Ship captains are trained to navigate a wealth of obstacles and marine environments, from wildlife to stray buoys. But as offshore wind has emerged as a growing industry off Maryland’s Eastern Shore, mariners must now learn how to traverse a whole new terrain — wind farms.
That’s where a partnership between Ørsted, one of two companies looking to build turbines off the coast of Ocean City, and the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies comes into play.
MITAGS, a nonprofit maritime training center located in Linthicum Heights, partnered with Ørsted to design a simulation of its upcoming wind farms, called Skipjack Wind 1 and 2, so that mariners can practice navigating around the wind farms in different weather conditions and times of day.
Trainees stand in a room designed to mimic a ship’s bridge — the room from which the vessel is controlled — and look through windows at a large screen that wraps around the bridge to make the trainee feel as though they are really at sea. Up in the control room, MITAGS employees can control the circumstances of the journey at will, including the roughness of the waves, the time of day, the visibility and even what sort of boat is being driven.
Though the simulator does not actually move with the image on the screen, some participants still report feeling seasick as they gaze out at the image of the waves rocking the vessel back and forth.
So far, Ørsted is the only wind energy company in the United States offering simulations of its wind farms, though it anticipates others will soon begin to do the same. In offering the simulation to vessel captains, the company hopes to show that the wind farm will be easily navigable, with lights on the turbines to help mariners see the structures even in dark and low-visibility conditions.
“A win would be to get as many people through this system, this program … as want to go,” said John Mansolillo, northeast marine affairs manager for Ørsted. “I’m glad that we’re able to do it and we’re able to get people through as they want to and make it available, because it is a great resource.”
A range of people, from mariners to politicians, have already used the simulator in the approximately two years since it was first created. Ørsted is also planning to use the simulator to train its own employees, once its wind farms are up and running; the Skipjack Wind sites, which will be about 20 miles off the coast of Ocean City, are expected begin delivering energy in 2026.
The company expects the Skipjack projects to create thousands of permanent jobs in Maryland.
According to Mansolillo, the simulation has been well-received by those who have used it. Ørsted sends a survey to everyone who participates in the company’s training at MITAGS, and nearly everyone who has taken the survey has reported that the simulation cleared up their confusion about navigating a wind farm.
“We ask people, ‘what are your concerns?’ beforehand. And you get some really bizarre concerns and you get some really well-founded concerns, but I think it’s because there is nothing to ground our reality, here in the United States,” Mansolillo said. “At the end of that survey, we ask a follow up: ‘Were your concerns addressed?’ And people are like, ‘Yes, I understand the spacing.’ ‘Yes, I can see the lighting and it isn’t going to be hard to see where I’m going.’”
The Ørsted wind farms are just some of the over 100 locations MITAGS can project through its simulator, such as the Port of Baltimore or the Port of Miami.
“We can build our simulations to do what we need. What we have is over 100 different ports around the world … and then we have over 300 different vessel models,” said Catherine Gianello, NSAP manager and lead simulator operator for MITAGS. “We can do any combination of putting the ship in the port with other objects and other traffic around. On top of that, we continue to layer weather, current, waves, anything that would stress the scenario.”
The institute can even modify existing locations, such as simulating what it would be like if a certain port was wider or deeper.
“Depending on what the purpose of the project is, we can build all those layers into it,” she said. “And I hate the comparison to a video game, but it’s almost like building a new level.”