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Inside the high-tech simulator where NYC ferry captains learn to avoid killing kayakers

Piloting a ferry boat can be a surreal trip

Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales

Deep in the bowels of a 134-year-old military fort on a tiny spit of land that can barely still be considered part of New York City, ferry boat captains make weekly visits to brush up on their nautical skills. But instead of breaking out the sextant or paddling around in kayaks, these captains get their training at the hands of a high-tech simulator, complete with a colorful instrument panel of blinking switches and lights and seven high-resolution screens with an eerily accurate rendering of the New York City waterfront.

At the helm on a recent Friday in April was Tony Sanchez, a ferry boat captain sporting an unironic mustache and a belt embroidered with glittery fish. With an expertise that comes from being a licensed boat captain since 1984, Sanchez piloted the virtual ferry (named “Lunchbox” by some precocious New York City public school kids) through a variety of obstacles — container ships, kayakers, buoys, and, of course, other ferries.

“The good thing about the simulator is they can throw a thousand fastballs at you.”

Sanchez steered Lunchbox past the looming towers of Manhattan and underneath the Williamsburg Bridge. The virtual sky was a clear blue and the virtual waters were calm. But that could change at the touch of a button, depending on the whims of his instructors sitting in the next room over. After his training session was over, Sanchez told me it was important to get a little of what he calls “fine tuning.”

“The good thing about the simulator is they can throw a thousand fastballs at you,” Sanchez said. “We can have a nice calm day and all of the sudden thick fog comes in, you lose your visibility, now you have to rely on your radar. Traffic, everything from the huge container ships all the way down to the little kayaks. Sea conditions can change. Strong winds. Strong currents. So it keeps us up to par.”

On May 1st, New York City kicked off an ambitious plan to expand the East River ferry service, adding a bunch of high-tech boats and three additional routes that are expected to serve tens of thousands of commuters every week. With the city’s subways jammed to capacity and traffic congestion at an all-time high, Mayor Bill de Blasio is framing the ferry’s expansion as a vital new transportation option for New Yorkers sick of slugging it out on the trains and on the streets. And with fares costing the same as a subway trip, the city hopes this is an equal opportunity transit service accessible to residents of all incomes.

The service didn’t launch without a few hiccups. One of the new boats was pulled out of service on the first day for mechanical repairs, causing delays to ripple up the East River. And some transit experts balked at the $325 million price tag, noting the ferries carry less people and require more subsidies than subways.

“It’s an uber-expensive Hail Mary.”

Also, thanks to a lack of cooperation between de Blasio and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, there’s no way to transfer seamlessly between the subway and the ferry, leaving some scratching their head over how integrated the ferry will be with the rest of the city’s transit infrastructure. “It’s an uber-expensive Hail Mary,” Benjamin Kabak, author of the Second Avenue Saga blog, wrote last year.

That said, the training process for the boat captains is far removed from the politics of the ferry’s expansion — far removed from pretty much everything in the city, to be honest. Resting in the shadow of the Throgs Neck Bridge, Fort Schulyer was built in the aftermath of the War of 1812 to protect against foreign invasion. It now houses a museum, a library, and offices and classrooms for the State University of New York Maritime College.

everything from six-foot waves to snowstorms to river barges on fire

Simulators are typically used for deep-sea excursions or international travel, but rarely for intercity transit service. About a month ago, Hornblower, the San Francisco-based cruise company that operates the ferry system, began leasing out the simulator for weekly, four-hour training sessions. The company also opened up the simulator to SUNY-Maritime students, eager to use the equipment as an on-site recruiter for future ferry personnel. Instructors from both SUNY and NYC Ferry oversee each simulator run, deciding what kind of weather conditions and obstacles to throw at the trainees, everything from six-foot waves to snowstorms to river barges on fire.

“What they allow us to do is have our [virtual] boat look like our boat, feel like our boat, run like our boat, have the same specs as our boat,” said Dennis Robesch, a safety and training Manager for NYC Ferry, “all in New York harbor.”

“What’s beautiful about the simulator,” he continued, “is that it allows our captains to go through the training in the elements we designed for them. As we get into the spring and summer, weather gets nicer. Operating on the water during nice days? That’s the easy part. It’s when it’s windy or the elements change or a thunderstorm comes in, then things get challenging. It allows us to put those captains through a simulation to go through that type of environment.”

“This is the US Naval Warship ‘Donald Trump,’” a voice crackled over the radio

After Sanchez finished up, Robesch let me take his place behind the controls. After a brief tutorial on how to operate the throttles and control the steering of the ship, I was allowed free reign of New York Harbor. I’m proud to report that I did not crash into anything, or mow down any kayakers. But I did take the ferry I was piloting drastically off course. After going hard to port around Governors Island, I found myself traveling up the Hudson River, on the west side of Manhattan rather than the east.

And on top of everything, the instructors decided to make it Fleet Week, when New York Harbor becomes chockablock with all types of naval vessels. “This is the US Naval Warship ‘Donald Trump,’” a voice crackled over the radio, “hailing this ferry boat that seems to be headed toward us.” I broke out into a cold sweat. Could I successfully navigate this boat and all the souls on board out of range of this dementedly named naval vessel, with its 45-caliber guns bearing down on us?

“Yeah, this is the Lunchbox,” my second mate responded. “We’re going to be crossing your bow, going toward Liberty Landing over there.” Thanks to some quick maneuvers, Lunchbox, its crew, and all of its passengers were able to safely avoid a head-on collision with the Donald Trump. We may not have survived otherwise.

Tony Sanchez, fresh from the simulator, on board one of New York’s newest ferry boats. All aboard.
Tony Sanchez, fresh from the simulator, on board one of New York’s newest ferry boats. All aboard.