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A huge ship that doesn't exist passes along the port side of your own vessel, which isn't real, either.

The imaginary skies are clear as you steer through a narrow, twisting channel that cuts two mountains. The channel turns hard to the right. The ship to the port side isalongside now, squeezing you perilously close to the shoals on the starboard side.

You are in serious trouble. Your ship is clipping along at 20 knots -- at least eight knots too fast for a dangerous maneuver like this.

"If I make a mistake," you say, "we're going to be aground very, very quickly."

The impending disaster, like the scene that spawned it, is fictional. The blinking buoy lights, the whitecaps and wakes, the "bridge" of the ship where you stand are found, not on the open sea, but in landlocked Linthicum, home of the world's largest simulator training facility for Merchant Marine officers.

Every year, some 600 captains and other ships' officers come from all over the country to the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies, which has been quietly honing its reputation since it moved to 5700 Hammonds Ferry Road 20 years ago.

"It's top-notch. I've never heard anybody come here who hasn't thought that," said Dick Oprison, 48, of Los Angeles.

A ship's mate with a fleet of cargo ships that ferries goods from the Far East, Oprison was in Linthicum recently to take the institute's course in shipboard medical care.

Founded during the Vietnam War in Galveston, Texas, the institute's original mission was to prepare seamen for the Coast Guard examination so they could become officers.

As the need for new officers has declined along with the number of merchant ships and seamen, the institute has turned instead to providing advanced training to officers.

The institute bills itself as "the most advanced maritime training facility in the world." Funded jointly by a trust composed of shipping companies and the 8,500-member seamens' union, the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots, it features six major simulators.

A "collision avoidance radar simulator" creates realistic traffic situationsthat officers must safely navigate. A "liquid cargo operations simulator" reproduces the problems involved in loading and unloading an 80,000 deadweight-ton tanker.

One of the most sophisticated simulators generates the eerily realistic sensation of being on the bridge ofa ship, surrounded by water. The "bridge" is housed in what looks like a big aircraft hangar, mounted on a base that can roll, pitch and heave as if amid a storm.

The illusion of space is created by a 360-degree, computerized panorama that can be programmed to look like almost any part of the navigational world during the day or night. Lights and beacons flash on the "horizon" as ships maneuver on all sides.

The radar equipment in the bridge reacts just as it would on an actual ship. Even the sounds -- the throb of the deck, the vibration of the engines, the nasal blast of a ship's horn -- are realistic.

For some veteran officers, who have become consummately comfortable with life aboard ship, the simulator courses can be a rude awakening.

"Some very big egos suffer," said Chris Krusa, a marine training administrator with the Federal Maritime Administration.

"Some of these officers are very, very sensitive when they get in those simulators, especially the masters. They find out that they do have something more to learn."

Merchant seamen are becoming an increasingly rare and exclusive breed, notes John K. Bobb, the institute's deputy director and a master himself. Except for the Persian Gulf war, the country has been at peace for the last 20 years, and the U.S. historically neglects the Merchant Marine during peace time, he said.

Only about 450 American flagships remain, down from 900 during the Vietnam war. By the year 2000, Bobb estimated, there likely will be less than 200.

"The American Merchant Marine has imploded," he said. "There is nothing left."

Many large shipping companies have gone out of business, he said. The military continues to buy ships and keep them docked so that, in case of war, the ships are easily accessible. Less than 20,000 Americans now hold shipboard jobs.

During the gulf war, Bobb said, the shortage of capable seamen meant that merchantmen asold as 80 were recruited for shipboard duty.

"It's criminal," he said.

And, though sufficient supplies were delivered to the MiddleEast, "there were glitches and hiccups as a result of the lack of American ships and personnel."

The officers studying at the institute gripe about the lack of support they get from the U.S. government, which requires that only a small percentage of American goods be shipped on American ships.

"We do lobby," Bobb said, "but we don't getvery far because our constituency is so small."

"I wanted to go to sea since I was a little boy," said Clifford Brown, 56, a former Pasadena resident now living in Louisiana and sailing as chief mate fora cargo freighter.

"But it's not fun any more like it used to be."

By all accounts, seafaring is a hard life, made up of 80 to 100 hour weeks, long stretches away from wives and children, and equally long stretches of boredom and fatigue.

"But nobody's looking for sympathy, because nobody's twisting our arms to be out there. We make a lot of money," Brown said.

High-ranking officers make more than $100,000 a year -- and they have virtually no expenses while they areat sea.

"It's like an escape from life," said Oprison.

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