Trainee crane operator Ryan Gagnepain tries his hand on Port Nelson’s new crane simulator. Photo: Sara Hollyman.

Port’s new crane simulator at the cutting edge


Port Nelson has recently been delivered a state-of-the-art Liebherr Crane Simulator; the first of its kind in Australasia. Sara Hollyman steps into the driver’s seat to see if she has what it takes to be a port crane operator. 

The first thing Port Nelson’s training coordinator Olivia Carson tells me as we enter the simulator is that we are now in a confined space.

The simulator provides an experience that is as close to the real thing as possible, so it’s cramped and it’s noisy.

She tells me that the cab of a crane sits 24 metres above ground, it has glass panelling on the floor so the operator can see below, and that often operator shifts are 12 hours long.

The investment set Port Nelson back the better part of $1 million but those involved in training operators say the improvements in health and safety alone make it worth every penny.

Trainee Ryan Gagnepain sits in the simulator seat, partway through his three-hour stint behind the controls, something he will repeat throughout the day with half-hour breaks in between.

He makes it look easy. Pick the container up from the incredibly realistic looking ship, swing it round, put it down on the wharf. How hard can it be?

Ryan graciously vacates the chair to give me a turn in the hot seat.

Wow, it looks a long way down.

First things first.

Instructor Jared Nicholls explains that each of the joysticks has 11 buttons on it, each for a different purpose.

Forward, back, up, down, out, in.

There is a huge panel of controls to my right, we haven’t even started to go into the detail of those. Which one makes it go up again?

He says the aim is to make the movements nice and smooth.

In the first 30 seconds on the machine I’ve caused a hypothetical damage tally that runs into the thousands.

First, I smash the claw on my crane into an unsuspecting digger, not once, but twice.

I get what Jared tells me is a helicopter spin going on, and he calmly guides me out of it.

I manage to pick up my first claw full of fertiliser.

However, I then end up smashing the claw into the side of the ship as I’m trying to drop it into a holding tank that seems to be the size of a pin hole but is probably more the size of Riverside Pool.

I finish off my training session by swinging the claw way too low over a hypothetical man standing on the wharf’s head, and lower the claw too far, crunching it into the pavement.

An all-round fail.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to be put in a real crane, in high-risk situations and try to calmly and safely learn how to operate it.

Of course it doesn’t happen like that; operators first learn other roles, then gradually step their way into the hot seat and now, thanks this investment, they can learn ‘hands on’ more quickly without risk of injury or damage and hone their skills to enable soft touch downs of container boxes on the wharf, something that all residents near the port will appreciate.

Jared tells me that while training in real-life situations on the wharf, often trainees will only get an hour of in-seat time for every eight hours they try.

No wonder it can take a year and a half to get the more than 100 hours of seat time needed to operate the crane without a wingman inside it.

Port Nelson says the ability to train without the risk of real-life incidents, as well as being able to change weather scenarios all while monitoring fatigue of the operator is definitely something worth investing in.

Well done Port Nelson on this amazing piece of equipment.