Inspectors have just praised a North-East college, reinforcing its role as a centre of excellence for marine training. Ian Lamming looks at why South Shields is on the crest of a wave.

THE four men pace around the darkened bridge. One looks at a monitor, another the radar. The man at the front stares out of the windows, while the last has the wheel.

It's a tricky business and one that could take hours to complete successfully. Get it wrong and 80,000 tonnes of bulk carrier will plough into the jetty at Port Philip, Melbourne. Parking, or should that be berthing, a 250m long ship that is 32m wide can take up to six hours to avoid damaging port, ship and pride. The men at the helm listen intently for the dreaded vibration and grinding noise that will tell them they've done it wrong. If it happens, on this occasion the only thing that will be damaged will be their self-esteem - because this isn't for real.

The men are mariners from Australia who have chosen to hone their skills on a nautical simulator based at a North-East college. They have chosen to fly for 22 hours from the other side of the world to South Shields because the simulator is state of the art, and the college has just been hailed by inspectors as the best in Britain. With large vessels taking up to a couple of miles to stop and, with steering as responsive as a dead fish, it's better to improve their skills in a simulator than risk damage at sea.

The machinery cost £3.5m and boasts four small and one main bridge. Each one is set up to recreate conditions at sea and is equipped with all the controls familiar to mariners. About eight metres beyond the windows are screens on to which a variety of images are projected. It's the perfect optical distance to recreate the required three dimensional effect.

One minute Australia, the next Singapore, and this time it's a small passenger ship trying to berth in poor visibility. Through the murk can be seen various other vessels of different shapes and sizes, all difficult obstacles to the pilot of a ship weighing tens of thousands of tonnes, in full view of the Singapore skyline. The simulator may use similar technology to arcade amusements but this is no game.

"People get very stressed," says director of marine studies and engineering at South Tynesdie College Chris May. "You often see people losing their rags and we have had fights before." Punters are also keen to maximise their time on a facility that has cost the group £6,000 per week.

The view, the feel, the noises are so accurate that the senses are soon kidded into believing the bridge is real and you are all at sea. It comes with a database of ports, sea conditions and vessels that is being expanded all the time, anything from the Far East to the North-East, from the Tyne, Tees and Wear, to Holland, Korea and Gibraltar. Sea conditions, from the calm to the calamitous, from clear to the foggy, can also be fed in. There are hosts of vessels from oil tankers to trawlers, passenger liners to dinghies. Then there are all manner of emergency situations on board, and mechanical defects for good measure. The college aims to recreate everything that could possibly go wrong for students to experience.

Sessions are carried out under the watchful eye of teaching staff and a video that records every movement, to be played back later during the debrief. "This monitors the human factor," says department head Chris Thompson. "It sees absolutely everything. It could be a shrug of the shoulders, showing hesitancy with orders, and crew responses. It's something the aircraft industry has been using for years and the navy is just catching up."

The simulator also has another important use - port planning. Port authorities have been using it to assess whether certain tasks are feasible. At Folkstone, for instance, designers wanted to introduce three new jetties in an area with strong cross tides. The simulator proved it wasn't a good idea as pilots attempting to berth large ships there on the simulator had a 50 per cent strike rate. The plans were changed and a finger jetty with two berths built instead.

More recently, it has been used to assess whether it is possible safely to navigate one of the world's largest vessels up the Tyne for a refit. The Bonga weighs 380,000 tonnes, is 300m long and 65m wide. It will be the biggest ship ever on the Tyne when it arrives on October 1. The floating production and storage vessel is due to have 20,000 tonnes of steelwork done at the Amec yard. But it wasn't until a computer-generated image was run up the simulated Tyne that it was confirmed that the job could be done.

It's the perfect tool for South Shields - a town that has specialised in naval training since 1837. Ofsted inspectors have just given the institution the best report of any other general further education and tertiary college in the country. The marine side is also a centre of vocational excellence and the only national centre of excellence. Inspectors described its work as outstanding. "A third of the college's work is marine," says principal John Wells. "We have about 10,000 enrolments a year from all over the world, 47 countries studying marine. It's a big factor in the economy of South Tyneside and the reason people take up residence here." The teaching staff of the college numbers 360, about 140 are devoted to marine studies. A captain of the QE2 has studied at the college.

Courses cover every aspect of marine life, from engineering, to navigation, electrical maintenance to electronics, catering to health and safety, fire fighting, survival and radar training. "It's just like a floating school," adds Mr Wells. It teaches up to international standards, particularly in the field of vessel traffic management, an essential qualification for potential pilots. "Those pilots from Australia must have flown over all sorts of marine colleges to get here but they came here because of what we are offering," says Mr Wells.

It's a college that's proving to be in big demand by the world's leading oil, chemical and shipping companies. And that's keeping South Tyneside on the crest of a wave.