigger ships. Our scene is the Houston Ship Channel, the same place where the Summer Wind plowed into the oil barge. In this simulation, a boat is on a collision course with me, only it's not an oil barge, this time it's a sailboat.
How would this play out? I know enough to know that vessels under power must give way to vessels under sail.
BECKER: I've had a lot of captains say, I can't believe that they tell people that because it all is based on the situation. If you're, you know - the big vessel is in a narrow channel and he doesn't - there's nowhere for him to maneuver - then the rules change.
GOODWYN: Then that sailboat has to get out of the way.
BECKER: Well, the rules change. I can't say for sure that he has to get out of the way, but the rules change.
GOODWYN: Happily, I managed to squeeze by the 30 foot sailboat without squashing it under my keel, feeling pretty good about myself. But they can't have that, now can they. In an instant I go from the Houston Ship Channel to the stormy seas of the North Atlantic.
The simulator suddenly rocks violently from side to side, only it doesn't, not really. It's just that when you look out every window and see the waves coming at you, your brain translates it into motion. It's so realistic that even veteran seamen can be made to vomit. It's hard to believe it's not real. You're telling me it's not happening?
BECKER: It's not happening. Close your eyes.
GOODWYN: It does go away.
BECKER: It goes away.
GOODWYN: I'm piloting one of the biggest container ships in the world. The view across my bow is filled with thousands of containers. Who knows what's inside? Wow, the swells are getting huge. The waves get progressively larger. Suddenly, a massive roller slams into the ship and completely washes over the bow.
I just buried the bow.
BECKER: And that happens.
GOODWYN: It came right over the top of the cargo.
BECKER: Oh, yeah.
GOODWYN: Really it'll do that, huh?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That's why they have the clearance section at Costco.
GOODWYN: What did he say?
BECKER: He said, that's why they have the clearance section in Costco. So that's why the 40-inch flat screens have been marked down so much. The captain soaked them with seawater. The ship is rolling hard from side to side. The waves are huge, but so is my ship, and I steer into them at a slight angle. The simulator makes the sea bigger and bigger. Wow, look at this wave. Yikes.
After it's over, I'm left feeling queasy, slightly seasick, even though it's all been an illusion. Captain Don Marcus, another veteran, joins us on the bridge. He says captains can make good money between $150,000 and $200,000 a year. But they're away from their families for four-month stretches. What's the life of a cargo ship captain like? Is it a good life?
CAPTAIN DON MARCUS: Well, it's a difficult life. It's also a very austere and can be an isolating life. You're spending time at sea away from your family. When you do get to port, often you don't go ashore. And this is true of the rest of the crew.
GOODWYN: In the old days, the captain was master of his ship. Once the boat left port, he ruled unconditionally.
Did it used to be that you'd get far enough out of port that there'd be peace?
MARCUS: There was always a significant part of every voyage which was called departure. We took departure and we didn't deal with the company for two weeks.
GOODWYN: It's a dying profession for American captains. Instead of hiring highly-trained professionals, ship owners can pay much less hiring captains who are not as well-trained.
MARCUS: When Bob and I started in the mid-'70s, there were about a thousand U.S. merchant ships. And now there's roughly a hundred in foreign trade and roughly a hundred in domestic trade. You're topping a couple of - less than a couple hundred ships, where in the '70s there were at least a thousand.
GOODWYN: The captains who train here are the men and women you'd want on your bridge if something goes wrong. Captain Richard Phillips is perhaps the most famous. In 2009, his ship, the Maersk Alabama, was stalked and then boarded by Somali pirates. Summoning his courage and his training, Captain Phillips was able to save his ship, his crew, and himself. I'm Wade Goodwyn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.