It's not like you can borrow the keys to a 1,000-foot freighter and practice piloting it through the locks at Sault Ste. Marie or tool around in a big laker during a storm on Lake Michigan just to get a feel for how it rides the big waves.
But students at Northwestern Michigan College's Maritime Academy are expected to have those skills when they graduate to the big freighters that ply the Great Lakes or to ocean-going fleets. For the past few years they've been able to get some of that training on the college's bridge simulator, which gave students a chance to steer a big ship through digital rivers, lakes and ports using displays on a wall of flatscreen televisions.
Now, however, the school wants to offer students certification in electronic chart displays used for navigation on the Great Lakes, a must for students who want to land jobs in the 21st Century.
It turns out the school's old simulator didn't have the upgrades needed to provide that certification and the company that built it was closing shop. That left the academy with two choices — not offer the chart certification or buy a new simulator at a cool $680,000.
The obvious choice was to buy a simulator, since not offering the needed certification did students no good, but $680,000 is a lot of money.
The college has been able to turn to a variety of sources to pay about 80 percent of the cost of the simulator, taking a big burden off Grand Traverse County taxpayers who pay a millage to support NMC.
Traverse City-based Rotary Charities offered a challenge grant to match all donations up to $20,000, the Biederman Foundation contributed, at least two Great Lakes shipping lines chipped in, so-called "propeller clubs" donated and the academy got some of the proceeds from a federal ship scrapping operation, according to Rear Adm. Jerry Achenbach, Maritime Academy superintendent.
Achenbach said the college has also been getting in-kind contributions from the shipping industry, particularly in holding berths — positions on ships — for academy graduates.
The academy says the new simulator will allow students to "see and feel what it's like to cruise through" a host of rivers and the Great Lakes without worrying about making a catastrophic mistake, according to Capt. Michael Surgalski.
The Maritime Academy will be the only facility of its kind with that level of high-tech training in the Great Lakes region, Achenbach said, allowing students to work in the maritime industry from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes. That's an investment worth making.